Only the most optimistic fan would predict a national championship for the Ohio State Buckeyes.
They lost five players to the first round of the NFL Draft. They lost seven other players in the final six rounds. College football expert Phil Steele ranks Ohio State as the most inexperienced team in the country. At No. 128, they fall just below Buffalo, Arizona State and Navy.
Ohio State returns six starters. In coach Urban Meyer’s first four seasons, they never returned fewer than 12. They return 35 letterwinners. Three years ago, they returned 50. In Meyer’s 14 seasons as a head coach at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and Ohio State, his teams had never returned fewer than eight starters and 38 letterwinners until now.
Only the bravest soul would predict a return to the top for the Buckeyes, though Larry Johnson’s 71-second speech to the team on Aug. 17 might convert the doubtful. Ohio State’s defensive coordinator was, as the kids would say these days, straight fire. On day 12 of camp, in the dog days of the preseason, he gave the kind of talk that gets players to run through walls and past expectations.
Meyer shared a video of Johnson’s speech on Twitter, so every Buckeye fan could hear it. Johnson touches on the team’s theme for the season: The Edge.
“First of all, your body controls your mind,” Johnson said. “Your body tells your mind to shut down, and when you shut down, you lose today. The edge is not going to the edge and saying, ‘I’m average, I’m good for the day.’ We’ve got enough elite players, they should be dragging guys to be elite. … If you’re elite, grab somebody today. Take them with you. There’s no more average in this program! There’s no more average in this program! That’s a bad word. Not in this program!”
There’s no doubt Johnson believes Ohio State can win the Big Ten, return to the College Football Playoff and win it all. The quest starts at noon Sept. 3 with the season opener against Bowling Green at Ohio Stadium. Here are seven reasons why it could happen:
1. Coaching: Meyer is 50-4 in his first four seasons. He’s the winningest active coach with at least 10 years of experience. His career record stands at 154-27 (.851). He has the sixth-highest winning percentage in college football history among coaches with at least 10 years of experience at a four-year school. He’s 9-2 in bowl games and has won three national championships.
Surrounding himself with talented coaches is a big reason for Meyer’s success. Johnson’s passion makes him a valuable asset. He gave that whole speech without swearing. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, one of three new starters on Johnson’s line, said Johnson will say, “Oh, Santa Claus” or “Gosh, doggy,” instead of using a four-letter word.
“He doesn’t need to curse,” Hubbard said. “He’s a really inspirational guy. He gets us going every day. I actually like him not using cuss words. He really gets you going with powerful messages.”
2. Talent: The big reason Ohio State earned a No. 5 ranking in the preseason coaches poll and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll despite all its losses is it has some of the highest-ranked recruits in the country.
The newest class, with 25 players — including freshman defensive lineman Nick Bosa, the No. 3 ranked player in the nation — ranked fifth. The 2015 class, which included Mike Weber, who will likely start at running back, ranked fifth. The 2014 class, starring linebacker Raekwon McMillan, ranked seventh.
The 2013 class ranked third in the nation and included quarterback J.T. Barrett and at least 10 other players who will have prominent roles this fall. Six players in that class have moved onto the NFL.
3. Barrett: Only four of the nine Big Ten teams Ohio State faces return their starting quarterback. The Buckeyes getting the redshirt junior Barrett back two years after he was named Big Ten Quarterback of the Year and one year after he battled Cardale Jones for the job gives them a big edge in conference play.
Barrett has thrown 45 touchdown passes the last two seasons and rushed for 22 more scores.
“Being the best quarterback in the country, that’s something I don’t think about,” Barrett said. “I just try to be the best me I can be. When I am focusing on that, then that can make me the best quarterback in the country.”
4. Leadership: Meyer named three captains in the spring: Barrett, center Pat Elflein, a fifth-year senior, and McMillan, a junior. He named three more Friday: senior linebacker Joe Burger, a former walk-on; redshirt junior cornerback Gareon Conley; redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis; and redshirt junior guard Billy Price.
Price and Elflein are the only players in that group who started the national championship game two years ago. Barrett, who was recovering from a broken foot, is the only player in the group who didn’t see the field in that game.
Despite losing some of the biggest names in the history of the program — Vandalia Butler’s Taylor Decker and Wayne’s Braxton Miller to name just two — the Buckeyes are confident in their captains.
“In our unit room, we’ve kind of built this bond, that you can’t let anybody down,” Elflein said. “Your brother needs you, and it’s not just the starting five, it’s all the players — I think we’ve got 15, 16, 17 guys. We need every guy to go in and participate and contribute.”
5. Playmakers: There’s no shortage of players who know what to do with the football. Hybrid back Curtis Samuel will get more snaps than ever this season, after working in the shadow of Ezekiel Elliott and Jalin Marshall the last two years, and he’s the No. 1 playmaker, according to Meyer and the coaches.
“He’s a special kid with a special skill set and special talent, and he’s really smart,” wide receivers coach Zach Smith said. “He’s able to be a kind of hybrid guy and do multiple things and pick things up quickly. He doesn’t forget anything. When he was a running back two years ago, you’ll throw him in a situation and he just remembers everything he did back then that maybe haven’t gone into detail reteaching. It’s unbelievable.”
6. Schedule: The schedule isn’t easy, but even if Ohio State loses in week three at Oklahoma, it could run the table in the Big Ten and still make the College Football Playoff.
A road game at Michigan State is the biggest hurdle. Ohio State fans will hope for a repeat of 2014 when they avenged a 2013 loss to Michigan State with a 49-37 victory in East Lansing. This year, the Buckeyes will try to avenge a 17-14 loss to the Spartans at Ohio Stadium in November.
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7. Special teams: Don’t forget the punter. One of the most talented players on the team is graduate student Cameron Johnston. He’s a big big reason the Buckeyes have led the Big Ten in net punting three years in a row. His career average of 44.3 ranks third in Ohio State history.