Ohio State's Road Back to College Football Playoff

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Ohio State's Road Back to College Football Playoff
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the confetti fell from University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night celebrating Alabama's win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game, Ohio State's reign atop the college football world came to an official end.

It's been one year since the Buckeyes beat Oregon in Arlington's AT&T Stadium, capturing the inaugural College Football Playoff championship in the process. Ohio State was a heavy preseason favorite to defend its crown, but as what Urban Meyer deemed "The Year of Stuff" followed their defeat of the Ducks, the Buckeyes found themselves on the outside looking in of this year's playoff.

"I think we won it last year on January 12," the Ohio State head coach said. "This started on January 13. 'The Year of Stuff.'"

That "stuff" Meyer is referring to includes the realities of having a roster full of 18- to 22-year-olds fresh off a national championship season in a rabid football town. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott filed for trademarks. Cardale Jones became college football's biggest offseason celebrity. Maybe even Meyer's midseason bye week book tour belongs in that category.

It included the in-season arrest of quarterback J.T. Barrett for operating a vehicle while impaired, a particularly ugly loss to Michigan State in a de facto Big Ten East Championship Game and culminated in the days following Ohio State's season-ending Fiesta Bowl victory, when nine underclassmen declared to enter the NFL draft.

But with the Crimson Tide's victory on Monday night, the Buckeyes' "Year of Stuff" was brought to a much-needed end.

Welcome to "The Year of Development."

It may not sound as sexy or exciting, but it's exactly what Ohio State will need to once again topple Alabama and reclaim college football's throne.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

"I compare it, as I've discussed with our staff, very similar to the 2014 team," Meyer said of his 2016 outlook. "That was a team of development." 

Replacing 16 starters—eight on each side of the ball—the Buckeyes will need to follow a similar track in 2016 that they did two years ago, which led to not only a national title for Ohio State, but the mass exodus of NFL talent that it currently finds itself replacing. The potential is there; Meyer has recruited four top-seven classes since arriving in Columbus in late 2011 and will add another in three weeks.

But the Buckeyes will once again need current unknowns to become household names over the course of the next year, much like Darron Lee, Jalin Marshall, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple did two years ago.

It's too early to tell who those players will be—that's why those players are currently considered "unknowns"—but Meyer has already singled out junior H-back Curtis Samuel, redshirt freshman running back Michael Weber, senior H-back Dontre Wilson and redshirt freshman wideout K.J. Hill as players he has his eye on for breakout seasons in 2016. Sophomore wideout Noah Brown belongs on that list as well after the 6'2", 222-pounder enjoyed an impressive fall camp last August before a broken leg brought his 2015 season to an end before it began.

"You guys never got to see him in that camp," Meyer told reporters. "He was one of our one, two, three best receivers on our team before he got hurt."

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On the offensive line, where Ohio State will be replacing three of its five starters, Meyer has already penciled in sophomore Isaiah Prince and junior Jamarco Jones as his starting tackles. "Isaiah Prince has gotta make a huge jump," Meyer said. "Jamarco Jones is a key cog to the wheel."

On the defensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes will be replacing the potential No. 1 overall pick of the upcoming NFL draft in Joey Bosa, as well as potential first-round picks in Adolphus Washington, Lee, Bell and Apple.

But Meyer has already named middle linebacker and Ohio State's leading tackler from 2015, Raekwon McMillan, a captain and will return defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard, who finished first and second, respectively, in sacks for the Buckeyes this past season.

In the back seven, Meyer named linebackers Jerome Baker and Chris Worley and safeties Erick Smith, Cam Burrows and Malik Hooker as players who will need to step up in the coming year.

The Buckeyes roster will also receive a boost on national signing day in three weeks, with Meyer currently slated to land the nation's third-ranked recruiting class. Seven of the Buckeyes' 18 commits are already on campus as early enrollees, including 5-star defensive end Jonathon Cooper and 4-star wideout Austin Mack.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

From a scheduling standpoint, Ohio State will face 2015 playoff participant Oklahoma in the third week of the season, providing the Buckeyes with an early opportunity to either make a statement or put their season on thin ice. But as OSU proved two years ago, you can suffer an early-season loss and still bounce back to not only make the playoff, but win the whole thing.

After the pressure of defending their title in 2015, perhaps a year of being the hunters and not the hunted is just what the Buckeyes need.

Asked by a reporter if this will be "fun," Meyer let out a laugh. As the names of the players leaving and the opponents on the 2016 schedule ran through his mind, "fun" may not have been his word of choice, but much like he did two years ago, the Ohio State head coach found a way to make it work.

"'Fun.' You use that word sometimes—'fun,'" Meyer said. "It'll be a challenge and challenges are fun."

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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