Who: Ohio State
Coach: Urban Meyer (fifth season, 50-4)
2015 record: 12-1 (7-1 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Ezekiel Elliott, RB; Joey Bosa, DE; Darron Lee, LB
Biggest returners: J.T. Barrett, QB; Pat Elflein, OL; Raekwon McMillan
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 2 (1st in B1G)
Top rated 2016 recruit: Five-star DE Nick Bosa
2016 strength: Quarterback
It remains to be seen who will be the new workhorse back. We don’t know who the new No. 1 receiver will be. There’s also no guarantee what an offensive line with three new starters will look like. But Ohio State’s best player is at its most important position. The expectations will be understandably great for J.T. Barrett, who enters the offseason as the true starter for the first time.
This is finally Barrett’s show to run. That could mean more designed runs and more shots downfield. There were a lot of times in 2015 when it felt like Barrett was out there to be a game-manager instead of a playmaker. The offense will undoubtedly run through him next year, much like it did throughout 2014 when he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. With the workload he’ll get next year, Barrett certainly could one-up that mark.
2016 weakness: Secondary
Ohio State has to replace three multi-year starters in Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. Gareon Conley is the only starter back in the defensive backfield. Conley showed he’s plenty capable of being a lockdown corner, but he might not get picked on very much if Ohio State’s new starters struggle to fill some big shoes.
Assuming he’s out of Urban Meyer’s doghouse, Damon Webb would be the likely candidate to replace Apple if he can stay healthy. Erick Smith is coming off a season-ending ACL tear, so it remains to be seen how quickly he’ll get his speed back and solidify one of the starting safety spots. And Cam Burrows is the favorite to fill the other safety spot, but he suffered a season-ending injury in 2015, as well. There are depth concerns across the board with the secondary because the expected 2016 starters didn’t get to function as traditional backups because of injuries. On top of that, Chris Ash is gone to Rutgers. Will that combination cause this unit to take a step back?
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 10-2 (8-1 in B1G)
You can bet Ohio State wishes it could switch its 2015 and 2016 schedules. A team with six returning starters will have to travel to Oklahoma in Week 3. That’s the non-conference game Ohio State needed to have on its schedule in 2015. We won’t have to wait until late-November to see how good Ohio State is this time.
The Buckeyes also have to travel to Madison and Happy Valley back-to-back weeks in October. In addition to that, they’ll go to East Lansing, which will be a tough game regardless of whether or not Michigan State takes a step back. And with the talent Michigan returns, that last game could easily be a battle of two top-10 teams. I see the Buckeyes as a team that improves greatly throughout the season. They might even have more fire on a consistent basis than the 2015 group had. But there are too many potential land mines in that schedule to project a new-look team to run the table.