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The big 2014 Ohio State football preview: Still the Big Ten standard

Ohio State's offense won't be quite as efficient as it was last year, and the defense has both immense upside and countless question marks. The Buckeyes aren't a sure thing, but they're still the safest bet in the Big Ten.

SB Nation 2014 College Football Countdown

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. The expectations game

Update, August 19: Starting quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending injury has lowered Ohio State's title odds.

Since Urban Meyer took over in Columbus, Ohio State is 24-2. The Buckeyes won 12 games in each season, and after a handful of tight games in 2012, they mostly dominated in 2013. They had probably the best running game in the country and an insanely efficient offense overall. And until 2013, they had a six-year streak of top-20 finishes in Def. F/+ as well.

Meyer has recruited circles around the rest of his conference. The Buckeyes have the second-best two-year recruiting rankings in the country behind Permanent Recruiting National Champion Alabama. In 2014, they inked nearly as many four- and five-star Rivals recruits (16) as Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan combined (20). Their blue-chip rate (percentage of signees from the last four years who were four- or five-star signees) is 67.7 percent. Within the Big Ten, only Michigan (54.6 percent) is in the same ballpark, but still isn't very close.

In a four-week span in conference play last year, Ohio State outscored opponents by a combined score of 221-63. That's an average score of 55-16. Jim Tressel never posted those averages. Woody Hayes damn sure never posted those averages.

After Tressel's awkward, untimely resignation almost exactly three years ago, and after an even more awkward interim-coach arrangement with Luke Fickell in 2011 saw a 6-7 finish and No. 36 F/+ rankings, it took almost no time for Meyer to make Ohio State really, really good again. They were 14th in 2012 and ninth in 2013, and in a conference that has struggled to produce more than one or two elite teams from year to year. Hell, they rode a 24-game win streak into December 2013.

And yet ... in this span, Ohio State has won zero conference titles and zero bowls and enters 2014 in a little bit of a foul mood.

The 24-game streak ended with two straight losses, to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The defense completely crumbled late in the year, and the offense couldn't pick up the slack. The Buckeyes allowed 34+ points in each of the final three games of the season; they hadn't done that three times in a season, much less three times in a row, since 1989. They didn't do so even once between November 2003 and January 2007.

Ohio State is as well-positioned for long-term success as any school in the country. That shouldn't be a surprise considering what Urban Meyer had accomplished before he reached Columbus. He's pretty close to a sure thing. But heading into Year 3, he's got a defense with a lot to prove and an offense that must replace the most efficient running back in the country and four starting linemen (three of whom garnered at least all-conference honors).

The Buckeyes have almost too much talent not to win big, but there are legitimate question marks on the table, and expectations are, and will forever remain, high.

2013 Schedule & Results

Record: 12-2 | Adj. Record: 13-1 | Final F/+ Rk: 9
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L 5-gm Adj. Avg.
31-Aug Buffalo 80 40-20 W 37.6 - 20.3 W
7-Sep San Diego State 89 42-7 W 39.0 - 17.8 W
14-Sep at California 103 52-34 W 32.2 - 37.0 L
21-Sep Florida A&M N/A 76-0 W 32.6 - 3.5 W
28-Sep Wisconsin 19 31-24 W 41.1 - 20.7 W 16.7
5-Oct at Northwestern 59 40-30 W 36.4 - 35.6 W 13.4
19-Oct Iowa 29 34-24 W 55.2 - 35.7 W 13.0
26-Oct Penn State 61 63-14 W 64.9 - 22.1 W 22.5
2-Nov at Purdue 114 56-0 W 41.5 - 10.6 W 22.9
16-Nov at Illinois 71 60-35 W 35.2 - 22.2 W 21.4
23-Nov Indiana 56 42-14 W 39.3 - 17.8 W 25.5
30-Nov at Michigan 37 42-41 W 51.0 - 42.9 W 23.3
7-Dec vs. Michigan State 6 24-34 L 53.5 - 29.0 W 19.6
3-Jan vs. Clemson 16 35-40 L 43.3 - 38.2 W 14.4
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
F/+ +22.1% 2 +3.9% 45 +3.9% 5
Points Per Game 45.5 3 22.6 28
Adj. Points Per Game 43.1 4 25.2 39

2. Truly great in the middle

I was firmly in the Ohio State Skeptics camp heading into 2013.

