Is Ohio State ready to bounce back from its College Football Playoff disappointment last season?
The college football season is rapidly approaching and as the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger, we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. The season starts in a just a couple days, and we’re right at the end of our preview series. We last checked in with #3 USC. Today we continue our countdown with #2 Ohio State.
Team Name: Ohio State Buckeyes
2016 Record: 11-2
Finish in AP Poll: 6
Coach: Urban Meyer (61-6, sixth year)
Key Departures: WR James Clark (Grad Transfer - Virginia Tech), WR Noah Brown, CB Gareon Conley, C Pat Elflein, S Malik Hooker, CB Marshon Lattimore, LB Raekwon McMillan, WR Curtis Samuel, P Cameron Johnston
Previewing Ohio State’s Offense
Ed Warinner is out and former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson is in as Ohio State’s new offensive coordinator. Warinner made the decision to seek a “new challenge” as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator at Minnesota. And while Wilson may not have had much success as a head coach at Indiana, he’s known as one of the best offensive coordinators in the game, having led a juggernaut offense at Oklahoma in the 2000s.
Wilson’s main task coming into 2017 is to fix the passing game. Throughout most of the season, the Buckeyes had success through the air, encountering just minor issues early on. However, the passing game became anemic over the final three games with the offense averaging a putrid 112 yards per game. On top of that, Ohio State lost its top three receivers from last season in Curtis Samuel, Noah Brown, and Dontre Wilson, meaning that the team’s top receiver returning from last season is K.J. Hill, who racked up just 262 yards last season.
With that being said, there still is every reason to believe that this offense will be better under the guidance of Wilson. Wilson, after all, was in charge of Oklahoma offenses that regularly finished in the top-10 nationally in passing. Even while at Indiana, Wilson routinely had top-30 passing offenses. In addition, over his last two seasons at Indiana, Wilson’s quarterbacks averaged 13.87 yards per completion. With his new scheme in place, the Ohio State offense should have no problem finding success through the air.
The main reason why this new offensive scheme will be effective is because of fifth-year senior J.T. Barrett returning to lead the offense. Barrett has proven time and time again that he can be one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football. His ability to be an efficient runner is part of what makes him so dangerous. When you take out the sacks, Barrett averaged 5.6 yards per carry, one of the best marks for FBS quarterbacks.
And while Barrett’s passing ability has been questioned by some, there’s a notable difference in his numbers from when Tom Herman ran the offense (2014) to when Warinner and Tim Beck (2015-16) ran the show.
|*2014||Ohio State||Big Ten||FR||QB||12||203||314||64.6||2834||9.0||9.8||34||10||169.8|
|*2015||Ohio State||Big Ten||SO||QB||11||93||147||63.3||992||6.7||7.0||11||4||139.2|
|*2016||Ohio State||Big Ten||JR||QB||13||233||379||61.5||2555||6.7||7.2||24||7||135.3|
Even if you take out 2015, when Barrett and Cardale Jones split time under center, Barrett was much better under Herman’s direction. Under Wilson’s direction, Barrett should have passing numbers that are closer to those of his freshman season, or maybe even better.
The running game should continue to find success behind Mike Weber. Weber was the top freshman rusher in the Big Ten, rushing for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns, while averaging 6.02 yards per carry. Fellow sophomore Demario McCall should get some carries as well after averaging 5.51 yards per carry in 2016. But the most intriguing option Ohio State could throw out in the running game could be highly touted freshman J.K. Dobbins. Dobbins has already impressed coaches with not only his athleticism, but his work ethic and understanding for the game as well.
Previewing Ohio State’s Defense
It’s safe to say that Urban Meyer finally has the Ohio State defense playing at an elite level. After bringing in Greg Schiano to run the defense last season, the Buckeyes finished 2016 as one of the top-7 defenses in three major categories. The defense finished third in scoring defense (15.5), sixth in total defense (296.1), and seventh in passing defense (172.2).
As Schiano gets this unit ready for 2017, he’ll have to again deal with the loss of some key veteran pieces. Three of the four pieces from the secondary are now gone, with Gareon Conley, Malik Hooker, and Marshon Lattimore having been drafted by NFL teams. In addition, the Buckeyes also lost their leading tackler from the past two seasons in Raekwon McMillan.
