Including the defending SEC champs, here’s a look at three top 15 teams that I found to be overvalued in Steele’s ranks, and three that were undervalued.
Auburn Tigers (No. 4)
I do not wholly disagree that Auburn will begin the year as a top-five team, in the AP or any other poll; I’m just not sure that they should. Should they be in the top 10? Absolutely. But not No. 4.
The 2013 Tigers followed the same formula as the 2010 BCS title-winning team: an absurdly productive offense, led by an unparalleled run game and a defense with its share of liabilities. The Tigers’ D ranked 95th in yards per play (5.96).
Even defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson admitted to me last fall that it was a limited group, one susceptible to big plays. Auburn overcame that in the SEC title game against Missouri -- just keep scoring! -- but ultimately couldn’t in the BCS championship game against FSU.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.
The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.
But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.
“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”
Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.
Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.
Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.
And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.
Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.
So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.
The trick was knowing where to look.
“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”
The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller took to Twitter to insult the Wolverines' turnout for their spring game after Saturday's OSU game drew more than 61,000 fans. Michigan, who held their spring game April 5, drew about 15,000 fans on April 15.
- BRAXTON MILLER (@BraxtonMiller5) April 13, 2014
Miller did not get to participate in the game, as Ohio State's All-Big Ten quarterback sat out spring workouts after surgery on his throwing shoulder. Also sitting out were wide receiver Evan Spencer (ankle), safety Vonn Bell (knee), tight end Jeff Heuerman, wideout Jalin Marshall, H-back Dontre Wilson and starting offensive tackle Taylor Decker.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The entire roster wasn't on display, leaving some uncertainty about what Ohio State will look like at full strength. But heading into the offseason, there were still some lessons to be learned by the Gray's 17-7 victory over the Scarlet on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
The secondary has improved
- The offense was short-handed, starting with the absence of a certain two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year at quarterback and including short or nonexistent workloads for key receivers. But the defensive backs showed the kind of improvement Urban Meyer demanded since last season's unit finished No. 110 in the country against the pass. In holding Cardale Jones to a 14-for-31 performance through the air without a touchdown, even with top returning cornerback Doran Grant on the sideline, the Buckeyes' defensive backs will head into the summer feeling good about their progress. Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley are both solid options at cornerback, with the former making a statement early in the game with a nice breakup on a deep ball down the sideline. And once Grant and injured safety Vonn Bell are back in the mix to play Ohio State's more aggressive man coverage this fall, the statistics should look drastically better.
- Jones made progress in several areas throughout the spring, and he's earned the right to head into training camp as the second-string quarterback. But Miller remains the most critical component in Ohio State's spread attack, and his absence was a major factor in what was largely a disappointing afternoon for the offense. Miller will be back from his shoulder surgery shortly and is cleared to resume throwing and working out in time for the offseason conditioning program. It is still obvious that the Buckeyes need him on the field if they're going to make a run at a championship this fall. He'll also need some better work from the offensive line than what the Buckeyes put on display in the exhibition, though not having guard Pat Elflein in pads and limiting tackle Taylor Decker's role didn't do the unit any favors Saturday.
- By now it should come as no surprise, but redshirt sophomore Michael Thomas again led the Buckeyes in receptions in the spring game, turned heads with some eye-popping grabs and looked like a future star on the perimeter. That's a familiar story with Thomas, who has dominated the spotlight during spring camp three years running and capped off the latest one with six catches for 64 yards, including a diving reception for a first down and a one-handed snag along the sideline that highlighted his athleticism and ability to haul in even balls thrown off target. The Buckeyes haven't settled on a true pecking order at receiver yet, though Dontre Wilson and Devin Smith are sure bets to take two top spots. One more time, it appears Ohio State should make room for Thomas in the rotation leaving spring, but obviously he'll need to follow it up with more standout work when practice begins again this summer.
- The redshirt sophomore has strengthened his case to fill the backup role at quarterback behind Braxton Miller with strong practice performances throughout camp, but he's shown some signs of nerves at times during scrimmages and could benefit from a productive outing in a live setting in front of a big crowd. Urban Meyer typically focuses his attention and play-calling on the passing attack during spring games, and with the Gray having what appears to be the full starting secondary with Tyvis Powell and Cam Burrows at safety and Doran Grant, Armani Reeves and Gareon Conley at cornerback, Jones will be tested.
