It is "College Football Playoff or Bust" for the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes, who enter their third season under Urban Meyer with a 24-2 record but nothing to show for it tangibly.
After starting 12-0 for the second consecutive season, OSU tapered off at the end of 2014, losing the Big Ten Championship Game to Michigan State, 34-24, and the Orange Bowl to Clemson, 40-35.
Despite the sour end to last season, however, there are just as many reasons for optimism in Columbus as there usually are.
The team's best player is returning for his senior season, and a 2014 recruiting class that ranked No. 3 in the country on the 247Sports team rankings joins a 2013 class that ranked No. 2 and a 2012 class that ranked No. 5 to form a deep, impressive wellspring of talent.
But will it finally amount to a Big Ten Championship in the Meyer era? Will the Buckeyes be able to make the first College Football Playoff?
Here is the case both for and against OSU.
The Case For Ohio State:
Ohio State hasn't lost a regular-season game since Meyer arrived in 2012, going 24-0 during that span. It is one of just eight teams—joined by Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Stanford, Michigan State, South Carolina and Oklahoma State—to finish in the top 15 of Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings in both of those two seasons.
Is it too early to rest my case?
The Buckeyes are led by senior quarterback Braxton Miller, who is the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.
Because of the Big Ten's unfortunate offensive reputation, some might compare that to "being the tallest dwarf," but it is impressive nonetheless. Big Ten teams still know how to play defense, after all. Anyone that can average 7.61 yards per play against conference opponents is a unique offensive threat.
Despite losing star running back Carlos Hyde, leading receiver Corey Brown and four senior starters from a dominant offensive line, Miller should be able to will the offense to a decent mode of efficiency.
It might not be the second-best offense in America—as the F/+ ratings had it ranked in 2013—but with Miller and some high-upside skill players such as Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott in the mix, a top-15 or -20 finish is realistic (and most likely expected).
On defense, the line should be one of the best in America. In actuality, it might be the single best in America. I have already gone into more depth on this here, but just know that the four projected starters up front—Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence—all have a realistic chance of being All-Big Ten performers.
All but Washington could realistically be All-Americans.
What plagued OSU's defense last season was not the front seven but the secondary. According to Football Outsiders' S&P+ ratings, the Buckeyes finished No. 61 in pass defense, worse than teams such as Tulsa, USF and (most painful of all) in-state non-rival Akron.
They do lose three starters from that unit, but considering the way it performed in 2014, an argument could be made in favor of that being "addition by subtraction"—or, at the very least, in favor of some sort of "Ewing Theory" effect after losing up-and-down star Bradley Roby.
New co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash should help, too.
Ash comes over from Arkansas by way of Wisconsin, jumping off the Bret Bielema bandwagon at what appears to be the right time. He is a secondary specialist who molded some great units with the Badgers; during his three seasons as the defensive backs coach, they finished with a top-20 pass defense twice (per the S&P+ ratings).
The emphasis on the back end this spring was aggressiveness, which was evident during an impressive showing in the spring game. "We were talked about so bad in the media, how bad the pass defense was," safety Tyvis Powell said after the game, per Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "So today was just the way to show that we improved that and we were able to be aggressive."
Between the obvious chip on the unit's shoulder, the hope of a fresh new start, the potential of the younger players, the dominance of the defensive line and the switch to a zone-based scheme—which Bleacher Report's Michael Felder broke down in detail here—it does not seem absurd to expect a far better pass defense in 2014.
Here, for example, is the conclusion of Felder's piece:
Meyer's offense is going to go. [Co-defensive coordinator Luke] Fickell's defense is going to stop the run. The missing link for Ohio State in 2013 came in the form of defending the pass. The addition of Ash and a new mentality as a unit are remedies to the heel-sitting approach from a year ago.
The Buckeyes recognized a vulnerable area and seized the opportunity to not only fix the problem, but turn a weakness into a strength. If the defense continues to build on the spring's progress, it should find defending the pass to be a treat, not a nightmare, in 2014.
That is some encouraging stuff to hear.
And lastly, of course, there is the veteran presence of Meyer.
