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Ohio State has maybe the country’s most talented roster, but also ... the Urban Meyer situation

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Since this preview’s original publication, the head coach has been suspended for three Saturdays.

Dwayne Haskins
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Note: The following preview was originally published on July 9, before Urban Meyer fired assistant coach Zach Smith amid allegations of domestic abuse.

Meyer was later suspended due to his handling of claims against Smith.

The head coach will miss all of Week 1 against Oregon State, but will be with the team during Weeks 2 and 3 vs. Rutgers and TCU outside of gameday.

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football is complete. Catch up here!

There are two ways to win games: by making more plays than the other team or by making fewer mistakes.

Aesthetically, the former is more preferable. The latter approach wins, though, and despite moments of extreme offensive upside, Urban Meyer teams have always reserved the right to grind defenses down. His Tim Tebow teams at Florida were happy to create third-and-3s and then send their burly QB into the line for exactly three yards. And the J.T. Barrett Ohio State teams made Meyer’s approach look downright Woody Hayesian at times.

In four years with Barrett as at least a part-time starter, the Buckeyes went an incredible 49-6, finishing sixth or better in the AP poll in all four seasons. The defense ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 15 all four times, and the offense ranked seventh or better in Off. S&P+ twice.

Barrett finished with 9,434 passing yards and 3,263 rushing yards — more than Tebow on both accounts, and in fewer games. In his three mostly full seasons, he damn near averaged 3,000/1,000 per year. He was also a security blanket, a guy Meyer trusted to protect the ball far more than he did to make plays.

That backfired on the rare occasion that Barrett lost the plot. He may have only lost six games, but he was downright horrible in five of them, including last year’s four-interception debacle the week after Penn State. When you quickly prove yourself, as Barrett did in 2014, but you never overcome your limitations, fans begin to turn on you. That’s what Washington’s Jake Browning is learning now.

Still, they were immensely successful seasons, and Barrett has left his successor a high bar. We just assume OSU’s new QB, blue-chip sophomore Dwayne Haskins, is going to clear it. And we may be right.

But one thing is certain: the security blanket is gone. Barrett’s gone, and the defense that the Buckeyes were so capable of leaning on must replace three of its top four tacklers on the line, at least two of three linebackers (with a third in injury limbo), and three of five defensive backs.

Mind you, Ohio State is still projected No. 1 in S&P+. Meyer returns lots of experienced pieces and has upgraded his recruiting from weapons-grade to nuclear, with raw recruiting rankings suggesting this might be the most talented Ohio State team ever. But with a new QB, there might be a few more week-to-week mistakes, and to win at the level the Buckeyes are expecting, he might have to loosen the reins and take more chances.

That could work brilliantly for Ohio State fans and fans of fun football, but it’s not guaranteed to.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California
Urban Meyer
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 Ohio State offensive radar

Haskins made the most of his apprenticeship. When Barrett left the Michigan game injured for the second time in four years, Haskins entered at a critical juncture — down 20-14 midway through the third quarter — and went 6-for-7 passing, set up a go-ahead touchdown with a 22-yard run, and set up a field goal with a 29-yard completion to K.J. Hill. Barrett returned the next week to lead OSU to a Big Ten title game win, but Haskins passed his primary test.

Now come a bunch more. Haskins fended off Joe Burrow (who transferred to LSU) and Tate Martell (a blue-chip redshirt freshman) in spring ball and, barring a plot twist, will be the man.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin
J.K. Dobbins
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

If only every new quarterback could inherit what Haskins inherits. In J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, Ohio State has two backs who could drive the Buckeyes to lots of wins with zero pass attempts.

The duo combined for 2,029 yards (6.9 per carry) and 17 touchdowns, and after a breakout freshman campaign (1,403 yards, 7.2 per carry), Dobbins enters as one of the most touted backs in a season full of touted backs. And there’s a ton of young blue-chippers (sophomore Demario McCall, freshmen Jaelen Gill and Brian Snead) waiting their turns.