- The hype is only building for the touted early enrollee on defense, and McMillan might be the most closely watched player in the Horseshoe as he's thrown into a lineup that includes two projected starters next to him at the outside linebacker spots. The true freshman has impressed the coaching staff during the 14 workouts so far, looking the part physically and embracing the culture Meyer is working so hard to reestablish. Even if finishing camp with some solid work against Ohio State's front-runner at tailback and three first-team offensive linemen doesn't help McMillan reel in senior Curtis Grant on the depth chart, it could still bode well for his chances to help provide depth in the fall -- and start building even more buzz for next season.
- Tougher spring game assignments than what Baldwin will face on Saturday are hard to come by, and really, the redshirt senior isn't likely to take on many pass rushers better than Spence when the real season arrives. So if Baldwin can hold his own against one of the fastest, most tenacious players off the edge in the Big Ten this weekend, that would go a long way toward solidifying a starting job and easing some of the uncertainty still swirling around an offensive line that must replace four starters. The Scarlet line as a whole caught a bit of a break with the first-team defensive line being split up, but Spence still has Adolphus Washington alongside him and ready to wreak the kind of havoc that stole the show in last year's edition of the spring showcase.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- With several of his best players either injured or held out of Ohio State's spring game, coach Urban Meyer had to look at the progress of individuals instead of the big picture.
"I'm not trying to evaluate an offense. Who cares?" Meyer said after the Gray squad slipped by the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday before a crowd of 61,058 at sunny Ohio Stadium. "There's guys out there who will never play or are not ready to play now. I wanted to see who's going to compete, who's going to make plays, not who's going to fit into the team concept. Because we all know what we saw out there. And that's not the Ohio State Buckeyes. That's a bunch of people all over the place."
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel has applied to become president at Youngstown State less than a month after he applied for the same position at Akron.
The Youngstown Vindicator reports that the head of a firm leading Youngstown State's search said Tressel applied for the post Friday.
A message seeking comment with AGB Search's president was not immediately returned.
Tressel coached at Youngstown State before leaving for Ohio State, where he was forced out following a scandal that led to NCAA sanctions.
He has worked as an administrator at Akron for two years. He applied in mid-March for the president's job there, saying he had 35 years of experience in higher education.
- Joel Stave jumped into rehab on his injured throwing shoulder.
- Players to watch in Penn State's spring game. The Nittany Lions' battered offensive line is chugging along.
- Ohio State's offensive line is still a question mark. The Scarlet team appears to have the edge in the Buckeyes' spring game.
- Pat Fitzgerald is not the problem in the Northwestern union issue, Seth Gruen writes.
- Patience and hard work appear to have paid off for Zach Sterup, who's in line to start at right tackle for Nebraska.
- Minnesota's Peter Mortell is a seriously good punter with a great sense of humor.
- Michigan State receivers coach Terrence Samuel is making Aaron Burbridge's improvement a priority.
- Brady Hoke says the competition at quarterback isn't over for Michigan because Devin Gardner needs to be more consistent.
- An Iowa administrative assistant is helping the Hawkeyes get creative in recruiting.
- There's no rush to name Wes Lunt the starting quarterback for Illinois, Loren Tate says.
- Some time away helped Maryland receiver Marcus Leak mature.
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
TV: Big Ten Network (live coverage)
Weather forecast: Conditions should be just about perfect after a spring spent largely indoors for the Buckeyes. The high temperature is projected to be 72 degrees and the forecast calls for a zero percent chance of rain, setting the table for what should be a gorgeous afternoon at the Shoe.
What to watch for: The Buckeyes try to balance the teams as much as possible to present a competitive game for fans and a chance to evaluate the roster for coaches, and that should provide a few notable measuring sticks at critical positions heading into the offseason.
It’s no secret that pass defense was awful for Ohio State down the stretch as it dropped its final two games last season, and while Chris Ash has only had 14 practices as the new co-defensive coordinator in charge of the secondary, early reviews have been positive. But how will the defensive backs match up against a proven deep threat such as Devin Smith or a speed-burner such as Dontre Wilson on the perimeter?
For that matter, how will the passing attack look without Braxton Miller at the helm for the Buckeyes as he continues to recuperate from offseason shoulder surgery? The importance of replacing backup quarterback Kenny Guiton shouldn’t be overlooked for Ohio State, considering the number of times he was needed off the bench during his career, and Cardale Jones will be under the microscope in the spring showcase to see how far he’s come with his accuracy and as a decision-maker.
