When the college football season officially begins this weekend, Ohio State will have a whole new look and a sense of desperation to ensure that the upcoming season is nothing like the one it endured in 2011.
Last year, the Buckeyes finished fourth in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten at 3-5 in conference play, 6-7 overall. That's not an acceptable season by Ohio State standards. Enter Urban Meyer.
The first-year Buckeyes coach has as tough objective on his hands: Completing an ultra-quick turnaround in which Ohio State restores itself to the college football powerhouse it's used to being. It all starts on Saturday against Miami of Ohio.
Here are the key players that will allow the Buckeyes to get off on the right foot.
Travis Howard (CB)
The Buckeyes need their defense to be a lot better than it was last year if they want to compete for the Big Ten title. By all indications, it should be, and Howard, as a fifth-year senior, has the opportunity to be a leader of a very deep secondary that could be a serious strength for this team.
Last season, there were only four instances in which the defense held the opposing team to fewer than 20 points. It's not terrible, but it's not the kind of defensive fortitude it takes to compete for a national championship, which Ohio State seems intent on doing this season (no baby steps for the Buckeyes).
It all starts with Howard, whom Meyer told The Columbus Dispatch's Bill Rabinowitz has improved significantly since last season. Co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers agreed, telling Rabinowitz:
Travis looks like what a cornerback should look like. We want to see the consistency throughout the season. Through the last two or three weeks of camp, he’s been as good a corner as I’ve been around.
On Saturday, Howard has the opportunity to set the tone—both for himself and for the rest of this defense.
Devin Smith (WR)
Last season, Smith led the Buckeyes' receiving corps with a total of 294 yards. Not exactly the type of numbers you want to see out of your best wide receiver, but he was young.
Now that he has a year of experience under his belt, it is time for him to turn up the volume. That transition couldn't come any sooner for Meyer. According to The Lantern's Pat Brennan, Meyer called the 2011 Buckeyes "one of the worst passing teams in America."
Smith has certainly been doing his part to impress his coach in fall camp, but it's his job to be the star of the show when the games begin this weekend. Otherwise, it won't be so funny the next time Meyer verbally destroys his wideouts.
Braxton Miller (QB)
The success or failure of this team will come down to Miller. According to Mike Singer of CBSSports.com, he's been using practices to slowly but surely restore the faith of Buckeyes fans. In a recent scrimmage, he went 27-of-39 for 358 yards and two touchdowns.
Miller did his job last year to give the Buckeyes a chance. There were only three games last season in which his QB rating was lower than 101. He led the team in passing yards (1,159) and in rushing yards (715) while throwing 13 TDs against four picks.
He still needs to be the leader of this offense, but his teammates need to pick up some of the slack, too. The wideouts need to be more reliable and the defense needs to be less porous.
In his second year at the helm, Miller can be expected to improve substantially. If (or when) he does, this team will immediately be far better off than it was at this time last year when the learning curve was much steeper.