One of the more interesting, underrated storylines to follow in the 2012 college football season is the race for the Big Ten Leaders Division title.
Wisconsin is the defending champion and clear favorite, but the Badgers have suffered just enough losses, both on the field and on the coaching staff, to raise eyebrows. If they slip more than anticipated, then they could be challenged by teams like Penn State or Illinois (operating under the radar with new coaches) or, technically, Purdue or Indiana (but probably Penn State or Illinois). The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives Wisconsin a 63 percent chance of finishing 6-2 or better in conference, while Penn State comes in at 26 percent, Illinois six percent. Though Wisconsin is an obvious favorite, they have some work to do.
Of course, the No. 19 Badgers also aren't even the highest-ranked team in their own division according to FOA. Those honors go to the invisible No. 13 Ohio State Buckeyes, who are banned from the postseason in 2012 and will attempt to deliver the same kind of promise that USC did last year. The Trojans caught fire late and rode their no-bowl season to a preseason Top Five ranking. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are basically taking a redshirt year in Urban Meyer's first season in Columbus, hoping to play spoiler and prepare a young team for great things starting in 2013.
From the moment Jim Tressel left Columbus, people began to assume that Meyer would be the next (permanent) head coach at The Ohio State University, and all the non-denial denials in the world couldn't stem the tide of the rumors. After retiring from his post as Florida head coach to "spend more time with his family," Meyer hopped on the road as an ESPN announcer last fall, then decided his family had seen him enough.
Rested and recharged, Meyer brings with him a proven track record and high expectations. And though many Ohio State fans are still bitter about "Tattoogate" and Tressel's departure, Meyer has proven enough in his career for many to assume he will pretty quickly pull the Buckeyes back to the top tier of college football. They were, after all, only gone for a year.
In 2011, the Ohio State football program hit the reset button. For the first time since 2004 -- and only the second time since 2001 -- the Buckeyes won fewer than 10 games last fall, limping to 6-7 with a freshman quarterback (Braxton Miller) and an interim coach (Luke Fickell). They have recruited as well as anybody in the midwest (though Michigan is quickly coming on strong in that regard) and have consistently fielded one of the nation's best defenses.
Meyer inherits a base of talent much better than last year's record would suggest, and Ohio State fans are hoping that he will both lead the Buckeyes back to the top of the Big Ten and show the conference itself the way forward as the base of college football power shifts more and more to the south and east.
But all of the hype and expectations start in 2013. For now, it's time to turn Braxton Miller into the perfect Meyer quarterback, embrace the temporary spoiler role, don the invisibility cloak and turn Ohio State into the USC of 2012.
But what do you do with a team like Ohio State, for whom there is virtually no precedent? There are no projection factors for "four offensive starters are suspended for five games, plus a defensive reserve. Oh, and the quarterback is going to enter the NFL Supplemental Draft, and the head coach is going to 'resign' mid-summer." We're flying a bit blind on this one.
What do we know about the Ohio State Buckeyes at this point, just over a week (!!!) from the beginning of the college football season? They have a deep backfield that will become deeper when Boom Herron returns from suspension. They have a deep offensive line that will become deeper when Mike Adams returns from suspension. They have recruited circles around the rest of the Big Ten. They have two potentially outstanding defensive ends and an outstanding young batch of linemen. They have a host of former blue-chip options at linebacker. Barring an explosion in self-inflicted interceptions, they may have a rather maintainable turnover margin. They have played at a level higher than that of both Oklahoma and Alabama over the last four full years.
They have a lot, in other words, especially for a down Big Ten. They also have a black hole at quarterback, untested receivers (at least until Devier Posey returns from suspension), all-but-guaranteed regression in the secondary and an interim coach who is not that much older than I am. They have more talent, and more question marks, than anybody in the conference. With no suspensions and their old head coach, they would have ranked, at worst, third in the country in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections. With all the drama and headaches, they fall to 15th. And they're still potentially the best team in the conference.
Without Tressel, without quarterback Terrelle Pryor (and with a freshman quarterback in his place, eventually), with a new secondary and with an unexpectedly ineffective pass rush, Ohio State was most certainly not the best team in the conference. The Buckeyes allowed sacks at a higher rate than any team in the country, they had perhaps the least efficient No. 1 receiver in the country, they couldn't develop the same level of pressure and discipline on defense, and they regressed in almost every single category on both sides of the ball.
As the season progressed, the offense seemed to get a little better while the defense got worse.
