This is the latest in a series of articles previewing Big Ten football in 2012. A rough schedule of previous and upcoming preview articles is provided at the end of this article.
Six straight years of double-digit wins and BCS bowl appearances came to a screeching halt following the removal of Jim Tressel and the lengthy suspensions for many of the offensive stars on the 2011 team. Although players like DeVier Posey and Boom Herron did come back later in the season, the Buckeyes were not able to overcome the lack of depth on offense and the coaching changes as the season wound down.
A promising 6-3 start and an upset of Wisconsin did not hold up, as Ohio State stumbled at Purdue and then finished on a four-game losing streak. The offense fell from 449 yards per game to 318, and the defense surrendered 324 yards per game compared to 262 the year before. These surprising lapses led to the first net negative yardage average in decades for the Buckeyes.
However, just days after losing to Michigan for the first time since 2003, the Buckeyes added instant momentum back to the program with new coach Urban Meyer. Time will tell if this is a perfect marriage of a coach at the top of his profession and an elite program, or whether this will be a brief stop on Meyer's road to retirement.
With the change came many compelling storylines, as Meyer immediately rubbed some other Big Ten coaches the wrong way in recruiting. Despite starting with a huge disadvantage of time, Meyer took the solid class Luke Fickell had recruited and made it a Top 5 national recruiting class. With Michigan back on the upswing, this was just the move that Ohio State needed to stay as relevant as the Wolverines.
Expect many fresh faces and a much different look offensively compared to the super-conservative Jim Tressel era. That being said, Ohio State will still look to run it down opposing defenses' gullets before going completely wide open for passes. If Braxton Miller has developed as much as most second year quarterbacks do, then this offense will jump right back to the elite status from 2008-2010.
Will Braxton Miller have enough receivers to make Ohio State a true threat on offense this year? Will the Silver Bullet defense get back to being one of the nation's top defenses? Will Urban Meyer break the usual string of Ohio State coaches winning 7 or 8 games in first seasons? Let's take a look:
Following a tough three-game stretch where Joe Bauserman threw the ball out of bounds more frequently than at actual Buckeye receivers, Braxton Miller took over as a freshman starting quarterback just like his predecessor, Terrelle Pryor, did back in 2008. Although Miller clearly had a fairly good arm for a freshman, the Ohio State coaches severely limited his passing attempts, especially when the Buckeyes had the lead.
This led to interesting quirks, like Ohio State winning a game with one completed pass at Illinois. Of course, it did not help that Miller had virtually nobody with experience to throw to with the lengthy suspension of top receiver DeVier Posey. This year, Devin Smith and Corey Brown have a full year of experience with Miller and should rapidly improve the passing offense.
Another interesting move was moving former tight end Jake Stoneburner to starting wide receiver. He will make a difficult match up for defensive backfield players looking to shut him down. Meyer likes to use the tight ends in his offense, and two young players, Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman, are expected to split the repetitions at that position with Stoneburner's departure.
Expect improved passing numbers by a large margin in 2012. Of course that should be easy to do considering no Buckeye caught more than 300 receiving yards in 2011.
The key to making that passing offense work will be opening things up with a legitimate running game. This season, Carlos Hyde will again start on the top of the depth chart. Based on his spring and fall camps, this year Hyde should stay in the starting role barring injury. Jordan Hall will also see some playing time once he returns from a foot injury sustained during summer break.
Hyde is a bruising back who will remind you of a little faster Boom Herron. Hyde will need a relatively thin offensive line to stay healthy, as a bunch of freshman and sophomores fill the two-deep depth chart at those positions. Look for an imbalance of running plays to the left hand side early in the season thanks to the return of both starters on that side of the line (Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell).
Miller only had 4 interceptions and a couple of lost fumbles last year. If he can maintain numbers in that area, then Ohio State will once again end up with possibly a double-digit positive turnovers statistic. That should cause more points to go up on the board than a season ago.
Similar to the offense, the Buckeyes' defense will not have many senior starters in 2012, but a lot more experience comes back in these younger players. Ohio State returns nine starters from 2011, including all of the players on the defensive line and the defensive backfield. However, the legal troubles of Storm Klein and injuries to Nathan Williams may sideline both of these players for a bit longer.
The strength of the defense will be up front, where the returning starters are backed up by an elite group of recruits brought in by Meyer like Noah Spence. Spence may be hard-pressed to find the field though, as John Simon, Jonathan Hankins, and Michael Bennett appear to have starting spots locked in place. Once Nathan Williams is healthy, he may take the secondary role for the running backs. Simon had seven sacks and nine tackles for loss, but "Big Hank" Hankins will be the star in the making if reports from Columbus are any indication.