The Buckeyes do have to replace Rimington Trophy-winning Billy Price and all-conference left tackle Jamarco Jones. For most teams, that would be crippling. But all-conference guard Michael Jordan and third-team all-conference tackle Isaiah Prince are back, two other upperclassmen (Demetrius Knox and Brandon Bowen) have combined for 14 starts, and — again — there are blue-chippers in wait: redshirt freshmen Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers, incoming freshmen Nicholas Petit-Frere and Matthew Jones, etc.

Ohio State ranked second in the country in Rushing S&P+ thanks to the combination of extreme efficiency (first in rushing success rate) and a lack of negative plays (third in stuff rate). Haskins might not be as efficient a runner as Barrett (few are), but I’d be floored if this offense weren’t still top-five in run efficiency.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Ohio State
Parris Campbell
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

When Haskins does have to throw, he’ll survey a receiving corps that returns almost intact. Tight end Marcus Baugh, the recipient of the game-winner against Penn State, is gone. But that’s it. H-Backs Hill and Parris Campbell (combined: 96 catches for 1,133 yards, plus 11 carries for 133 yards) are back. So are wideouts Binjimen Victor, Terry McLaurin, Austin Mack, and Johnnie Dixon (combined: 94 catches for 1,550 yards and 23 touchdowns). If it seemed like Dixon scored every time he touched the ball, that’s only slightly inaccurate; eight of his 18 receptions were scores. And yes, there are young blue-chippers: sophomore Jaylen Harris, freshmen Kamryn Babb and L’Christian Smith, freshman tight end Jeremy Ruckert, etc.

This is almost unfair.

Coordinator (and former Indiana head coach) Wilson’s first season under Meyer was perfectly fine. The Buckeyes ranked seventh in Off. S&P+ and third in overall success rate, won 12 games and the Big Ten, etc.

His 2018 attack might feel more like a Wilson offense, though. His best Indiana offense (the 2013 edition, which ranked sixth in Off. S&P+) and his best attack as Oklahoma OC (first in 2008) took to the air more than Ohio State did last year. IU QBs in 2013 threw 39 passes per game (OSU QBs averaged 31 per game last year), and OU’s Sam Bradford threw for 4,720 yards over 35 passes per game in 2008.

In going from Barrett to Haskins, you’re trading a bit of rushing efficiency for passing upside. And it would be irresponsible not to use this ridiculous receiving corps.

Then again, it would also be irresponsible not to load up Dobbins, Weber, and company. This is an embarrassment of riches.

Defense

2017 Ohio State defensive radar

Greg Schiano is, according to most admirers and detractors, cranky and overbearing. He wasn’t that liked as Tampa Bay’s head coach, and while Tennessee fans’ rebellion at the thought of Schiano becoming their head coach was in some ways overly dramatic, there were some legitimate reasons.

In terms of pure college coaching prowess, Schiano’s record is hard to surpass, and I mean that in a couple ways. First, he transformed Rutgers from laughingstock to perennial bowl contender (and, for the briefest of moments, national contender). And his two years as Meyer’s coordinator have been about as good as Meyer envisioned. The Buckeyes ranked fifth in Def. S&P+ in 2016 and eighth last year.

There were two shaky moments last year. They couldn’t slow down Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma enough — they gave up 31 points and 6.8 yards per play, which were enough to lose in Columbus but still nearly season lows for the Sooners — and got strangely torched by Iowa’s tight ends and fullbacks in the 55-24 debacle in Iowa City. Take those two games out, and they allowed just 4 yards per play and 15 points per game.

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California
Nick Bosa (97)
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There are more pieces to replace on defense than offense, though the guys moving in are experienced and (of course) well-touted. And like Penn State, OSU handed out playing time to lots of guys, both because they played in a lot of blowouts and because Schiano likes to reward guys with PT.

Eleven linemen, 10 linebackers, and nine defensive backs made at least 7.5 tackles last season; of those 30, 20 are back. That makes the “losing a lot of pieces” thing look less dire.

There are still areas of need, though, namely at linebacker and safety.

At linebacker, Jerome Baker and Chris Worley are gone after combining for 102.5 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. The third starter, sophomore-to-be Tuf Borland, injured his Achilles in the spring. Meyer expects Borland back this fall, but this hurts from a practice perspective.