Ohio State will start the 2013 season ranked up high. Very high, in fact. Quite high. At first glance, it's not hard to see why. The Buckeyes went unbeaten, they return nearly everybody of consequence on offense (for most of the season, anyway), they're coached by Urban Meyer, they're loaded with a growing number of former four- and five-star recruits, and they're Ohio State.

I get all of that. But I also get that Ohio State wasn't an elite team last year, that a dominant front seven was gutted, and that there's no immediate proof that last year's major weaknesses (quarterback Braxton Miller taking sacks, an inefficient receiving corps, an iffy pass rush even before the aforementioned gutting, and mediocre special teams) will be alleviated in any way.

My skepticism was warranted, I guess, since the Buckeyes indeed didn't end up playing for the national title. But for a while there, Ohio State was every bit the title-caliber team conventional wisdom suggested it would be.

  • Adj. Points Per Game (first 6 games): Ohio State 36.5, Opponent 22.5 (plus-14.0)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Ohio State 47.2, Opponent 21.7 (plus-25.5)
  • Adj. Points Per Game (last 3 games): Ohio State 49.3, Opponent 36.7 (plus-12.6)

Ohio State caught flack for the simple fact that its schedule wasn't very good; San Diego State and California were both inferior to recent versions of San Diego State and California, and the in-conference schedule was incredibly friendly. Because of schedule alone, people began to doubt Ohio State, but until the last week in November, the Buckeyes were playing at a national title level.

Then the defense cratered. The offense actually improved as the defense began to struggle, but it didn't improve enough to fend off Michigan State or Clemson.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.20 40 IsoPPP+ 102.1 49
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 53.8% 3 Succ. Rt. + 137.3 1
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 25.4 2 Def. FP+ 110.4 1
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.6 1 Redzone S&P+ 140.9 1
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.6 ACTUAL 19 +2.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 7 2 1 10
RUSHING 5 1 1 2
PASSING 90 17 13 82
Standard Downs 1 1 26
Passing Downs 18 14 80
Q1 Rk 2 1st Down Rk 4
Q2 Rk 5 2nd Down Rk 1
Q3 Rk 5 3rd Down Rk 35
Q4 Rk 24

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Braxton Miller 6'2, 215 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 162 255 2094 24 7 63.5% 21 7.6% 7.1
Kenny Guiton 75 109 749 14 2 68.8% 1 0.9% 6.8
Cardale Jones 6'5, 250 So. 3 stars (5.7)
J.T. Barrett 6'1, 222 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)

3. Braxton's final act

In terms of natural progression, last year should have been Braxton Miller's final year in Columbus. After battling sack issues, line issues, and supporting cast issues early in his career, everything came together nicely. He shared a backfield with the bruisingest of bruising runners (Carlos Hyde), he became a much more efficient passer (both in the passes he threw and the sacks he didn't take), and he had a seasoned, mostly brilliant line in front of him.

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

Ohio State had the most efficient offense in the country, averaged at least 5.7 yards per play in every game, and averaged at least 7.5 per play in six. In a five-game span from Penn State to Michigan, this offense was unfathomably good: 583 yards per game, 53 points per game, 8.5 yards per play. That's how we envision a star quarterback peaking in his final act.

It wasn't his final act, however. Miller returns, but the supporting cast around him has been diminished, at least when it comes to known entities. Hyde and top backup Jordan Hall are gone after combining for 2,057 yards (7.1 per carry) and 23 touchdowns; No. 1 receiver Corey Brown and his 72 percent catch rate are also out the door. So are four linemen who combined to start 135 games.

Obviously most of the players around Miller in 2014 will be former blue-chip recruits with worlds of potential, from sophomore running backs Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, and Warren Ball, to big-play receiver Devin Smith, to seam-busting tight end Jeff Heuerman to countless four-star freshman (redshirt and true) wideouts. But the proven entities are now limited to Miller, Smith, Heuerman, and left tackle Taylor Decker. Everybody else has some work to do.

For that matter, so does Miller. He no longer takes a sack on one of every five or six attempts, but like so many mobile quarterbacks, he still takes too many. And while his passing took a nice step forward in 2013, he'll likely be throwing a few more passes under duress, or to receivers who aren't quite as open. The windows will get smaller.

