Ohio State Football: What to Watch For in Buckeyes' Season Opener vs. Buffalo
Installed as 34.5-point favorites by the folks at Vegas Insider, there isn't much intrigue to be had heading into the Ohio State Buckeyes' season-opening clash against Buffalo.
For both sides, the contest should amount to little else than your average early-season romp. The second-ranked Buckeyes are the only team in the nation other than top-ranked Alabama to receive multiple first-place votes from the Associated Press and USA Today coaches poll.
They currently hold the longest win streak in the nation at 12 games and were the only undefeated team in college football in 2012. With Heisman candidate Braxton Miller under center and a bevy of returning starters on offense, Ohio State is an overwhelming favorite to win the Big Ten championship.
The Bulls? Well, they get a $1 million check for their troubles. Buffalo is making its death march following a 4-8 campaign, its fourth straight losing campaign. After reaching pseudo-surprise status during the Turner Gill era, the Bulls have taken a steep nosedive out of the national consciousness since Gill left for Kansas. Head coach Jeff Quinn is just 9-27 in three years at the helm.
To put it another way: This is going to be a bloodbath. Sure, there will be the usual pageantry of a Week 1 contest at Ohio Stadium. The crowd will tailgate the entire morning, and the bright red will be out in full force by the noon kickoff.
But don't be surprised if that crowd gets awfully sparse before the clock strikes zero. This is a warm-up game for the Buckeyes, one that they'll need to use before hosting an upset-minded San Diego State squad on Sept. 7.
With that in mind, here are a few things to keep an eye on for the Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon.
Is Dontre Wilson as Good as Advertised?
If you've been following the buildup to the Buckeyes' 2013 campaign, Dontre Wilson is a name you already know and know it damn well. Among potential impact players, perhaps only Braxton Miller has gotten more recognition than Wilson—astounding considering he won't even start at his natural position.
A 4-star prospect from DeSoto, Texas, no one was quite sure what to make of Wilson when he committed. His versatility and explosiveness made him an attractive prospect, but he seemed tailor-made for Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon, which was where he initially committed. No one would have been shocked if he redshirted as a freshman after arriving at Ohio State, slowly morphing his way into an impact player with age.
Wilson had other ideas.
From the moment he arrived in Columbus, he's been hellbent on carving out a niche this season. He's impressed everyone in fall camp, with Miller comparing his quickness to a bolt of lightning. He'll line up all over the field for head coach Urban Meyer this season, the Buckeyes using his skill set both in an H-back role and at his natural running back spot.
The Buckeyes coach also confirmed that Wilson had won top billing as a kick returner, according to Fox Sports Ohio's Zac Jackson. While disguising his thoughts, it was quite clear Meyer was excited to see what his true freshman speedster could do:
I'm anxious. The thing I like about Dontre is he doesn't seem fazed, but he has not (run out of the tunnel) in front of 106,000 people yet. If you see me jog someone else out there (for the first kickoff return), you know we are having a little hyperventilating issue, which I've seen before. Isn't that beautiful about young players?
Remember, Meyer has had a ton of success using versatile, speedy players in Wilson's mold before. Percy Harvin and Jeff Demps both played major roles in the Florida Gators' offense with Meyer at the helm, and Wilson could join that lineage beginning this season.
What will be interesting is whether he can live up to the hype. A team like Buffalo—overmatched and less talented than Ohio State—should provide ample opportunities. The Bulls won't have many players who can move with the shifty freshman, which means we may get to see one or two of those big plays the staff has raved about since Wilson's arrival.
How Will the Brand New Defensive Line Fare?
For all of the bluster surrounding Ohio State's prodigious offense, the team's defense arguably holds the majority of the weight. With Miller emerging as a Heisman candidate and a stable of skill-position talent that rivals any team in the nation, the Buckeyes offense should be a top-five unit barring a major injury.
The talent at the skilled positions coupled with the still yet-to-be-stopped Meyer offense pretty much guarantees contention for a Big Ten title. But without a massive improvement from the defense fans saw a year ago, consecutive undefeated seasons are likely out of the question.
The Buckeyes were inconsistent throughout the 2012 campaign, finishing 30th in the nation in play efficiency and struggling mightily against big plays. They ranked 68th in the nation in Football Outsiders' Explosive Drives metric, which measures drives where opposing teams average 10 yards per play or greater.
If you think that's concerning for a national title contender, consider this: Ohio State returns just four starters from that unit. One of those is possible Butkus Award winner Ryan Shazier, along with three secondary members, but the Buckeyes defensive line is perhaps their biggest concern heading into the season.
Each of last year's starters exhausted their eligibility or decided to take their talents to Sundays. That leaves defensive coordinator Luke Fickell with the task of replacing players like Johnathan Hankins and John Simon, the leaders of what was already a shaky unit.
The team was also dealt a critical blow in practice this week when backup lineman Tommy Schutt suffered a broken foot, per Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch. Schutt was listed as the second-string backup behind Joel Hale and was third behind Michael Bennett's spot. The Buckeyes' lack of secondary options has forced them into re-converting offensive lineman Chase Farris back over to the defense.
These issues aren't likely to create too much havoc Saturday. Buffalo is a balanced team coming off a 4-8 season—not exactly an Oregonian powerhouse. But games like this are where cohesion is built on fledgling units, so it'll be interesting to how this situation plays out.
How Stat-Paddy Will Braxton Miller's Stats Get?
Urban Meyer is no stranger to running up the score. He's taken criticism about his penchant for allowing starters to stay in a bit longer than usual against rivals. His Buckeyes even took some strangely unfair heat from Nebraska fans after Carlos Hyde scored a touchdown after a series of successive runs toward the end of a 63-38 blowout.
I'm of the mind that a coach should play his starters until he dang well pleases. If you want to risk player health to touch 70 points or to cover the spread—not that coaches would know anything about that—well, that's on you if things go awry.
For a Heisman candidate like Miller, however, the implications of staying in a series or two longer than necessary have far more reaching consequences. As the season progresses and Ohio State's schedule ratchets up its difficulty—where "ratchets up" is very relative with this Buckeyes slate—Miller's counting stats will take a natural regression to the mean.
Teams like Indiana have an igloo's chance in hell of defeating Ohio State. Yet they're far more talented than the Buffalos and Florida A&Ms on the Buckeyes schedule, making life more difficult on the dual-threat quarterback. And we're not even going into their three matchups against preseason top-25 teams or clash against longtime rival Penn State.
That means Miller has to take advantage of these early-season snoozefests and send a message to his bronze-statue competition.
I speak, of course, of the oldest trick in the book—Heisman stat-padding. In a practice as old as the trophy itself, there have been countless instances of teams using matchups against "cupcake" teams to artificially enhance a player's stats.
Miller is the singular focal point of the Ohio State offense regardless of opponent, but don't be shocked if you see Meyer continually put him in advantageous positions. Designed runs, screen passes that can break free and well-drawn deep bombs could all be a part of the game plan early.
Miller should have success regardless of the opponent, but Saturday will be his first opportunity to lay a mark on the Heisman race. We'll just have to see how deep of one Meyer is willing to let him make.
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