Big Ten Team Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes
WNUR’s Eric Klaus (@eklaus1) previews the Ohio State Buckeyes and how they will improve on their successful 2013 campaign. The WNUR staff seems to think that the Buckeyes will be finishing higher than Eric thinks, mainly due to the result of the Spartans-Buckeyes game. The staff predicts the Buckeyes will finish first in the Big Ten East, just a game ahead of second-place Michigan State.
WNUR’s Prediction: 12-0 overall, 8-0 conference
For most college football programs, a 12-2 season would be seen as a major success. For the 2013 Ohio State Buckeyes though that was certainly not the case. After starting the season 12-0 and rising up to #2 in the BCS standings, the Buckeyes were effectively one win away from the National Championship game. However, things did not go well for the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship game as Michigan State jumped out to a big lead and then held on late to win 34-24, knocking OSU out of national title contention in the process.
Even with the loss, the Buckeyes were still rewarded with a spot in the Orange Bowl against Clemson. Once again, though, the Buckeyes fell short (this time 41-36) as they were unable to slow down Sammy Watkins and Clemson’s high-powered offense. Now following those two late season losses a year ago as well as the loss of star-QB Braxton Miller (he had season-ending shoulders urgery this week) for the upcoming year, the Buckeyes enter 2014 with a great level of uncertainty.
Quarterback: RS Freshman (and former 4-star recruit) J.T. Barrett takes over for the injured Miller. Like Miller, he is a dual-threat QB who has the ability to beat teams with both his arm and legs. Although not as dynamic an athlete as Miller, he is expected to be a good fit for Urban Meyer’s spread offense. The offense will likely not be as prolific as it was a year ago (when they ranked in the Top 5 nationally in most key categories) with the inexperienced Barrett at the helm, but still should put up enough points to keep Ohio State in every ballgame.
Running Back: With Carlos Hyde (NFL draft) and Jordan Hall (graduation) both gone, the Buckeyes will need to replace over 2000 rushing yards in 2014. Although this is certainly a lot to replace, the Buckeyes look to be in good shape for the season as the group is filled with a number of highly regarded prospects. Early on, it looks like sophomores Dontre Wilson (250 yds, 8.1 ypc, 1 TD in 2013) and Ezekiel Elliot (262 yds, 8.7 ypc, 2 TDs) will get the bulk of the carries. However, other running backs like Rod Smith and Warren Ball may also see some carries.
Receivers and Tight Ends: Three of the top four pass-catchers return from a year ago, including #2 wideout Devin Smith (44 rec, 660 yds) who was second on the team in catches and receptions. However, like the QB and RB positions, the Buckeyes will have a big hole to fill with the loss of former #1 WR Corey Brown. To replace Brown’s production the Buckeyes will likely ask Smith, Evan Spencer (22 rec, 216 yds) and starting TE Jeff Heuerman (26 rec, 466 yds) to take on bigger roles in the passing game. It will be interesting to see if the Buckeyes rely less on their passing game than in years past with a new and inexperienced quarterback.
Offensive Line: The offensive line will likely be the biggest question mark for the Buckeyes in 2014 as only one starter returns from 2013. Junior left tackle Taylor Decker, who started all 14 games a season ago, will anchor one of the least experienced lines in the country. Fortunately, for the Buckeyes all four new starters were highly-regarded recruits who should make the O-line at the very least serviceable. This group will likely not be the strength of the Buckeyes offense but should also not be a major weakness.
Defensive Line: Ohio State may very well have the strongest defensive line in the entire country. All four starters return from last year including rising stars Noah Spence (7.5 sacks), Joey Bosa (7.5 sacks) and Michael Bennett (7.0 sacks). Spence is suspended for the first two games of the year, but that should have little effect on the group in the long run. Needless to say, Big Ten offenses will have a hard time slowing down the Buckeyes front four.
Linebackers: The Buckeyes lost star OLB Ryan Shazier (123 tackles, 7.0 sacks) to the NFL but do to return their other two starters in OLB Joshua Perry (51 tackles) and MLB Curtis Grant (38 tackles). Once again, it looks like the Buckeyes will have more than enough talent to replace the production of Shazier. In fact, given the experience of both Perry and Grant this group may actually be better than a year ago. Look for junior Cameron Williams to step in and replace Shazier.
Secondary: This is certainly the defensive group with the most uncertainty heading into 2014 as only one starter (CB Doran Grant) returns. Like many other positional groups for the Buckeyes many young and inexperienced (albeit talented) players will be asked to play big roles. In particular, look for sophomore CB Tyvis Powell (their nickelback in 2013) to take on much more responsibility as the Buckeyes look to replace former star CB Bradley Roby. Given the inexperience of the group as a whole this will likely be the weakest defensive group for Ohio State. However, given the expected strength of the defensive line, many of this group’s weaknesses may be negated.
Special Teams: This should be one of the stronger units in the Big Ten. Sophomore punter Cameron Johnston (44.0 avg) returns as does KR/PR Deontre Wilson. The Buckeyes will have a new kicker in senior Kyle Clinton, but he is expected to be pretty solid. Moreover, because of the Buckeyes wealth of talented athletes they will also likely have one of the best coverage units in the nation.
Schedule Analysis and Prediction
For a third consecutive season, the Buckeyes schedule looks fairly manageable. The non-conference schedule is a little trickier than usual with the Buckeyes playing games against two potentially strong teams in Virginia Tech and Cincinnati. However, both those games are at home so the Buckeyes should be heavily favored in each. The Big Ten schedule is not much tougher with the lone exception being a road date at Michigan State on November 8th. There is a strong chance that the game against MSU could very well determine who wins the Big Ten East division. The Buckeyes do have a couple of other tricky games on their conference slate including a game at Penn State as well as their annual game against Michigan. However, given the Buckeyes talent advantage it is tough to envision them losing either game. Overall, I expect the Buckeyes to finish 11-1 (7-1 conference) and just outside of the first college football playoff (as well as the Big Ten Championship). I expect the one loss to come against Michigan State. Given their lack of experience on the offensive side of the ball it may be tough for the Buckeyes to come up with enough points to knock off a very strong Michigan State team on the road. Although 11 wins is generally a banner year for most programs it would likely once again be seen as a disappointment for the Buckeyes.