Miller is a hypnotic runner and a nearly perfect muse for Urban Meyer, but the bar is high after last year, and he won't be able to clear it all by himself.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Carry
Opp.
Rate
Carlos Hyde RB 208 1521 15 7.3 5.0 57.2%
Braxton Miller QB 6'2, 215 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 150 1201 12 8.0 8.4 52.7%
Jordan Hall RB 81 536 8 6.6 6.0 48.1%
Kenny Guiton QB 39 334 5 8.6 7.6 53.8%
Dontre Wilson RB 5'10, 185 So. 4 stars (5.9) 31 250 1 8.1 4.5 71.0%
Ezekiel Elliott RB 6'0, 218 So. 4 stars (6.0) 30 262 2 8.7 6.4 63.3%
Rod Smith RB 6'3, 232 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 22 117 1 5.3 3.5 50.0%
Cardale Jones QB 6'5, 250 So. 3 stars (5.7) 17 128 1 7.5 4.3 64.7%
Warren Ball RB 6'1, 222 So. 4 stars (5.8) 13 76 0 5.8 2.1 61.5%
Corey Brown WR 4 42 0 10.5 3.9 100.0%
Devonte Butler CB 4 14 0 3.5 3.0 25.0%
Bri'onte Dunn RB 6'0, 220 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Corey Brown WR 87 63 771 72.4% 25.0% 68.5% 8.9 51 9.2 113.5
Devin Smith WR 6'1, 198 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 73 44 660 60.3% 21.0% 57.6% 9.0 109 9.8 97.2
Evan Spencer WR 6'2, 205 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 43 22 216 51.2% 12.4% 69.2% 5.0 -85 4.4 31.8
Jeff Heuerman TE 6'6, 252 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 36 26 466 72.2% 10.3% 70.6% 12.9 168 11.9 68.6
Dontre Wilson RB 5'10, 185 So. 4 stars (5.9) 28 22 210 78.6% 8.0% 66.7% 7.5 -32 6.9 30.9
Carlos Hyde RB 24 16 147 66.7% 6.9% 65.2% 6.1 -43 5.9 21.6
Chris Fields WR 23 16 193 69.6% 6.6% 61.5% 8.4 7 10.8 28.4
Jordan Hall RB 13 12 53 92.3% 3.7% 81.8% 4.1 -70 5.5 7.8
Nick Vannett TE 6'6, 255 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 11 8 80 72.7% 3.2% 83.3% 7.3 -11 6.2 11.8
Corey Smith WR 6'0, 190 Jr. 4 stars (5.8)
Jalin Marshall WR 5'11, 205 RSFr. 4 stars (6.0)
Marcus Baugh TE 6'4, 248 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
James Clark WR 5'10, 182 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Curtis Samuel WR 5'11, 190 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)
Johnnie Dixon WR 5'11, 198 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)
Terry McLaurin WR 6'0, 190 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Parris Campbell WR 6'1, 184 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)
Noah Brown WR 6'2, 225 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

4. A high bar for efficiency

In Hyde and Brown, Ohio State had two of the most efficient weapons in the country.

Of the 45 FBS players with at least 200 carries in 2013, only three had an Opportunity Rate (percentage of carries that went at least five yards downfield) of 50 percent or greater, and one (BYU's Taysom Hill) was a quarterback. Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon was at 53.4 percent, Hyde was 57.2 percent, and that's it. Only one other major-conference running back was above even 45 percent (LSU's Jeremy Hill at 45.3). The combination of the line's blocking and Hyde's vicious running style was pretty much guaranteed to get five to seven yards.

Meanwhile, of the 115 players with at least 85 targets in 2013, only 15 had a catch rate of at least 72 percent. Limit the sample to major-conference receivers, and the list gets pared down to five names: Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell, LSU's Jarvis Landry, and Brown.

Again, blue-chippers abound here. Zeek Elliott was even more efficient than Hyde, albeit in just 30 carries (14 of which came against Florida A&M), Wilson is an intriguing pivot man, both at running back and in the slot, and Ohio State has approximately 37 other four-star running backs in the arsenal. And the new batch of receivers includes redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall, true freshman Curtis Samuel, and countless other blue-chippers. This is still easily the most high-upside batch of skill position players in the Big Ten, but the standard is awfully high.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 146.6 3.86 4.06 55.7% 78.2% 11.9% 98.1 5.0% 8.5%
Rank 1 1 10 1 10 2 71 76 88
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals Career Starts Honors/Notes
Jack Mewhort LT 39 All-American, 2nd All-Big Ten
Corey Linsley C 26 1st All-Big Ten
Andrew Norwell LG 39 2nd All-Big Ten
Marcus Hall RG 31
Taylor Decker LT 6'7, 315 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 14
Pat Elflein RG 6'3, 300 So. 3 stars (5.5) 1
Antonio Underwood LG 6'2, 303 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 1
Darryl Baldwin RT 6'6, 307 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Joel Hale LG 6'4, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0
Jacoby Boren C 6'1, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Chase Farris LG 6'4, 300 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Tommy Brown RG 6'4, 310 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0
Kyle Dodson LT 6'6, 310 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0
Evan Lisle RT 6'6, 300 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
Billy Price C 6'4, 305 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Demetrius Knox OL 6'4, 285 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)

