COLUMBUS, Ohio — When you take into account all Ohio State lost from last year’s team, the Buckeyes’ strong start to the 2016 campaign could be considered a surprise.
Just don’t tell that to Urban Meyer.
“I don’t like the word, ‘surprise,’ ” Meyer responded on Monday when asked if he was — well, surprised — by how well his relatively inexperienced roster has performed through its first four games of the season. “That’s disrespectful.”
Fair enough. But that doesn’t change the fact that after losing 16 starters, including 12 NFL draft picks, from last year’s team, it just doesn’t add up that the Buckeyes have been as impressive as any team in the country through the first third of the 2016 season.
Ranked second in both of the major polls with a 4-0 record to its credit, Ohio State lays claim to a nation-high average margin of victory of 47.8 points, 15 points more than the next closest team, Michigan. Take a look at college football’s other statistical leaderboards, and the Buckeyes aren’t hard to find. Ohio State ranks third in scoring offense, third in rushing, fourth in total offense, first in scoring defense, third in total defense and sixth in passing defense.
The Buckeyes haven’t just maintained their status quo, both statistically and aesthetically, they’ve improved. All this on a roster that entered the season replacing 83.1 percent of its receiving yards, 73.1 percent of its rushing yards and seven of its top 10 tacklers from a season ago.
|First 4 Game Averages||Total Offense||Total Defense||Points Scored||Points Allowed|
|Ohio State 2015||436.0||253.2||34.5||12.2|
|Ohio State 2016||576.2||238.0||57.0||9.2|
“To say that we’re at a better place than we were last year, I think we are,” conceded quarterback J.T. Barrett, one of just six returning starters from last season’s squad. “It’s a totally different team.”
This isn’t a case of the young Buckeyes beating up on lesser competition either. Through four games, Ohio State’s strength of schedule ranks sixth nationally, according to TeamRankings.com, while at this time a year ago, the Buckeyes’ had played just the 24th toughest slate in college football.
This year’s Ohio State team already lays claim to a signature victory, a 45-24 road victory over Oklahoma, which entered the season ranked third in the nation before falling to No. 20 following losses to now No. 6 Houston and the Buckeyes.
At this point last season, Ohio State was yet to have even faced a ranked opponent.
So what gives?
It may be an oversimplification of sorts, but if you think recruiting matters — and history would indicate that it does — perhaps, these results shouldn’t come as a surprise. Since arriving at Ohio State in 2012, Meyer has stockpiled his roster with blue-chip talent, signing four top-five nationally ranked classes in the past five years, the lone exception being a 2015 class that ranked seventh in the country.
In a lot of ways, this wasn’t supposed to be a rebuilding year, but rather the year Meyer was building toward. For the first time in his four years in Columbus, the Buckeyes’ roster is solely comprised of players he and his staff have picked to be a part of the program..
“That’s part of it,” Meyer admitted. “Obviously, it all starts with recruiting.”
The other part is a buzzword that’s bordering on cliche in today’s day and age of college football, but don’t tell Meyer that culture doesn’t matter. In fact, he wouldn’t have to look back far to disprove your theory either, as 2014 saw a similarly inexperienced Ohio State team win the College Football Playoff, despite its youth.
Perhaps it’s too early to draw that comparison just yet, but much like two years ago, new stars in Columbus have been emerging on a weekly basis.
“It’s just a credit to coach Meyer and the program. The way we recruit, the way we develop players. The guys starting now who were backups last year were really good players,” said senior center Pat Elflein. “The guys ahead of them were just really good players, too. We have really good players in this program and it just makes everybody better all the time.”
That’s not to say any questions about Ohio State, which entered the year ranked sixth the AP Top 25 and fifth in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, weren’t justified. In college football, expectations are relative, both based on the past performance of a program and the experience that is so often used as a predictor for future success.
Ohio State wasn’t just replacing 12 draft picks, it was doing so with players who had barely played before at the college level — two ingredients than can often make for a dangerous cocktail of uncertainty in college football.
Entering 2016, one team in college football had earned the benefit of the doubt that the logo on its helmet mattered more than names on the back of its jerseys. Year in and year out, Alabama seems to send a depth chart’s worth of players to the NFL, only to replace them with a new group of pro prospects.
If they weren’t already, the Buckeyes can now consider themselves a part of the same class.
No Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Darron Lee or Eli Apple? No problem. Just four games through their first seasons as starters, Curtis Samuel, Sam Hubbard, Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore have already established themselves as players with fruitful futures ahead of them.
The pro pipeline from Columbus won’t be stopping anytime soon either. Ohio State’s 2016 class is making an earlier impact than any other recruiting class that Meyer has signed for the Buckeyes, while his 2017 haul just may be his best yet.
For now, Ohio State’s attention remains on the current season, with potentially season-defining games against the likes of Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan still ahead.
But Meyer’s not worried about his competition improving. Given what they’ve already done to this point, the Buckeyes are likely to do the same.
“That’s one thing about young players,” Meyer said. “They have so much room for improvement.”