First six games: Ohio State 25.3 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.9 (plus-2.4)
Last seven games: Ohio State 28.4 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.5 (plus-0.9)
In usurping the ineffective Joe Bauserman atop the depth chart, quarterback Braxton Miller was hit-or-miss, as freshmen tend to be. But the defense was every bit as culpable for Ohio State's lack of momentum in 2011. But Meyer and his staff still have quite a few toys with which to play.
Perhaps Ohio State's two most successful coaches of all-time, neither Woody Hayes nor Jim Tressel believed much in offensive innovation. They won a lot of games by keeping things simple, keeping things on the ground as much as possible (Hayes is one of about 17 coaches credited with the "only three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad" line), and making life as easy as possible for what was typically a fantastic defense. These offenses could still be nicely effective -- the Buckeyes averaged 32.3 points per game during their 1968 title campaign (they hung 50 on Michigan), and they ranked in the Off. F/+ Top 40 in both 2007-08 -- but the offense was, by design, limited.
While we won't completely know what Urban Meyer and offensive co-coordinators Tom Herman and Ed Warinner have planned for this offense until the fall, we do have a pretty good idea what Meyer's offensive philosophy is about (by the way, be sure to pick up Chris B. Brown's The Essential Smart Football, first because it is great, and second because there is an excellent chapter about how Meyer pieced together his version of the spread), and it is nothing if not sound. And fast.
Meyer was one of the spread's original innovators, posting huge numbers at both Bowling Green and Utah (and going undefeated in 2004) before heading to Florida and winning two national titles and a Heisman Trophy. His first and last Florida offenses struggled a bit, but his track record is as good as anybody's.
One could easily argue that a spread offense is at its best when a mobile quarterback is behind center; that has certainly been true for Meyer's spread, anyway. And that's good, because Braxton Miller is a fantastic runner. Miller was easily Ohio State's best run threat in 2011, rushing for 922 yards in 120 non-sack carries (7.7 per carry, plus-20.1 Adj. POE), and he will provide all the threat that Meyer needs in that regard.
The problem for Miller last fall, of course, was what happened when he wasn't running. As is customary for a true freshman, Miller's pocket presence was not where it needed to be. He avoided picks for the most part, but he took an incredible 39 sacks on just 196 pass attempts. A sack rate above about five or six percent is alarming; Miller's sack rate was 19.9 percent. Considering the offense line was decent in run blocking, and considering Joe Bauserman's sack rate was 7.5 percent (still bad), a lot of this is on Miller himself. Miller was half-Denard Robinson, half-Tino Sunseri in 2011.
Miller will be very much put into position to succeed in the Meyer offense. This offense will afford him plenty of options and suit him well. But he still has a long way to go, as does his receiving corps. (Meyer called the passing game "a clown show" early in spring practice.) By default, Devin Smith became Miller's No. 1 target, and while they connected for one famous 40-yard pass, the other 30 passes targeting Smith in 2011 resulted in just 13 catches for 254 yards. Smith clearly had some explosiveness, but let's just say that a 45 percent catch rate from your No. 1 does not lend itself to an efficient passing attack. Smith will have to show far more consistency in 2012 to succeed.
Actually, that goes for all of the wideouts. The top five returning wide receivers (Smith, Corey Brown, Chris Fields, Verlon Reed, Evan Spencer) combined for a 47 percent catch rate (and, granted, 17.1 yards per catch). Ohio State ranked 118th in the country in Passing Success Rate+, and despite its explosiveness, that just isn't going to cut it. The vertical game is important, but so is the fact that 56 percent of Miller's pass attempts resulted in either a sack or an incomplete pass. If the returning receivers (and tight ends like Jake Stoneburner and Jeff Heuerman) cannot rectify that, expect Meyer to look toward youngsters like freshman Michael Thomas, who caught 12 passes in the spring game, just two fewer than any Buckeye receiver caught last season.
Of course, the running game also regressed in 2011, despite Miller's presence. The Buckeyes fell from ninth to 35th in Rushing S&P+, as the combination of Dan Herron, Carlos Hyde, Jordan Hall and Rod Smith (all former four-star recruits) combined for 4.8 yards per carry and a minus-7.5 Adj. POE (which means that Ohio State running backs were more than a touchdown worse than average given their carries, blocking and opponents). Everyone but Herron returns (they'll be joined by four-star freshmen Warren Ball and Bri'onte Dunn), but Hall, who emerged as a potential first-stringer this spring, might miss the start of the season after slicing his foot in a tragic "walking barefoot in the grass" incident.