Linebacker was a position in which two new starters were always going to be welcomed, but Etienne Sabino and Ryan Shazier have had those spots locked up since they each accumulated 60 tackles last year. The problem with the linebackers is depth, similar to the youth revolution in the two-deep of the offensive line.
With returning starter Storm Klein having to earn his way back on the team, look for sophomore Curtis Grant and freshman Camren Williams to split time at middle linebacker. This could be the one weakness in the middle of a very good Buckeyes defense, if opposing offenses can put the middle linebacker in tough reads and situations.
Of course, the linebackers had to deal with covering for defensive backfield lapses a season ago as well as the injuries. This year, all four starters return and only one player with significant playing time has left to graduation. That means the pass defense should bounce right back to hold teams perhaps under 160, or even 150 yards per game. Both cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Travis Howard should be much improved at locking down the best two receiving threats on opposing offenses this year.
Although expecting the elite numbers from the Tressel era may be a bit too high an expectation, this defense has more than enough experience and great coaching that could propel the Buckeyes to one or two big upsets this season. With a defense this strong, the pressure will be much lighter on the offense, unlike last year.
Jim Tressel was a conservative coach who loved special teams and winning games by grinding out small advantages. However, a dip in special teams production in 2009 and 2010 did happen before Tressel left the program. Fickell picked up the pieces and received a boost from new kicker Drew Basil in 2011, pushing the Buckeyes back into the top 30 nationally.
Now Basil returns for his junior year and will be looking to build another long streak of made field goals like in 2011 (12 in a row). Basil must avoid the costly mistakes at the most critical times, like the PAT blocked at Purdue to send the game to overtime last year.
Ben Buchanan enters his senior year with much improved statistics over the past two seasons. Buchanan averaged 41 yards per punt a season ago, and that will be serviceable as long as he remains accurate with these kicks.
Jordan Hall was the primary returner in 2011, and he may reclaim the role if his foot heals completely and quickly enough. However, look for Corey Brown to take a bigger role in the return game, at least until Hall is back to healthy. Brown has explosiveness like Hall, but perhaps will need to rely on elusiveness to produce big returns and possibly touchdowns.
As long as Jordan Hall is participating soon on special teams, there is no reason to believe that this unit will not return to being one of the best in the country, let alone the conference. Change the coaches, change the offense, but some things always stay the same. When that constant is great special teams, most coaches would be thrilled with that consistency.
The Buckeyes' schedule for 2012 looks like this, with predictions on wins and losses in parentheses:
9/1—Miami Ohio (win)
9/29—@ Michigan State (loss)
10/13—@ Indiana (win)
10/27—@ Penn State (win)
11/17—@ Wisconsin (loss)
Projected record: 10-2, 6-2 Big Ten
Unlike the past few seasons, a marquee non-conference game is nowhere to be found on the Ohio State schedule in 2012. A game against Cincinnati would have been compelling, but it was canceled in favor of UAB and now the best early game is likely against California. The Golden Bears are historic underachievers and usually play poorly on the road, and the 9 a.m. PT kickoff on September 15 will play a huge factor in helping the Buckeyes start 4-0.
Then comes a huge test against Michigan State, who completely shut out the Buckeyes a season ago in Columbus. The same defense mostly returns for the Spartans, but the improved offense at Ohio State may also be tough to prepare for. This could go either way, so I will say the home team wins this one.
There are other tough games on the schedule like Nebraska and Michigan at home, but the biggest test will be going to Wisconsin the week before the Michigan game. If the Buckeyes steal another game from Wisconsin like a season ago, Badgers fans will be very upset. I'll call for a second loss there and a double-digit win total.
The season all comes down to those last two weeks. Beat Michigan, and the expectations will skyrocket along with the love in Columbus for Urban Meyer. Beat Wisconsin and Michigan and they might start erecting a statue of Meyer right now even before winning a single bowl or BCS game. Lose both and it will be another long offseason for the Buckeyes, but hopefully with more promise than a year ago.
Best case scenario could be 12-0, but probably 11-1 is the best this team will accomplish given the brutal conference schedule. At worst, Ohio State loses a couple of games it should not and ends up at the same 7-5 mark that Tressel started at before winning the whole crystal football a year later.
Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions about this or other articles in the 2012 Big Ten football preview series, please contact David on Twitter.
Big Ten Season Preview 2012 Summary
Team Previews: Minnesota preview, Indiana preview, Northwestern preview, Illinois preview; Iowa preview; Penn State preview; Michigan State preview; Purdue preview; Nebraska preview; Ohio State preview; Michigan preview; Wisconsin preview
B1G Scouting Reports: Sun Belt/WAC report
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