Ohio State might be the only program in the Big Ten that would be disappointed with a 12-1 season capped by a Fiesta Bowl victory. That’s a testament to how high coach Urban Meyer has raised the bar in Columbus, but it’s also an admission that the Buckeyes failed to meet the lofty standard Meyer has set since taking over in 2012.
With that being said, Meyer might be under more pressure than expected entering the 2016 season. That statement seems unfathomable at face value, considering the program was banned from postseason play during Meyer’s first year – and he still went 12-0.
But there are many underlying circumstances suggesting Meyer could be in store for his most arduous test yet.
Roster attrition will be Meyer’s biggest battle entering the 2016 season. The Buckeyes lost 12 players to the NFL draft, including five first-round picks. Even worse, Ohio State returns only six starters, the fewest for any Big Ten team this season.
One position Meyer won’t have to worry about is quarterback, because J.T. Barrett is back and ready to take the reins for an entire season. Barrett is healthy and will no longer have to worry about Cardale Jones taking his job. The Buckeyes are Barrett’s team. With Big Ten East rivals Michigan and Michigan State both starting new quarterbacks this season, Barrett’s presence gives the Buckeyes an immeasurable advantage.
The quarterback situation is one of the few things Meyer won’t be losing sleep over. Replacing stars like Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Darron Lee and Ezekiel Elliott is a task much easier said than done. Ohio State will benefit from the No. 4 incoming recruiting class, but it’s tough to rely solely on freshmen to replenish the roster.
The Buckeyes have replaced talented running backs before. Elliott was the heir to the throne left behind by Carlos Hyde, who many worried couldn’t be succeeded. The problem is Ohio State might not have the horses to replace Elliott with as much success. Bri’onte Dunn and Mike Weber could be tasked with carrying the load as a backfield tandem.
Ohio State will rely on two wide receivers coming off of season-ending injuries to step in as starters this season. Noah Brown and Corey Smith are expected back after both sustained leg injuries last season. H-back Curtis Samuel will also be relied upon and the rest of Ohio State’s receiving depth chart features an abundance of unproven talent.
Ohio State will welcome five-star recruit Nick Bosa to Columbus with the expectation that he can fill in for his older brother. Tyquan Lewis also is back after leading the team with eight sacks last year. Ohio State has an anchor in its front seven in linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who could finish the year as an All-American. The secondary will feature three new starters and the hope is that Gaeron Conley can take the next step after performing admirably as a sophomore.
It’s obvious Meyer will have to restock the pantry, but Ohio State’s daunting schedule doesn’t give him much room for error. The Buckeyes open up the season against Bowling Green and Tulsa, both of which appeared in bowl games a year ago, before traveling to Norman, Okla., for a battle with the Oklahoma Sooners. Ohio State concludes its season with a road trip to Michigan State and a visit from Michigan. Both games, as always, will be deciding factors in the Big Ten East.
Meyer is tasked with replacing 16 starters and numerous stars while doing so against the Big Ten’s toughest schedule, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. Meyer’s 50-4 record through his first four years on the job has cultivated a conference-title-or-bust mentality in Columbus, and that might be an understatement.
If anyone could figure out how to get this team back into the College Football Playoff, it’s Meyer. If he does, it will go down as one of his greatest coaching accomplishments.