COLUMBUS, Ohio — Having just wrapped up his 14th season as a head coach, Urban Meyer knows better than to compare.
After all, what's the upside to setting unfair expectations on one of his players to be the next Tim Tebow, or on one of his teams to be the next 2008 Florida Gators? Meyer's seen those unrealistic standards devour "the next Percy Harvin," and even his own expectations for seasons before.
So when the fourth-year Ohio State head coach broke his own rule and compared his outlook of the 2016 season to that of a recent Buckeyes team, it should have raised some eyebrows. Especially considering that Meyer said his program's current situation reminds him of where Ohio State found itself two years ago, before going on to win the first-ever College Football Playoff.
"Very similar to the 2014 team," Meyer said of his 2016 squad. "That was a team of development. That was a team where Eli Apple and Vonn Bell, Darron Lee and guys who either redshirted or didn’t have a big input in 2013...you saw a steady improvement. And obviously it culminated in a pretty good finish."
So much so that Apple, Bell and Lee—as well as six other underclassmen and a senior class responsible for a 50-4 record over the course of the past four seasons—now find themselves headed to the NFL as a part of an expected mass exodus of talent in Columbus.
The cupboards aren't bare—they never are when Meyer's in charge of your recruiting—but even the three-time national champion head coach would admit that his team faces no shortage of uncertainty heading into 2016. The same could have been said two years ago as well, although there was no accounting for Braxton Miller suffering a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the season.
This year, however, so long as quarterback J.T. Barrett remains healthy, Meyer knows what he'll be replacing, and he has a plan. In fact, it's already started by naming the Buckeyes' 2016 captains—Barrett, center Pat Elflein and linebacker Raekwon McMillan—something he hasn't done since arriving at Ohio State four years ago.
"I’m jumping the gun a little bit," Meyer said of announcing his three captains in January. "We’re not waiting. You won’t hear that in August like we normally do. It’s done."
The designations certainly make sense. Barrett will be in charge of an offense replacing eight starters, including star running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller. Elflein will be the undisputed leader of an offensive line breaking in three new starters, including both tackle positions, and McMillan will have his hands full with a defensive unit that will return just three starters.
Offensively, the Buckeyes will be replacing 83.1 percent of their receiving yards and 73.1 percent of their rushing yards in 2016. On defense, Ohio State loses seven of its top 10 tacklers, but will return its top tackler in McMillan and its top two sack leaders in defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard.
With Barrett, Elflein and McMillan each playing key positions and having seen extensive playing time over the course of the past three seasons, the Buckeyes' development could be accelerated as soon as this offseason.
But it will take more than just having its captains set—Ohio State is going to need new contributors to emerge, much like they did two years ago.
Starting at running back, the hole left by Elliott is going to be especially difficult to fill. A part of that transition will be eased by Meyer's desire to run a more balanced offense than he did in 2015, when Elliott accounted for 35.9 percent of the Buckeyes offense, but a running back will still need to step up in the absence of Ohio State's all-time leading rusher.
As it currently stands, a running back by committee seems likely, with Meyer mentioning fifth-year senior Bri'onte Dunn, sophomore-to-be Michael Weber and former H-back Dontre Wilson as potential replacements in the Buckeyes lineup. The wild card of the bunch is Curtis Samuel, who began his career as a running back but transitioned to H-back in 2015 and could see an increased role in the OSU offense in 2016.
"Instead of being a guy second to someone," Meyer said of Samuel, "him and Dontre have got to take charge."
At wide receiver, Meyer mentioned Noah Brown, who enjoyed a breakout preseason before suffering a season-ending broken leg last summer, as a player to watch, as well as freshman K.J. Hill and tight end Marcus Baugh. On the offensive line, the Buckeyes will be counting on junior Jamarco Jones and sophomore Isaiah Prince at their two tackle positions, with Elflein, guard Billy Price and a right guard to be named later solidifying the interior offensive line.
Defensively, it's no secret what Ohio State is losing, with defensive end Joey Bosa possessing the potential to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. Lee, Bell and Apple could all go in the first round as well, leaving defensive coordinators Greg Schiano and Luke Fickell with their work cut out for themselves heading into the offseason.
"It is a different mentality to climb the mountain than stay on top of the mountain and hold the mountain," Fickell said. "I don’t think it will be real difficult. It could be more exciting."
A part of that excitement will be Ohio State seeing what it has in inexperienced but highly touted players such as defensive linemen Jason Cornell and Dre'Mont Jones, linebackers Dante Booker, Chris Worley, Jerome Baker and Justin Hilliard, safeties Malik Hooker and Erick Smith and cornerbacks Damon Webb, Denzel Ward and Eric Glover-Williams.
They may not be household names just yet, but neither were Apple, Lee and Bell at this point in 2014.
"You have a lot of guys who are hungry and have a chip on their shoulder like these guys did two years ago," Fickell said.
Perhaps more than that, what will be most important will be for the Buckeyes to draw on lessons from not just 2014, but last season as well. After suffering a devastating defeat to Michigan State that ended Ohio State's playoff hopes, the Buckeyes finished 2015 strong with convincing wins over Michigan and Notre Dame.
With an early-season date with playoff participant Oklahoma looming, the Buckeyes may once again need to bounce back from a disappointing loss. They would follow a path similar to that of the 2014 squad, which fell to Virginia Tech in its second week of the season.
"I’m going to ask this team coming back, 'Why did he do that?'" Meyer said, pointing to Elliott's play in the final game of his college career as an example. "He did it for love of teammates, for love of unit and for the culture that’s here at Ohio State."
It's that culture Meyer is going to need to rely on as he faces a dramatic overhaul of his roster.
It's one that served him well two years ago and resulted in, in his words, a "pretty good finish" to the season.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
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