Last season saw the Ohio State Buckeyes’ 24-game winning streak snapped in the Big 10 Championship game. Then they were upset by the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl, and suddenly people wondered where Urban Meyer’s magic had gone. But of course, there was no magic — the winning streak was due to a combination of great talent and maybe even better coaching.
The Buckeyes certainly have the coaching part under control heading into 2014, but they may find themselves a bit more lacking in the talent department. They will still have more than most, mind you, but Ohio State has to replace a number of key players. For a program with Ohio State’s expectations, another step back after last season’s disappointing finish will not go over well.
The casual observer probably expects the Ohio State offense to pick up right where it left off last season, thanks to the return of QB Braxton Miller. After all, Miller led the Buckeyes to two straight undefeated regular seasons and the third-best scoring offense in the country last year. Miller is also considered to be a potential Heisman contender.
However, the truth is it may take a superhuman effort from Miller to duplicate the numbers the offense put up last year because the Buckeyes have to replace four starting linemen, as well as their leading rusher, Carlos Hyde, and leading receiver, Philly Brown.
The Buckeyes may simply reload, but that remains to be seen. Wide receiver Devin Smith and TE Jeff Heuerman should do a lot to prevent a major drop-off in the passing game, and the bulk of Hyde’s carries will likely fall to sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, who averaged 8.7 YPC for 262 yards on the ground as a freshman last year.
As good as the Buckeyes’ offense was on the ground last year (No. 5 in the nation), their defense was almost as good at stopping it. They were one of only two teams to not give up a 100-yard rusher during the regular season (the other was the Syracuse Orange), and after the dust settled on the season, the Buckeyes ranked No. 13 nationally in rushing defense.
It could be more of the same for Ohio State in 2014 as they return the vast majority of their front seven from a year ago, but there is some concern at linebacker. They return four of their top five tacklers there, but they lose Ryan Shazier, who accounted for more tackles (123) than the rest of the linebackers combined last year.
The secondary, however, is much more depleted going into this season. The Buckeyes were not great at stopping the pass last year though, so rebuilding to the same level of last year may not be difficult. In any case, they are down SS C.J.Barnett, FS Corey Brown and CB Bradley Roby, who were three of Ohio State’s four leading tacklers in the secondary and combined for eight interceptions.
They do return Doran Grant, who should fill the role of shutdown corner for the Buckeyes defense this season, but they will need to find a pair of safeties to help Grant out.
One thing working in Ohio State’s favor is a relatively friendly schedule. Thanks in part to Big 10′s realigned divisions, the Buckeyes will avoid some of the conference’s toughest teams, like the Wisconsin Badgers and the Iowa Hawkeyes. Meanwhile, OSU’s division has been watered down significantly with the addition of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and, to a lesser degree, the Maryland Terrapins.
Consequently, the Buckeyes shouldn’t have much trouble in their first eight games, although the Virginia Tech Hokies do visit Columbus in the first week of September. But if OSU sends the Hokies home with a loss, the Buckeyes will likely coast until they head to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans.
The Spartans look to be the main force that could keep the Buckeyes from an appearance in the college football playoff this season, just as they kept them from the BCS Championship Game last year. But after that, the only major threat might be the Michigan Wolverines, and that may only be the case because of the unpredictable nature of rivalry games.
Ohio State may very well take a step back in 2014, but if they can find a way to topple the Spartans, Meyer may once again lead the Buckeyes to an undefeated season.
Dan Kelley covers Big 12 football for RantSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter @DKelley_CFB.