The Buckeyes have plenty of experience that should be able to fill in the vacated secondary spots. Although they mostly contributed in a reserve role last season, corners Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette got plenty of action. Ward saw 42 passes come his direction, but allowed just 15 of those to be completed. Arnette came up with 21 tackles and one interception in 2016. Senior safety Damon Webb came up with 57 tackles, two tackles for loss, and returned an interception for a touchdown. The final safety spot is still up for grabs between senior Erick Smith and sophomore Jordan Fuller.
McMillan is certainly a tough loss for this defense, but junior Jerome Baker and senior Chris Worley are both viable options to fill the middle. In his first year as a starter, Baker finished second on the team with 83 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. Worley was a force in the middle of the field, and came up with 69 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and four pass breakups. Five-star recruit Baron Browning could see the field at some point this season, but will have to work his way through the depth chart after missing the spring with a shoulder injury.
The strongest part of this defense is the line. Every single starter returns as do the key pieces that rotated in. Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis are the key to the pass rush, and bring 17.5 tackles for loss, 13 sacks, and eight QB hurries. Their ability to get into the backfield should make things easier on a secondary that’s trying to find the right chemistry. Tackles Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers should do a great job of stuffing the middle. Jones was dominant last season and registered 52 tackles, 4.5 of which were for a loss.
Three Key Games
1. Sept. 9 vs. Oklahoma - Ohio State handled Oklahoma with ease on the road last season, winning by 21. And, even though the Sooners come into Columbus with a new coach this season, there is still reason for Buckeyes fans to be cautious. Baker Mayfield is arguably the best passer in the country, and with three members from last year’s secondary gone, this game could play out much differently. The defensive line will need to be disruptive in this game to try and make Mayfield as uncomfortable as they can.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Penn State - Buckeyes fans have had this game circled on their calendars since getting upset last season. This game is all about revenge for Ohio State, and should be one of the most exciting games of the season. Facing one of the best running backs in the country in Saquon Barkley is not going to be an easy task after he averaged 8.25 yards per carry in this game last season. Not only that, this game could also decide the Big Ten East, with these two teams projected to be the best in the division.
3. Nov. 25 at Michigan - There will probably never be a season when Michigan is not considered one of Ohio State’s top-3 opponents. Although the Wolverines don’t have a lot of experience returning, head coach Jim Harbaugh is one of the best recruiters in the country. Harbaugh continuously reloads, bringing in a ton of talent each year. However, it remains to be seen whether the young talent he’s stockpiled over the past couple seasons has developed enough to beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes haven’t lost to Michigan since 2011, and with this game potentially playing a part in deciding the Big Ten East, don’t expect them to throw a bone to the Wolverines.
Ohio State is going to be good in 2017, but how good depends on a couple issues that need to be ironed out. For one, Wilson has to make fixing the passing game a priority. Barrett did well under Herman, but regressed a little under Warinner and Beck. If Wilson can unlock the big play potential in Barrett’s arm, Barrett could become an early Heisman favorite.
Secondly, replacing three of four starters in the secondary could become troublesome if the Buckeyes can’t find the right chemistry early on. Facing teams that have proven quarterbacks like Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan could give the Buckeyes a hard time. Luckily, there seems to be enough talent left over to at least have a decent pass defense. However, if the pass rush lives up to its expectations, opposing quarterbacks may find it hard to get a throw off at all.
Overall, these are just a couple of minor issues that are made out to be bigger than they actually are. The offense will still put up plenty of points, especially with the rushing ability of Weber. Wilson brings plenty of big play potential with the explosive offenses he’s known to run, and this offense will likely get a facelift because of it. The secondary has questions, but the talent is there for it to be successful. There may be a couple of growing pains early on, but Schiano will get everything straightened out in the first few games.
Having to get through both Penn State and Michigan will be difficult, but the Buckeyes do get the more dangerous Nittany Lions at home. More than likely, Ohio State will be favored in every game that it plays in this season. And while there are nine games that Ohio State should easily win, the three toss-up games (Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan) are the games that will likely decide the postseason fate of this team. Still, fans should expect to see this team right back in the hunt for another College Football Playoff berth, with the possibility of another national championship likely. At the very least, this team should be back in the Big Ten Championship after failing to make it last season.
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