5. All eyes on the line

The skill position roster is inexperienced, but exciting. The line, meanwhile, is even less experienced, and if recruiting rankings matter to you, this unit might have the lowest ceiling on the team. Taylor Decker accounts for 14 of Ohio State's 16 returning starts up front, and Ohio State will have to either focus on four-star freshmen or three-star veterans. When Meyer says "The offensive line, we've got a lot of work to do," he's probably not just blowing coachspeak smoke.

A shaky line would exacerbate all of Braxton Miller's worst habits and force young skill position players to improvise more than is preferred. I can't worry too much about this unit -- Decker's good, Pat Elflein looked fine in spelling starters last year, and junior Antonio Underwood appears to be healthy after an injury postponed a breakout season last spring. But if one upperclassman struggles, line coach Ed Warriner will quickly be dipping into the pool of freshmen, and that's scary.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.09 44 IsoPPP+ 104.2 42
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 42.7% 66 Succ. Rt. + 97.5 66
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 32.7 14 Off. FP+ 106.5 5
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.5 93 Redzone S&P+ 87.9 93
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.3 ACTUAL 24.0 -1.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 47 60 66 41
RUSHING 9 58 71 17
PASSING 112 61 60 68
Standard Downs 79 83 47
Passing Downs 42 35 54
Q1 Rk 77 1st Down Rk 55
Q2 Rk 55 2nd Down Rk 82
Q3 Rk 47 3rd Down Rk 26
Q4 Rk 61

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs
LY/carry
Pass.
Downs
LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs
Sack Rt.
Team 91.8 2.99 3.14 36.8% 62.3% 18.2% 109.7 5.5% 7.1%
Rank 96 69 47 41 34 80 43 41 57
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Noah Spence DE 6'3, 252 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 13 37.0 4.7% 14.0 7.5 0 2 1 0
Joey Bosa DE 6'5, 285 So. 4 stars (6.0) 14 36.5 4.6% 13.5 7.5 0 1 0 0
Michael Bennett NG 6'2, 288 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 13 30.0 3.8% 11.5 7.0 0 0 3 0
Adolphus Washington DT 6'4, 288 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 12 27.0 3.4% 4.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Jamal Marcus DE 13 17.0 2.2% 2.0 2.0 0 2 1 0
Steve Miller DE 6'3, 255 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 11 10.5 1.3% 6.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Chris Carter NG 6'4, 342 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 8.5 1.1% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Joel Hale NG 14 7.0 0.9% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tommy Schutt NG 6'2, 300 Jr. 4 stars (5.9)
Michael Hill DT 6'2, 315 So. 4 stars (5.9)
Donovan Munger DT 6'4, 306 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Tyquan Lewis DE 6'3, 260 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8)
Tracy Sprinkle DE 6'3, 283 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Jalyn Holmes DE 6'5, 240 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)

6. Time to stiffen up

Heading into last season, my biggest concern came up front, where Ohio State was forced to replace all four line starters and four of its top five linebackers. At first glance, it appears the line did just fine; ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett combined for a gaudy 39 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. Throw in linebacker Ryan Shazier's 23.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, and you've got one of the better play-making units in the country.

Explaining OSU's new D

The problem, however, came when these four guys didn't make a play. First of all, if they didn't make a play, nobody did. Second, if they weren't making one, they were allowing one.

The secondary struggled more than expected in 2013, but one has to acknowledge that the front seven did the secondary few favors. Ohio State ranked 96th in Adj. Line Yards and 58th in Rushing S&P+; that's horrendous, even for a young unit, when you consider the number of former four- and five-star recruits at play here. Ohio State made few aggressive stops against the run, and while the Buckeyes were pretty good in short-yardage situations, they weren't good enough at avoiding short-yardage situations to begin with.

This leaves us in an interesting spot for 2014. Spence, Bosa, and Bennett all return, as do junior Adolphus Washington, and high-caliber reserve Steve Miller, who made six of his 10.5 tackles behind the line. Naturally, there are more blue-chippers like Jalyn Holmes waiting in the wings. But this front seven needs to improve dramatically in terms of play-to-play management and making mundane plays to go with the spectacular ones. Will it?

