Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 14 Ohio State.
Last year, I thought Ohio State was a lock for the playoff—had it not been for one excitable Michigan State kicker, the Buckeyes would have waltzed to college football’s only important set of postseason games.
Now, following an impressive exodus of NFL talent, head coach Urban Meyer will be tasked with once again creating a top-5 team and reclaiming the Big Ten crown, an honor that’s belonged to the Buckeyes just once since 2009. Ohio State returns six starters, the fewest among FBS teams. This wasn’t your usual unloading of beloved four-year role guys, either—the Buckeyes lost a bevy of legitimate NFL talent this offseason, and replacing them and maintaining the levels of success expected by the fanbase is going to require a lot from some young players.
Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones, Michael Thomas, and Ezekiel Elliot are all long gone, off trying to make a name for themselves as gamebreakers in the NFL. The defense lost Eli Apple, Darron Lee, Von Bell, and Joey Bosa. Every single player listed above started for Ohio State last season and all of them are challenging for playing time or starting roles on NFL squads right now.
Buckeye fans have since placed their faith in quarterback J.T. Barrett, both because he’s earned it and because they have to. He’s the sole established weapon returning to this team, and will lead an offense brimming with talented underclassmen. Ohio State returns two offensive linemen from last year’s starting five. Senior Pat Elflein made the move to center from right guard and, according to The Columbus Dispatch, only started getting full-contact reps this past week due to shoulder surgery he underwent in May. Regarding Big Ten experience, he and Barrett are the sole proven products on offense for the Buckeyes.
The new crew will be blocking for a new running back, with redshirt freshman Mike Weber currently slated to make his college debut and assume the starting duties. Another pair of Buckeyes to be aware of in the running game will be Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson, the team’s newest H-Backs.
After missing most 2015 with a broken leg, Noah Brown will step in at the top receiver position as the most experienced—of the six receptions Ohio State’s returning receivers had last year, Brown owns five. Freshman wideout Austin Mack impressed the Buckeye coaching staff this offseason since enrolling early in the spring, and has likely earned himself some playing time, as Meyer told Cleveland.com Mack is “game ready.” This is a good piece of news, because today, the Buckeyes announced redshirt freshman receiver Torrance Gibson was suspended for the entire season for violating the student code of conduct.
The Ohio State defensive line has the potential to rank among the best in the conference, starting with ends Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis. The duo saw action in all 13 games last year and made the most of their time on the field—Lewis finished second on the team with 14.0 tackles for loss, and Hubbard finished fourth with 8.0. The interior will feature a two-deep mix of Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Davon Hamilton and Dre’Mont Jones, as every player, either in past games or during the offseason, has shown their ability to be a bonafide starter.
At middle linebacker, Raekwon McMillan will welcome Chris Worley and Dante Booker, the team’s newest starting outside linebackers. McMillan is coming off a season in which he led the team in tackles with 119 and was a finalist for the Butkus Award. He’ll now have the added burden of being the clean-up man when Worley and Booker slip up, but as long as the defensive line lives up to its billing, the trio should be able to perform at a high level.
The Buckeye secondary will welcome three new starters to a unit that owned the 18th-best passing defense in the nation a year ago. Gareon Conley is back at corner and will be joined by Denzel Ward on the outside; Malik Hooker and Damon Webb are both likely a lock to start at safety. The team lost its safeties coach, Chris Ash, as he was hired away by Rutgers to be the team’s new head coach. On paper, losing the position coach and three starters is a bad sign, but the Buckeyes have depth, and talented depth at that, so I wouldn’t expect this year’s unit to fall off a cliff. Still, a Week 3 matchup against Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma will likely be a learning experience for the group.
J.T. Barrett was featured alongside Cardale Jones last season in a move that worked out fine for the Buckeyes—they finished 12-1 after all—but sharing snaps under center is awkward, both for the player and his receivers. Now, with Cardale playing for the Buffalo Bills, the show is all Barrett’s to run.
Unlike Jones, who was sacked by opposing defenses 13 times last year, Barrett’s mobility is a key feature of his game, just ask Michigan. In addition to the touchdown he tossed, Barrett burned them for 139 yards and three scores on the ground in last November’s 42-13 blowout win. He finished the season with 682 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground and was sacked just six times, despite dropping back 158 times to Jones’s 187. His arm isn’t the golden cannon that Jones has strapped to his torso, but Barrett was modestly efficient, completing 60.6 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns to four interceptions. He’s a great fit for the Buckeye offense and it will be nice to see what he can do with complete control over the offense. I stop short of saying he’ll be a serious Heisman contender, but he’ll be a massive asset for a team short on experience.
In four years at the helm, Urban Meyer’s squads have dropped four games. So, yes, given their recruiting prowess and top-tier quarterback, the Buckeyes can absolutely make the playoff. Their case requires 16 players to come in and not only be good at their job, but be among the best in the nation at doing it. With a Week 3 clash with Oklahoma in Norman on the schedule, we’ll get a great chance to determine whether or not this team is the playoff contender many expect it to be, or if it’ll be a season-long project. If it’s the latter, it does not necessarily negate their playoff chances—aside from the Sooners, the first five weeks should be a walk in the park. This gives the coaches and players five weeks to assess what’s working and what’s not, with one real test before jumping into the thick of conference play.
Were it just about any other program, this would be a pretty easy answer; instead, this is Ohio State and I remember what a then-unproven Buckeye squad was able to do in 2014.
Urban Meyer is a dick, but an incredibly sad one. His own players won’t return his high fives, his boss/presidential endorsement was casually brushed aside, he gets roasted by regional publications, and, of course, he knows the stinging pain of sad pizza. But this is the man who gave wouldn’t even tell his own quarterbacks who was starting until after Virginia Tech punted, so while it’s easy to feel bad, remember: he’s fine, and he’s a dick,
Sept. 3: Bowling Green
Sept. 10: Tulsa
Sept. 17: @ Oklahoma
Oct. 1: Rutgers
Oct. 8: Indiana
Oct. 15: @ Wisconsin
Oct. 22: @ Penn State
Oct. 29: Northwestern
Nov. 5: Nebraska
Nov. 12: @ Maryland
Nov. 19: @ Michigan State
Nov. 26: Michigan