Ohio State Football: 5 Burning Questions for Big Ten Media Days
Big Ten media days in Chicago kick off on Monday, and for the third consecutive year, there will be no shortage of eyeballs watching Urban Meyer and the Ohio State contingent. But as opposed to a year ago, when Meyer spent the annual gathering defending his character, football figures to be the prominent topic of discussion when it comes to the Buckeyes.
Not all of the conversation will be positive, however, as Ohio State enters the 2014 season coming off of a two-game losing streak that included losses in the Big Ten Championship Game and Orange Bowl to cap the 2013 campaign. The Buckeyes have undergone an offseason overhaul on defense and spent spring football without injured star quarterback Braxton Miller, leaving plenty of questions to be answered by Meyer, Miller, tight end Jeff Heuerman and defensive tackle Michael Bennett in the Windy City next week.
But when you're Ohio State, attention—both good and bad—has a funny way of finding you no matter what. With that in mind, here are five burning questions that will be facing the Buckeyes when they take center stage in Chicago on Monday.
Who's the King of the Big Ten?
Unlike other conferences, the Big Ten doesn't poll its media to predict who the league champion will be, but if it did, this year's results would certainly be interesting. Undoubtedly, the preseason favorite would either be Ohio State or Michigan State, with both programs presenting compelling cases.
On the one hand, the Buckeyes return the Big Ten's reigning two-time MVP in Miller, a two-time national champion head coach in Meyer and possess one of the most explosive offenses in the nation. After a 24-2 combined run in 2012 and 2013, Las Vegas has pegged Ohio State as its favorite to be this year's Big Ten champion according to Odds Shark.
But standing in the way of the Buckeyes is a Spartans squad that not only knocked them off in Indianapolis, but went on to defeat 11-2 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Michigan State returns eight starters on offense and five on defense from last year's team, including quarterback Connor Cook and defensive ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush.
If push came to shove and a vote was actually taken, it's hard to imagine that the Spartans wouldn't be crowned the Big Ten's preseason favorite in Chicago. With both teams coming off of successful seasons and retaining key pieces, the tie would have to go to MSU, which unlike Ohio State ended its 2013 season riding a wave of momentum.
Expect who's the hunter and who's the hunted to be a topic of conversation for OSU and MSU players alike during their time in the Windy City. All signs point to their Nov. 8 showdown in East Lansing, Michigan, being this year's premier Big Ten regular-season matchup, and a rematch in the conference championship game isn't out of the question either, as one of the Big Ten's emerging rivalries is only gaining steam.
Is Momentum on Ohio State's Side?
Meyer once said that in college football, momentum is everything. But after the disappointing end to 2013, even the Ohio State head coach is unsure whether or not his program has maintained it.
From a small-picture perspective, the answer appears to be obvious.
Two consecutive losses on the national stage didn't bode well for the Buckeyes, especially after questions already existed about the quality of opponents that OSU faced during its program-record winning streak. Factor in the departures of running back Carlos Hyde, four starting offensive linemen and two first-round picks on an already struggling defense, and it's easy to why some would question Ohio State's status.
But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, there's plenty to like about the Buckeyes as well.
There's no shortage of talent on the OSU roster, as Meyer has landed three consecutive top-five recruiting classes in his short time in Columbus, per 247Sports. Miller, wide receiver Dontre Wilson and running back Ezekiel Elliott all possess the ability the carry the Buckeyes offense, while one of the best defensive lines in the country should anchor a new defensive scheme implemented by defensive coordinator Chris Ash. Even if 2013 ended in a rough patch, Ohio State's abundance of ability is apparent.
But whether or not one offseason is long enough to fix what went wrong at the end of last season remains to be seen. Which is why even Meyer doesn't know where Ohio State stands on just the eve of fall camp.
How Improved Will the Buckeyes Defense Be?
Poor Michael Bennett.
While Miller and Heuerman answer questions about Ohio State's explosive offense, the senior defensive tackle will be left to fend for himself and explain what went wrong on the Buckeyes defense a season ago. And as a member of OSU's talented defensive line, Bennett was hardly to blame, as evidenced by the plethora of award watch lists that he found himself on this preseason.
But fair or not, Bennett—along with Meyer—will answer question after question next week about an OSU defense that was gashed for 2,059 combined yards in the final four games of the 2013 season. More importantly, they'll have to explain why this season will be different, and expect most answers to do with Ash.
Coming from Arkansas and Wisconsin before that, the Buckeyes new co-defensive coordinator will look to implement a quarter coverage scheme that places an emphasis on press coverage from the cornerbacks. Through spring practice, the results appeared promising, but fall camp and the regular season are different animals entirely.
Just how quickly the Buckeyes pick up on their new philosophy will go a long way toward determining how far they'll be able to go in 2014. But until Ohio State can do just that, questions will remain, and Bennett will be there to answer them.
What Will the Ohio State Offense Look Like Without Carlos Hyde?
Although it returns Miller, whose accomplishments speak for themselves, the Ohio State offense will have a different look in 2014 due to the departures of Hyde and four starting offensive linemen.
Miller may be Ohio State's star, but Hyde and the Buckeyes' front five were its bread and butter in 2013. A season ago, Ohio State ranked fifth in the nation in rushing with 308.6 yards per game, and Hyde's 1,408 yards went a long way toward accomplishing that.
With a stable of talented but unproven backs looking to replace the now-San Francisco 49ers running back, Meyer's spread offense could revert back to its 2012 form, when it largely relied on Miller's legs—especially in crunch time. Look for the Buckeyes to also find ways to better use Wilson, who as a running back/wide receiver hybrid is capable of playing the same role that made Percy Harvin a star during Meyer's time at Florida.
We'll hear all the right things at media day about how Miller has improved as a passer, the wide receivers have been impressive and the young, hungry talent is eager to prove itself. But none of that will matter until Ohio State takes the field and shows a run-pass balance that has yet to be achieved in Meyer's time in Columbus.
Can Braxton Miller Win the Heisman Trophy?
A year ago, Miller arrived in Chicago as a preseason Heisman favorite and perhaps the top challenger for what was then Johnny Manziel's trophy. But an early-season injury cost the Huber Heights, Ohio, native the better part of three nonconference games and took him out of the race before Big Ten play even started.
Despite his injury, Miller still managed to account for 2,893 yards of total offense and 32 total touchdowns in his junior season. The Ohio State signal-caller won the Big Ten's Offensive Player and Quarterback of the Year awards and walked away with the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football for the second consecutive season.
If you add in the stats that he missed while watching backup Kenny Guiton shred the defenses of San Diego State, California and Florida A&M, it's fair to conclude that Miller would have been in New York City challenging Florida State's Jameis Winston for college football's most prestigious trophy. This season will provide Miller with a redo in that regard, as he again finds himself in the midst of preseason Heisman Trophy chatter.
Of course, much of Miller making his way to the Big Apple in December will hinge on his ability to stay healthy. As he's proven throughout his college career, he's plenty capable of putting up big numbers both through the air and on the ground, but staying healthy enough to do so for a full season has been a different story.
In Chicago, Miller will be front and center for the college football media, one of the most recognizable faces in a sport where stars don't often stick around for a full four years. Last year, he didn't hide the fact that a Heisman Trophy is on his college career's wish list, and with 2014 being his senior season, expect for Miller to speak with an increased emphasis placed on that desire.