And who replaces Shazier's incredible play-making ability? He had 18 more tackles for loss than the rest of the linebacking corps combined. No matter how good blue-chip freshmen Raekwon McMillan and Dante Booker might be, they aren't going to be as productive as Shazier was last year, and upperclassmen like Josh Perry, Curtis Grant, and Camren Williams haven't yet lived up to their high school billing. Obviously there's potential here, but it needs to turn into production awfully quickly.

Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ryan Shazier WILL 14 123.0 15.7% 23.5 7.0 0 4 4 0
Joshua Perry WILL 6'4, 250 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 14 51.0 6.5% 2.0 1.0 0 2 0 0
Curtis Grant MIKE 6'3, 240 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 14 38.0 4.8% 3.5 2.0 0 2 0 0
Camren Williams SAM 6'1, 228 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 10.5 1.3% 0.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Trey Johnson WILL 6'1, 225 So. 4 stars (5.9) 6 8.0 1.0% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Craig Cataline LB 13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Joe Burger MIKE 6'2, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4)
Darron Lee SAM 6'2, 225 So. 3 stars (5.7)
Raekwon McMillan LB 6'2, 240 Fr. 5 stars (6.1)
Dante Booker LB 6'3, 215 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)
Kyle Berger LB 6'2, 225 Fr. 4 stars (5.8)

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Rivals GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
C.J. Barnett SS 13 70.0 8.9% 0.5 0 4 5 0 0
Bradley Roby CB 12 61.5 7.8% 2 0 3 13 0 0
Doran Grant CB 5'11, 193 Sr. 4 stars (6.0) 14 50.5 6.4% 2 0 3 10 1 0
Corey Brown FS 14 44.0 5.6% 1 0 1 1 0 0
Tyvis Powell NB 6'3, 205 So. 3 stars (5.7) 14 37.0 4.7% 1 0 1 2 0 0
Armani Reeves CB 5'10, 198 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 13 21.0 2.7% 0 0 1 7 1 0
Vonn Bell NB 5'11, 200 So. 5 stars (6.1) 14 17.5 2.2% 1 0 1 0 0 0
Christian Bryant FS 5 16.5 2.1% 0 0 1 2 0 0
Ron Tanner SS 6'0, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 13 10.5 1.3% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Cam Burrows CB 6'0, 208 So. 4 stars (6.0) 12 9.5 1.2% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Devan Bogard S 6'0, 210 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 8 6.5 0.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Eli Apple CB 6'1, 195 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9)
Gareon Conley CB 6'0, 190 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7)
Chris Worley S 6'2, 218 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6)
Erick Smith S 6'1, 195 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)
Damon Webb CB 5'11, 180 Fr. 4 stars (6.0)
Marshon Lattimore CB 6'0, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.9)

7. All the potential (and youth, and frustrating inconsistency) in the world

Meyer brought in Chris Ash as a defensive co-coordinator this offseason. Ash spent the last three seasons as Bret Bielema's defensive coordinator, first at Wisconsin, then at Arkansas. Wisconsin ranked 14th in Def. F/+ in 2012, while Arkansas regressed from 72nd to 94th in 2013, Ash's only year in Fayetteville.

It's hard to glean too much from that, but it does bear mentioning that the Razorbacks were a) really good at rushing the passer and b) played pretty standard bend-don't-break defense in the back. We know he'll be able to sic pass rushers on quarterbacks at all times with Bosa, Spence, and company up front; we'll see how safe he can play it in the back while relying on an untested batch of safeties.

Corner Doran Grant was decent last year (again, the defensive backs didn't get as much help from the pass rush as it may have seemed) and is basically the only senior in the back. Armani Reeves filled in alright for Bradley Roby at times, and there are more than enough redshirt freshmen and sophomores to fill in as No. 3 corner/nickelback. But the safety position is a curious one. Free safety Vonn Bell made one of the most ridiculously athletic plays you'll ever see in last year's Orange Bowl, but it was almost the only play he made all year. Tyvis Powell was less heralded but more trustworthy in 2013 and should start at strong safety. After that, it's a mystery.

The Buckeyes have all the talent in the world back here, but there's just no telling how this unit will perform. In 2015, it could be spectacular; in 2014, though?