Of the 13 teams Vegas Insider lists with 30-to-1 odds or better to win the national title, only four others—Florida State, Alabama, LSU and Oklahoma—enjoy the benefit of a head coach who has already won one. Only Alabama has another head coach who has won two.
Meyer will provide a steady, been-there-before presence to a roster filled with players who have never "been there before." There are few coaches you would rather have developing your players, designing your offense, tailoring your game plans and shepherding your team through the grueling four months of the season.
In fact, you could argue there are zero.
The Case Against Ohio State
Let's begin with some issues that I addressed but glossed over—or downright embellished—during the "Case For" section.
Miller was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year last season, but Ohio State's offensive line was more important to the team's success than its quarterback. According to Football Study Hall, it finished first in the country (by a wide margin) in adjusted line yards.
The other top-five offensive lines were Auburn, Texas A&M, Oregon and Alabama. That is not a terrible list to be on. Here is a detailed breakdown of how those lines performed in run-blocking last season.
|2013's Top Five Run-Blocking Offensive Lines|
|1. OSU||2. AUB||3. TA&M||4. ORE||5. ALA|
|Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) Rank||1||2||3||4||5|
|Standard-Down LY Rank||1||2||6||5||7|
|Passing-Down LY Rank||10||18||12||32||16|
|Opportunity Rate Rank||1||6||2||4||7|
|Power Success Rate Rank||10||3||45||83||9|
|Stuff Rate Rank||2||3||18||12||9|
|Source: Football Study Hall|
Note: The full breakdown of what each stat category means can be found by following the link to Football Study Hall (reposted here).
The Buckeyes relied on the power running game more than any team in the country last season, gaining big chunks on standard downs by giving the ball to Hyde. This set the rest of the offense up for success with manageable third downs, which it converted at a Big Ten-best 50 percent during conference play.
This year, the line must replace four senior starters, chief among them center Corey Linsley, guard Andrew Norwell and tackle Jack Mewhort—all of whom made the media's All-Big Ten First Team in 2013. Marcus Hall wasn't terrible, either.
Ohio State has the talent—on paper—to replace those players, but it does not have the experience. It cannot rely on four or five yards each time it runs up the middle on 1st-and-10, which could put Miller into positions that he is not overly familiar or comfortable with.
At which point, who knows how he'll react?
There is a similar flaw in the OSU secondary.
In the optimistic portion of this article, we called losing three starters from such a bad unit "addition by subtraction." In reality, there's a chance it's more "the poor getting poorer." Other than Doran Grant—the lone returning starter—every other non-freshman on this roster was unable to get playing time in such a bad secondary last season.
Why should we expect such sudden improvement?
Is it all because of Ash? Because that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a guy who didn't get his first defensive coordinator job until 2013. And it seems like more than a lot of pressure to put on a guy whose one year as a defensive coordinator yielded a 3-9 record.
And yes, it's true that two of Ash's three Wisconsin secondaries finished in the top 20 nationally in pass defense. But the other one—the one from 2011—didn't finish close-but-no-cigar. It finished all the way down at No. 80, well lower than Ohio State's did in 2014.
A lot of young, inexperienced players are being counted on. Most were highly touted high school recruits, but that doesn't always translate to the big stage—especially when forced to play early.
Is Grant really ready to get the most out of these guys?
There also looms the matter of the schedule.
Compared with some of the other CFP favorites—i.e., the ones that play in the SEC—it is not overly competitive, but in a Big Ten-specific vacuum, the Buckeyes' schedule is definitely disadvantageous.
The main reason for that is the road game at Michigan State—the reigning conference and Rose Bowl champion. Sparty beat Ohio State on a neutral field last season and nearly beat them in East Lansing two seasons ago before falling by one point, 17-16.
Now that Connor Cook has emerged as a viable/quality quarterback, this MSU team should be more like the 2013 version than the 2012 one. And even though a potential—if not likely—loss at Oregon looms in Week 2, it would have no bearing on the Big Ten standings.
If Sparty beats Ohio State in November, the Buckeyes would need to run the rest of their Big Ten schedule and pray for two Big Ten losses by MSU in order to make the conference championship game.
Which, I mean…good luck with that.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT