It's November 27, and Ohio State's season is over. If you're thinking that's rare, it is. It's only happened twice before in the last 40 years for the Buckeyes. And this time, it's not because they caught six losses and found themselves out of bowl contention—it's the NCAA sanctions that took away OSU's postseason privileges.
So while the next six weeks or so will be dedicated to determining the true No. 1 team of the 2012 season, for Ohio State it's already time to start looking ahead to next season. Fortunately, the 2013 outlook is bright.
Any discussion of what Ohio State brings back to the table for the 2013 season has to start with Braxton Miller. Miller was a Heisman contender halfway through the season and should even be improved next season as the OSU offense diversifies and he grows more accustomed to it.
Better yet, Miller returns most of the skill-position talent around him. Wideouts Corey Brown and Devin Smith are both back. Jake Stoneburner departs, but the tight end duo of Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are going to be fine. Leading tailback Carlos Hyde will return, and so will fellow big backs Rod Smith and Bri'Onte Dunn.
Even better, per the News-Herald, RB Jordan Hall should get a medical redshirt and return for 2013 if he doesn't go pro. Ohio State would certainly prefer it if Hall returned. He adds another dimension to the offense with his athleticism and versatility.
The offensive line will miss starting tackle Reid Fragel, but Taylor Decker should step in there without a problem. Decker nearly took Fragel's starting spot coming into the year. Fragel's the only senior on the entire line, and assuming nobody runs off to the NFL early, that should be one of the best lines in the country in 2013. It still might be if one of the starters declares for the draft anyway.
On defense, the losses are a little more pronounced. John Simon leaves as one of the best linemen in school history, and for all the talent Ohio State's freshmen had this year, Simon is essentially irreplaceable. Fellow starting DE Nathan Williams is also leaving, as is DT Garrett Goebel, a major contributor this season.
Still, Ohio State had remarkable depth along the line this year, and 2013 should see the emergence of players like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington as every-down terrors along the line. Se'Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt should also push for major playing time. And if Johnathan Hankins leaves for the NFL draft, it'll open up an opportunity for Chris Carter (a 340-pound behemoth with loads of potential) to step in at nose tackle.
Then there's the schedule. For Ohio State, it cuts both ways. Going undefeated is certainly crucial to making the BCS Championship game, and the Buckeyes have a great shot at going undefeated. Here's the 2013 schedule as it looks now, via FBSchedules.com:
Right. It's just that, aside from a home game against Wisconsin and a trip to Michigan, that schedule looks unbelievably easy. Cal just fired its coach, and that still looks like OSU's toughest test in the non-conference. Northwestern is going to a January bowl this year and should be strong next year, but Ohio State fans should fill at least a third of Ryan Field's stands for that "road game."
That's a two-game schedule stretched over three months. Ohio State sure as hell had better not lose a single game heading into the Michigan game. Otherwise, there are so few opportunities for high-profile wins that the Buckeyes would likely be well out of the Top Five if they entered Ann Arbor with a loss already on their record.
But with a talent base in place like what Ohio State's got coming back, that schedule looks more than manageable. We're hesitant to say OSU "should" go undefeated going into Michigan, because even if you think Ohio State has a 90-percent chance of winning each of its first 11 games (and the odds aren't going to be that good), there's still only a 28-percent chance it gets through those 11 games undefeated.
We do, however, feel confident in saying that Ohio State should be favored in each of its first 11 games—and we're not convinced it'll be an underdog in Ann Arbor.
Overall, that's the profile of a potential No. 1 team. Of course, being a defending champion also fits that profile pretty well, so expect whoever takes the BCS Championship this year to be way, way up there in the rankings also. But in terms of talent and having a road to the title, Ohio State will be as well set up as anyone in the nation.