Best-case scenario: 4 factors that could help Ohio State enjoy a championship season
The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans. But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season.
In the past few weeks, Land Of 10 has been offering a “Best-Case Scenario” story for the Big Ten’s presumed cluster of bowl-bound clubs.
Today’s piece focuses on Ohio State, a longtime powerhouse (35 Big Ten titles) and certifiable juggernaut over the last four seasons. Since 2012, head coach Urban Meyer owns a staggering 50-4 overall record with the Buckeyes — including one national championship in 2014.
Fast forward to the present: The Buckeyes’ 2016 campaign will be a smashing success if …
1. J.T. Barrett logs 90 percent of the snaps at quarterback
Quarterback J.T. Barrett has raised the proverbial bar at Ohio State to amazing levels, so much so that last year’s platoon system with Cardale Jones almost feels like a redshirt-style washout.
Barrett still accounted for 20 touchdowns in his final seven games as a sophomore, but that pales in comparison to his prodigious freshman campaign in 2014, an injury-shortened season that still yielded 3,772 total yards — with 2,834 passing — and 45 total touchdowns.
Ohio State has many talented quarterbacks waiting in the wings, but from an experience standpoint, there are no Cardale Joneses or Braxton Millers warming up in the bullpen behind Barrett. This season, in a bit of honesty, could easily be a case of Barrett Or Bust.
So, let’s presume Barrett recaptures the magic of his freshman year. Let’s pencil him in for vertical numbers of 2,900 yards and 65-percent passing.
Mark him down for at least 900 rushing yards and 11 rushing scores, his two-year average. And let’s be supremely confident about Barrett’s capacity for reaching the Heisman Trophy-level threshold of 40 total touchdowns.
It’s an easy sell to predict those kind of numbers when you’re presuming at least 14 games for Barrett, a berth in Big Ten title game, plus a bowl/playoff game. In his full-time heyday with the Buckeyes — free of early-freshman jitters or awkward platoons with Jones — Barrett had a scintillating average of 2.93 touchdowns per game.
2. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan carries a defense that’s long on speed, but short on experience
You cannot watch TV excerpts from this year’s Big Ten Media Days without hearing those honey words from Coach Meyer: “This is the fastest team I’ve ever had in Columbus.”
It’s a glorious statement to make about a Buckeyes squad that must replace 12 drafted players from last season, an NFL single-school record in the first four rounds of a draft. However, it was also a nebulous claim, inviting some snarky questions into Meyer’s thought process:
- Are the offensive and defensive linemen faster than previous trench groups?
- Did the coaches clone a horde of Ted Ginn Jr.-types for the receiving corps?
- Does defensive tackle Michael Hill, at 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, suddenly have 4.3 speed?
The presumption here: Meyer was hyping up an Ohio State defense that returns only three starters from last year, specifically the back-seven alignment of McMillan —a potential top-10 draft pick in 2017 — cornerback Gareon Conley and a number of untested blue-chippers.
As such, the new-look Buckeyes (nation’s No. 2 scoring defense last year, No. 9 in total defense) may have speed to burn, but that speed could also burn a defense that’s routinely out of position or constantly over-pursuing tackling angles. It’s the crux of allotting unlimited playing time to stubborn, wide-eyed talent.
3. Offensive tackle Jamarco Jones and receiver Noah Brown live up to their hype
It’s not terribly sexy to write about left tackles, especially newbies at the position. From a yawn perspective, it’s right up there with chronicling punters who have never heard of the Coffin Corner.
That aside, Jones leads a large wave of new left tackles in the Big Ten. He’ll also be the face of a reconstructed Buckeyes line which returns only two starters — center Pat Elflein and right guard Billy Price — but none at the tackle slots.
Among the offensive line’s 2015 highlights, Ohio State led the Big Ten in rushing at 245 yards per game (11th nationally) and its cadre of aggressive quarterbacks were sacked less than 20 times.
Is Jones (No. 4 offensive tackle from the Class of 2014) up to the full-time pressure of handling the opposition’s best pass rusher? His two-year apprenticeship behind Taylor Decker, a recent first-round pick to the Detroit Lions, was equal parts fruitful and uneventful, thanks to some quality garbage time last year.
Of course, it’s easy to question the effectiveness of watching game tape when the scoreboard reads Ohio State 42, Rutgers 7. Not all backups are created equal, especially when opposing defenders run substantially smaller than Jones (6-foot-5, 310 pounds) and the Buckeyes have zero intentions of passing the ball in the final minutes.
In a perfect world, Brown would have collected more than one reception as a true freshman in 2014. He would have been spared the painful memory of a broken leg as a sophomore, as well.
Ideally, the Buckeyes also wouldn’t be obliged to replace roughly 97 percent of their pass-catching production from last season, including the gifted talents of departed receiver Michael Thomas (56 catches, 781 yards, 9 TDs) and all-everything tailback Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4 overall draft pick).
But that’s life inside Ohio State’s wildly successful program. Next Man Up is a perpetual code among players and coaches.
4. The Buckeyes can keep their focus after the titanic Oklahoma clash, win or lose
The College Football Playoff has only been part of the sports lexicon for two-plus years, but that’s still enough time to make the following declaration: It’s the greatest football idea since Hall of Fame icon Paul Brown invented playbooks in the 1940s.
The reasoning: The Playoff system encourages — no, demands — the big-time programs to construct formidable nonconference schedules, knowing that CFP invites will eventually come to four of the Power 5 league champions anyway, minus the potential of Notre Dame throwing a monkey wrench into the selection format.)
The four-team Playoff and its explicit preference for league champions essentially opens the door for guilt-free nonconference matchups in September, such as Alabama-USC (Sept. 3), Tennessee-Virginia Tech (Sept. 10) and Ohio State at Oklahoma (Sept. 17).
It’s a no-lose situation to the loser. For the victor, it’s the ultimate boost with respect to power rankings and strength of schedule.
Oklahoma may be blessed with a high number of returning starters (14), positional supremacy in the secondary (among the nation’s best defensive backfields), cornerstone pieces on the offensive line (left tackle Orlando Brown, left guard Jonathan Alvarez) and star power in Heisman Trophy contenders Baker Mayfield (3,700 yards passing/43 TDs last year) and tailback Samaje Perine (NCAA record-holder for single-game rushing yards).
But once again, it’s a consequence-free visit for Ohio State, who went 12-1 last year. Whatever happens on Sept. 17 remains immaterial to the goal of winning the league and reaching the four-team playoff.
Simply take care of business in conference play and the Buckeyes — given their illustrious history and the Big Ten’s major TV/financial clout — would represent in either the Peach or Fiesta bowls, this season’s national semifinals).
It’s the same approach adopted by the 2014 Buckeyes. That squad, loaded with NFL-caliber talent, shook off a shocking September loss to Virginia Tech and subsequently rallied for 13 consecutive victories — including the Big Ten title game, the Sugar Bowl (CFP semifinal) and the national championship (defeating Oregon).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.