Noah Spence. Jamie Sabau, Getty

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Cameron Johnston 6'0, 195 So. 49 44.0 2 24 31 112.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Drew Basil 104 60.1 27 4 26.0%
Kyle Clinton 6'1, 218 Sr. 3 64.0 1 0 33.3%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2014
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Drew Basil 77-79 8-8 100.0% 1-2 50.0%
Kyle Clinton 6'1, 218 Sr. 3-3 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2014
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Dontre Wilson KR 5'10, 185 So. 21 24.9 0
Jordan Hall KR 5 24.4 0
Corey Brown PR 23 7.8 0
Chris Fields PR 2 8.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 5
Field Goal Efficiency 21
Punt Return Efficiency 30
Kick Return Efficiency 28
Punt Efficiency 16
Kickoff Efficiency 33
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 59

8. Urban knows special teams

In Meyer's first year in Columbus, Ohio State ranked 82nd in Special Teams F/+. That was the only time since 2007 (which is as far back as these ratings go) that a Meyer team has ranked worse than 24th. Meyer's recruiting success means he's got a wealth of young, fantastic athletes for the coverage units, and he tends to always have the legs he needs.

Ohio State's special teams unit was one of the most well-rounded in the country, with only one extreme strength (punting) but no weaknesses. It will get tested a bit with the loss of kicker Drew Basil and both punt returners, but there's no reason to assume this unit will drop off much. Cameron Johnston had incredible success as a freshman punter -- he might have the tallest punts in the country -- and Dontre Wilson is a natural-born jitterbug. If Basil's replacement is decent, this will be a top unit once again.

2014 Schedule & Projection Factors

2014 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
30-Aug vs. Navy 65
6-Sep Virginia Tech 19
13-Sep Kent State 107
27-Sep Cincinnati 54
4-Oct at Maryland 51
18-Oct Rutgers 78
25-Oct at Penn State 37
1-Nov Illinois 63
8-Nov at Michigan State 13
15-Nov at Minnesota 73
22-Nov Indiana 47
29-Nov Michigan 32
Five-Year F/+ Rk 24.8% (9)
Two-Year Recruiting Rk 2
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 8.6
TO Luck/Game -1.3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (5, 7)

9. This is the best team in the Big Ten ... I think ... maybe

There are still too many question marks for me to consider Ohio State a serious, top-two or top-three caliber team; Miller's supporting cast is much younger than it was last year, and while I'm not worried about the running backs, the line has quite a bit to prove. Meanwhile, the whole was so much less than the sum of the parts on defense last year that it bears some serious burden of proof of its own.

But as with a team like Oklahoma, the flaws might not matter. There are four spots available in the College Football Playoff, and if the Buckeyes can beat Michigan State on November 8 and slip up no more than once in the regular season -- against a schedule that features only two teams projected higher than 32nd -- they're probably in. Virginia Tech will offer a significant test of the Buckeyes' offensive youth, but the game's in Columbus, and the Hokies probably won't be able to do much damage to Ohio State's shakier defensive units. Win that one, and the Buckeyes will be spending most of the rest of the season in or near the top five of the polls.

The pieces don't appear to have all come together for Meyer in Columbus yet, which is a shame considering this is Miller's last season. But recruiting has been so strong that we're quickly reaching No Excuses territory, and Meyer's got too strong a staff. The pieces will come together at some point, and if a few sophomores come up big, it might happen this fall.

10. Big Ten balance of power

At the end of each conference run-through, I take a look at how I perceive the conference's balance of power heading into the season. This is in no way based on schedules, so they are not predictions. They're just how I would rank the teams after writing 4,000 or so words about each of them.

Tier 1
1. Ohio State
2. Michigan State

I think Ohio State is the better of the two, but with the teams battling in East Lansing in November, that might not matter. Not much separates the Buckeyes and Spartans, so for now I give the Buckeyes the edge because of raw upside.

Tier 2
3. Wisconsin
4. Michigan
5. Iowa
6. Penn State
7. Nebraska
8. Northwestern
9. Maryland
10. Minnesota
11. Indiana

What the Big Ten lacks in truly elite teams, it makes up for in depth. This conference has nine teams that are just a couple of breakout players away from top-25 status, and while Wisconsin's easily the most trustworthy name on this list to me (I had to think long and hard about whether to put the Badgers in Tier 1 or 2), the upside for these nine teams is pretty similar. And yes, I'm including Maryland, Minnesota, and Indiana in that blanket statement. I like their experience.

Tier 3
12. Rutgers
13. Illinois

Either of these teams could end up in Tier 2 -- they're much higher to Tier 2 than Tier 4 -- but I just don't trust them as much.

Tier 4
14. Purdue

Sorry, Boilermakers.

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