The Ohio State Buckeyes were the runaway favorite to win a second consecutive College Football Playoff National Championship last year, but they stumbled down the stretch against the Michigan State Spartans and fell short of repeating.
After losing 16 starters and a handful of superstars, the Buckeyes' road back to the playoff will be much more difficult in 2016.
It won't be an impossible road to navigate. Back in 2014, the Buckeyes entered the season with a significant rebuilding job after losing 2013 mainstays Carlos Hyde, Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby and quarterback Braxton Miller, who was lost for the year after reinjuring his shoulder.
That team built chemistry and momentum—which paved the way for Ohio State's first national title since 2002.
Can head coach Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes re-create that history this fall?
The Case for Ohio State
Ohio State has a few things going for it in 2016 that it didn't have in 2015, and the biggest factor is certainty at the quarterback position.
Last year, the Buckeyes were supposed to be strong at quarterback with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett behind center, but the position battle and constant wavering between the two served as a hindrance to the offense. Ohio State faltered between a pro-style look suited to Jones and a zone-read attack that favored Barrett's ability, and the identity of the unit wasn't shaped until it was too late.
With Barrett as the clear-cut leader of not only the offense, but the team as a whole, Ohio State will have a chance to build its identity from the start of spring practice, through the summer and all the way through fall camp.
Another big factor will be the switch in narrative.
Ohio State entered 2015 with unprecedented expectations, coming into the year as the first-ever unanimous No. 1 in preseason Associated Press poll history. The pressure, similar to the struggles at quarterback, was "a struggle for [the Buckeyes]," in the words of Joey Bosa, via Sam Khan Jr. of ESPN.com.
This year's team won't be burdened by those off-the-charts expectations. In Mark Schlabach's latest rankings on ESPN.com, Ohio State checked in at No. 10, seven spots behind No. 3 Michigan.
Meyer will be able to point to that and get his team hungry and chasing again.
The Case Against Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas, Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple and 12 other starters won't be back in 2016.
That mass exodus of talent, and the challenge in replacing the enormous void, will be the biggest hurdle in Ohio State's road to the playoff. The depth chart is loaded with young guys—Ohio State has signed the Big Ten's best recruiting class in each of Meyer's five years at the helm, per 247Sports.
But even though Ohio State will be able to reload with 4- and 5-star prospects, it'll have lots of inexperience across the board. And that poses a problem, as the Buckeyes have one of the most difficult schedules in the country.
The nonconference slate opens up with reigning MAC champion Bowling Green and a Tulsa team that ranked 13th nationally in total offense last season. Those contests are just a warm-up, however, to one of the biggest nonconference showdowns of the year when Ohio State travels to play what will likely be a Top Five Oklahoma squad.
Following that will be the newly implemented nine-game Big Ten schedule that does no favors for the Buckeyes. Ohio State has back-to-back road games at Wisconsin and Penn State before a brutal November that features bouts against Nebraska, at Michigan State and against Michigan.
The 2015 Ohio State team wouldn't have flinched at a gauntlet like that, but the young 2016 Buckeyes will have a much tougher time navigating it.
David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.