The Ohio State Buckeyes and head coach Urban Meyer begin their national title defense in less than two months, and the Big Ten titans are widely considered the favorites to sew up a second straight title. Bovada.lv has the Buckeyes listed as 3/1 favorites to repeat.
Meyer has found a huge sweet spot for his talented roster, with so many of his recruits looking promising before they first take the field on Sept. 7 at Virginia Tech.
Looking up and down the roster, opposing defenses must face an intact Buckeyes offense that brings back the majority of its stars including early Heisman Trophy frontrunner Ezekiel Elliott. The defense also looks stacked and ready to improve, led by defensive end and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa.
With that in mind, let’s dive into three story lines to watch for in Ohio State’s title defense.
A huge reason for the Buckeyes’ favorite status has to do with the depth, or rather glut, at quarterback. Braxton Miller was the starter entering last season but went down with injury, followed by J.T. Barrett setting all kinds of records as a redshirt freshman until he also went down. Cardale Jones would pick up where they left off, lifting Ohio State to the championship.
Each played an integral role, beginning, middle, and end, for Meyer, but only one can start the season and in the interest of continuity one figures to start all year barring injury. All three have a reasonable claim to the throne, though a full-season simulation with each under center found Ohio State’s offense to be far more efficient under Barrett.
Meyer’s given no hints as to who will start, but with so many early blowouts expected in the first month and a half of the season it's likely one starts the first half or three quarters, with the other two getting in reps in the second half or fourth quarter.
What could muck up the season, and the title hopes, is an injury or upset. If say Miller starts the season, posts a bad game and Ohio State loses, will Meyer bend to pressure and sit him in favor of Jones or Barrett? Will the quarterback carousel become a locker room distraction?
After Joey Bosa
There’s not even a glimmer of doubt that Bosa leads this defense, and that he’s the top ranked defensive player in the country with aspirations to be the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. But the junior pass rusher can’t do it alone.
Bosa, who led the team with 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, won’t have Michael Bennett coming around the flank for extra pressure on the quarterback. Instead, linebacker Darron Lee, who was second to Bosa with 7.5 sacks last year, will hold down the middle with sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan entering a crucial year as a run stopper and likely pass rusher.
Meyer could ask for more from defensive lineman Adolphus Washington, and freshman Sam Hubbard, who redshirted last year.
Maybe lost in the shuffle of last year’s championship run, the Buckeyes boasted the nation’s No. 28 passing defense, and their 25 interceptions were bettered by only three other squads with 26. That production stemmed from safety Vonn Bell and his six picks, and another five from corner Doran Grant.
Grant is now off in the NFL, which leaves Bell, junior safety Tyvis Powell, sophomore Eli Apple, and juniors Khaleed Franklin, Elijah Goins, Michael Lawless, sophomores Mike Maduko and Erick Smith, and freshman Malik Hooker to pick up any sort of slack.
Meyer has a ton of depth and talent to draw from, but it’s likely Ohio State won’t know how strong its secondary can be until the final weeks of the regular season when Michigan State visit followed by the trip to Ann Arbor and the Big House.
Apple, who led the team with 10 pass breakups, along with Bell and Powell are the proven commodities, thus defenses will likely challenge the underclassman and less experienced juniors are big plays.
Franklin, Goins, Maduko, and Lawless were all walk-ons, and haven’t seen any game action, which leaves Smith, who started 14 out of 15 games in his freshman season to likely shine.