It is hard to know what to make of the line. The Buckeyes ranked 27th in Adj. Line Yards and, in part due to quarterbacks' decision-making, 120th (dead last) in Adj. Sack Rate. The line was given quite a bit of credit for Ohio State's rushing successes (when there were successes at all) but must replace three multi-year starters, including second-team all-conference performers Mike Brewster (center) and Mike Adams (tackle). Four players with starting experience return (33 career starts), and while there are plenty of former four-star recruits in the rotation, performance and effort were a bit spotty as the start of Meyer's tenure.
The Ohio State offense was clearly limited in 2011, but while the defense was still solid, it was almost as disappointing. The Buckeyes fell from second to 22nd in Def. F/+, from third to 29th in Passing S&P+, from second to 27th on standard downs and from second to 40th on passing downs. Both youth and injuries had a role to play in this regression (as did Tressel's absence), but that will not be much of an excuse in 2012, as almost everybody returns.
Defensive end Nathan Williams tore up his knee just one game into the season, which meant that either fellow end John Simon was sacking the quarterback, or nobody was. Simon finished the season with seven sacks; the rest of the line had nine. Williams is not yet 100 percent, but the line as a whole is going to be incredibly deep in 2012. Simon and his 16.0 tackles for loss return (he had a wonderful spring, by all accounts), as does veteran Adam Bellamy, sophomores J.T. Moore and Steve Miller, four-star redshirt freshman Chase Farris and five-star freshmen Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence. Tackle is also loaded, with junior Johnathan Hankins (11 tackles for loss, fantastic for a tackle) and the entire two-deep returning.
An improved, consistent line could do wonders for the defense as a whole, obviously, but it might need to help out what was a thin linebacking corps last fall. Only four players logged serious playing time, and two (Andrew Sweat and the recently-dismissed Storm Klein) are gone. Senior Etienne Sabino (6.5 tackles for loss) is solid, and sophomore Ryan Shazier (5.0 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles) had the best spring of anybody not named John Simon, but the unit is otherwise unproven. Sophomore Curtis Grant was a five-star recruit out of high school, and a number of four-star freshmen join the party this fall, but depth is a bit frightening.
Hey, speaking of shaky depth … let's talk about the Ohio State secondary! As with everywhere else on the Ohio State roster, there are former star recruits aplenty, but few have proven much. Safeties C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Orhian Johnson (combined: five interceptions, 15 passes broken up) and corners Bradley Roby and Travis Howard (combined: 4.0 tackles for loss, five interceptions, 11 passes broken up) were all fine last year -- they certainly weren't done any favors by the mostly shaky pass rush -- but beyond the starters there is almost no experience of note.
With Luke Fickell returning to the coordinator chair, and with plenty of options up front, this should once again be a Top 20 defense this fall. But after taking up residence in the Def. F/+ Top 10 (fifth in 2007, fifth in 2009, second in 2010), this unit still has quite a bit to prove.
Honestly, when you don't have much to play for, I would assume the success-or-not bar will be based more on the kind of optimism this still-young team can build for 2013. So … beat Michigan and start 2013 in the Top 10, and you had a successful redshirt year.
Because of their lack of offensive innovation, because of their poor performance in recent national title games, because of their conference's general lack of recent elite success, we have undersold the Buckeyes in recent years. With the way Ohio State has recruited in recent years, there is perhaps no program outside of the SEC or Big 12 with a better foundation for competing for titles than tOSU. (Well, aside from USC, anyway.)
Meyer gets three years with Braxton Miller, there is nary a senior to be found in the receiving corps (and only one on the offensive line), his defensive line is one of the deepest in the country, and he is a good enough recruiter to continue making this a deeper squad. Things are in place for Meyer to pick up where he left off in Gainesville, and he has a year to figure things out before wins and losses actually matter.
It's funny how that works out, right? Last year, Wisconsin and Michigan State were the class of the conference, and they might be again in 2012. But after a shaky hire in Ann Arbor, and after a shaky end to Jim Tressel's tenure in Columbus, both Michigan and Ohio State have made strong enough hires that it is easy to see them returning to the top of the conference quite soon.
For some schools, it takes years of program building and good breaks (both on the field and in recruiting) to threaten for big bowls and conference titles. For others, it simply takes a solid hire for us to assume (usually correctly) that greatness is all but guaranteed. And you can't get much more solid or proven than Urban Meyer … if he is truly rejuvenated, anyway.
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