There’s still experience. Juniors Malik Harrison, Keandre Jones, and Justin Hilliard are around, as is senior Dante Booker. They each made between 12 and 29 tackles last year, and sophomore and former all-world recruit Baron Browning looked this spring like he might be ready.

At safety, junior Jordan Fuller’s back, but the next two names (Damon Webb and Erick Smith) are not. There’s as much young potential here as anywhere on the roster, but the unit will be young — someone from a batch of sophomores (Isaiah Pryor, Brendon White, Jahsen Went) or freshmen (Josh Proctor, Marcus Hooker) will need to step up. Pryor, another former all-world recruit, could be ready.

Elsewhere on the two-deep are stars upon stars. For most teams, losing a trio of awesome ends in Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, and Tyquan Lewis would be cause for alarm; OSU still returns Nick Bosa (16 TFLs, 8.5 sacks), though, plus Chase Young (yet another blue-chip sophomore) and Jonathan Cooper; the latter two combined for nearly the same disruption rates as Hubbard when given opportunities.

At tackle, you’ve still got Dre’Mont Jones, Davon Hamilton, and Jashon Cornell, and you’ll probably have to make room for blue-chippers Taron Vincent and Tommy Togiai.

At cornerback, top-five pick Denzel Ward is gone, but Damon Arnettte and Kendall Sheffield (plus three four- or five-star sophomores in Jeffrey Okudah, Amir Riep, and Marcus Williamson) are back.

Again, just a ridiculous number of options here.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Championship-Ohio State vs Wisconsin
Damon Arnette
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This being Ohio State, there are even blue-chip backups on the coaching staff. Schiano hasn’t found a new head coaching gig yet, but Meyer brought over Washington State’s immaculately successful DC, Alex Grinch, to serve as safeties coach and co-coordinator and go through Head Coach Finishing School.

Special Teams

The first coach a lot of people thought of when the NCAA announced new kickoff rules (you can now call fair catch on any kick inside the 25, and it’ll count as a touchback) was Meyer. Does this negate the effect of his famed coffin corner kickoff — pooching the ball high and into a corner, where the coverage unit can cut the field in half and prevent good returns? Will he keep doing it?

The answer to the latter appears to be yes. The answer to the former: it doesn’t matter because the Buckeyes weren’t very good at it last year — they ranked just 99th in kickoff efficiency.

That led to more of a mortal field position average than normal (plus-3.7 yards per possession, 23rd in FBS), but the Buckeyes still had a great punter (Drue Chrisman) and explosive kick returns. Special teams was still a strength. And everyone’s back.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Oregon State 110 39.2 99%
8-Sep Rutgers 84 32.6 97%
15-Sep at TCU 22 13.1 78%
22-Sep Tulane 98 36.1 98%
29-Sep at Penn State 8 4.3 60%
6-Oct Indiana 58 27.3 94%
13-Oct Minnesota 67 28.7 95%
20-Oct at Purdue 54 21.3 89%
3-Nov Nebraska 60 27.5 94%
10-Nov at Michigan State 11 6.5 65%
17-Nov at Maryland 80 26.2 94%
24-Nov Michigan 10 11.2 74%
Projected S&P+ Rk 1
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 2 / 10
Projected wins 10.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 22.4 (2)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 1 / 2
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 5 / 4.7
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (72%, 51%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 11.6 (0.4)

The Big Ten East could be absurd, as four teams are projected 11th or better in S&P+. Plus, Ohio State heads to Arlington to play “at” TCU. And all this with a first-time starter at QB.

And yet, the Buckeyes are projected S&P+ favorites in every game, projected to win by fewer than 11 points in just two (at Penn State, at Michigan State). Despite a schedule that features four opponents projected 22nd or higher, three away from Columbus, they have a 15 percent chance of going 12-0, pretty much the most favorable forecast you’re going to see.

That’s how many toys OSU has. They have a wealth of proven stars — Dobbins, Weber, Hill, Campbell, Jordan, Bosa, Fuller, Arnett, Sheffield — and it seems there are three blue-chip sophomores for every opening, with two blue-chip freshmen after that.

I was one of the bigger Barrett proponents you could find, and I can’t even pretend to be worried about anything in Columbus. Even in one of the country’s most loaded divisions, Ohio State is a runaway favorite.

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