Ohio State Football: Title Hopes Rest on Improved Defense and Dodging Trap Games

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Ohio State Football: Title Hopes Rest on Improved Defense and Dodging Trap Games
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

There is a school of thought that says the Ohio State Buckeyes would have won a national championship had it not been for tattoos. Or Jim Tressel. Or school administration's decision not to self-impose a bowl ban for the 2011 season rather than allowing the NCAA drop the ban hammer a year later.

Whatever justification anyone wants to give, the prevailing thought in Columbus is that the Buckeyes left something on the table in 2012. Left something damn good.

When the clock struck zeroes at the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, Alabama was crowned national champion for the second straight season and the third in four. Most anyone you speak with would agree that Nick Saban's Tide were again the most dominant force in college football, boasting one of the best offensive lines in the sport's history and a massive roster of NFL talent. 

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But it's at least an interesting hypothetical to wonder whether Saban's boys would have even made the title game if it weren't for the beta version of the Johnny Manziel scandal.

There were two undefeated teams when college football's regular season ended: Ohio State and Notre Dame. There was one undefeated team when college football's bowl season ended: Ohio State. While it's true that the Buckeyes would have needed to win the Big Ten title game, Nebraska didn't exactly remind anyone of the classic Blackshirts in that contest. 

It's impossible to know for sure that Ohio State would have won. It's also impossible to know whether the BCS manatees would have deemed the Buckeyes more deserving than a mighty SEC team. These hypotheticals are always impossible. 

But outside of the Crimson Tide, there is no team in the nation with more title-game shippers this preseason than the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer's team may not have hoisted a Big Ten or national championship last season, but it stands a little more than a fortnight away from its season opener with the expectation of a repeat performance.

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Everyone knew that 2013 would be the season heading into this experiment. The 2012 Buckeyes were at least a year ahead of the curve. Everyone expected Meyer to improve on the hellish season that came a year before him, but with a group of mostly young players on offense, not even the most optimistic supporter feigned excitement over the prospect of going undefeated.

Now, that all changes. The Buckeyes return 13 starters from last season's squad, a majority of whom come on the offensive side. They bring back receivers Corey Brown and Devin Smith and running back Carlos Hyde, who will be suspended for the season's first three games. 

Oh, and of course Braxton Miller is back. The 2012 Big Ten offensive player of the year and fifth-place vote-getter for the Heisman Trophy heads into this season carrying as much if not more on the expectations scale than Meyer.

And that's mostly fair. Quarterback is the most important position in football for a reason. The Buckeyes will go as far as "Miller will take them," or so the saying goes.

That said, the performance of Miller will not be the overarching dictator of this team's national-championship dreams. Barring a catastrophic injury, we already know that Miller is going to be one of the most electrifying players in college football.

The rising junior threw for 2,039 yards and 15 touchdowns against six interceptions last season, adding 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. He ran Meyer's offense almost as beautifully as any quarterback could, save for big-time scares against Wisconsin and Purdue.

There are some concerns about his passing ability, but he should be very, very good this coming season, assuming natural progression. Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall measured Miller's adjusted completion percentage at 62.9 in 2012, ahead of players like Matt Barkley, Aaron Murray and Ryan Nassib. The Ohio State signal-caller's lower-than-average standard completion percentage was somewhat rooted in his propensity for throwing passes in the 25-29-yard range. No quarterback Connelly measured did so more often than Miller last season.

He's the Heisman favorite (h/t Sportsbook) for a reason, folks. The offense will be just fine.

The other side of the ball, on the other hand, could present some problems. Last year's Ohio State team was very good, though not great, defensively.

The Buckeyes ranked 31st in the nation in points against per game and finished 15th in Football Outsiders' FEI measurement and 25th in the site's S&P standings. Those are good, national-championship-contender numbers as a whole.

The problem comes when we delve deeper and expose some critical cracks. Most glaring, as any supporter would tell you, was that the team could become a sieve at any moment. The Buckeyes were 68th in explosive drives, which measure how often an opposing team averages 10 yards per play against the defense.

Ohio State damn near lost to a 3-9 Cal team because it couldn't stop allowing 50-yard runs. This wasn't an isolated incident. The team put itself in far too many untenable situations through simple discipline problems.

And, with college football's playoff still a year away, it only takes one loss to a Cal-level team to end your chances.

This problem is only exacerbated by a mass exodus of talent this offseason. Only four starters return from last season's defense, although that does include linebacker Ryan Shazier and three critical members of the secondary. The Buckeyes should be solid against the pass this season.

Shazier's linebacking corps is a spot to watch. The junior standout returns as the team's leading tackler, with 115, and sacks man, with five, and he has an NFL pedigree written on the back of his jersey. He'll be stellar again this season, but his leadership may be even more important. 

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Meyer watched future NFLers like Johnathan Hankins and John Simon depart this offseason, leaving a gaping hole on the defensive line. The club will boast a brand new front, along with two new starters next to Shazier. There is plenty of good, young talent here. Linebacker Curtis Grant looked great all spring and could emerge this season.

But there will be an adjustment period here—the only question is how severe.

The severity plays a massive role in this discussion for the same reason it did a year ago: Ohio State's schedule is borderline laughable for a top-tier team.

The Buckeyes start off their season with four nonconference opponents that combined for a 20-28 record last season. That number is only artificially propped up by San Diego State, their Week 2 opponent, which could give some trouble if we want to live off in Bizarro Land. The likes of Buffalo and Florida A&M wouldn't put a scare into the Buckeyes if they were forced to play by Canadian rules. 

And delving deeper into conference play, the only game in which Ohio State stands a chance at being an underdog is at Michigan on Nov. 30. If the Vegas oddsmakers prove right, Meyer should go into Ann Arbor with a 23-game winning streak.

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Of course, these defensive deficiencies leave Ohio State more susceptible than anyone realizes. Yes. I speak of the dreaded "trap games." A horrible Cal team played the Buckeyes within a touchdown last season. The Golden Bears should be better a year later, and Purdue and Wisconsin are both Big Ten thorns that loom. 

The coup de grace could be a trip to Northwestern on Oct. 5. The Wildcats finished last season on one of their highest highs in program history, ranked in the final AP poll for the first time since 1996. They also bring back their own star in Kain Colter, a dynamic two-way threat who will give every defense fits this season.

Could he lead Northwestern to a program-defining victory due to the Buckeyes' inexperience? It's not as crazy as it sounds. 

All that being said, Ohio State is unquestionably the best team in the Big Ten and one of the top contenders in the nation. The Buckeyes coalesced on the defensive side of the ball as 2012 went along, and I assume they will do so a year later.

If they do, there won't be any hypotheticals needed about their national-championship chances.

 

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