There is some uncertainty about the starting offensive line as the Buckeyes try to replace four starters up front, and there’s a heated battle going on between a handful of candidates trying to fill the void at running back left by Carlos Hyde. But the main focus for the Buckeyes will be on the skill players on the perimeter -- on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Meyer, no doubt, will be paying close attention to whatever happens when the ball is in the air.
Here's a closer look at the East:
- Defense has been a lingering Indiana concern for years, but coach Kevin Wilson believes he's starting to see a change, thanks to new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr. The scheme hasn't changed radically, but the Hoosiers return 10 starters there -- and Wilson's seen a promising spring so far with an added focus on competition and communication: "They've for sure held their own on a daily basis -- and, in some ways, probably even better -- against the offense."
- Wilson believes teams need to invest scholarships into the kicking game, but he thinks it's also too risky to offer recruits straight out of high school. If you look at the NCAA's top 25 kickers, Wilson estimated at least 15 started out as walk-ons. So he's hoping to find some walk-ons who are willing to work for a scholarship, rather than be granted one right away.
- At 5-foot-7, Shane Wynn is the Hoosiers' leading returning receiver, and he's transitioning to playing the outside. It's been a little different for Wynn, who said he's had to watch more film as a result. He's reading the corners now, instead of the safeties, as just one example.
- Maryland coach Randy Edsall is confident in his offense and believes the Terrapins have enough options so that opponents can't focus on just one person. If defenses lock on to wideout Stefon Diggs, then quarterback C.J. Brown can take off running or receiver Deon Long can pick up some slack. "The No. 1 thing I do like," Edsall said, "is we can spread the field."
- Maryland's staff has already started looking at film of Big Ten teams, so they know what to expect when the conference season begins. Edsall said he wants to at least get a feel for their personnel and what kind of schemes he'll face. He's also confident the Terps will be ready: "We fully expect to be able to compete when we get into the Big Ten this year."
- Brown said one of the main reasons he committed to Maryland was the coach who recruited him at the time, former Terps assistant and current Penn State coach James Franklin. He's looking forward to squaring off against Franklin this season, and Edsall said there's no question he would like to develop a rivalry with the Nittany Lions.
- The quarterback derby will continue, and Brady Hoke included all three of his options in the discussion heading into the offseason. The Wolverines coach did acknowledge, though, that Devin Gardner “probably would be” the starter if there was a game on the schedule this weekend. There isn’t, so Shane Morris and Wilton Speight will continue to be in the conversation.
- The first opponent on the schedule will always stir emotions for Michigan fans, but Hoke didn’t attach any revenge or sentimentality to his reasons for wanting to take on Appalachian State in the opener this fall. “We needed a game,” Hoke said. “I thought it would be a good game.” Defensive end Frank Clark was certainly aware of the history between the programs, even though he was still years away from joining Michigan and getting a shot at making up for the upset loss in 2007 -- which he called “shocking” and “shows how hard those guys play.”
- Michigan State is coming off a Rose Bowl victory, but coach Mark Dantonio and quarterback Connor Cook would prefer not to think about that any longer. Dantonio said they've talked a lot these last four months about not growing complacent, and Cook only echoed his coach. "A lot of people keep bringing up the Rose Bowl," Cook said. "But we're past that. We're focusing on the now."
- The offensive line has made some big strides since January, at least according to Cook. He felt like he had no time in the pocket last spring and said the pass rush was getting to him every time. This spring? He doesn't feel rushed in the pocket, and he thinks that's pretty indicative of how far this line has come.
- Jeremy Langford earned a lot of praise from Cook, who said the running back has become a much bigger part of the passing attack. "He's improved a lot with catching the ball," Cook said, complimenting Langford's versatility. "He's done so many different things for us."
- There is still work to be done in addressing the most glaring weakness on the team last season, but Urban Meyer called Ohio State’s pass defense “drastically improved” and will be watching closely for more signs of progress in Saturday’s spring game. The Buckeyes will play a traditional game, but the emphasis will be on throwing the football and assessing the skill players on both offense and defense -- giving Meyer a chance to evaluate backup quarterback Cardale Jones in a live setting in addition to checking out the secondary.
- Arguably the strongest part of last season's team is undergoing a transition without four senior starters, and the offensive line is somewhat of a concern for Meyer heading into the offseason. With guard Pat Elflein the only other player to have earned a first-team slot to play alongside junior Taylor Decker at this point, that competition is likely to spill over into preseason camp in August. Both tackle Darryl Baldwin and guard Antonio Underwood were praised for their work by defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and Billy Price and Jacoby Boren are dueling at center.
- Franklin said he knew exactly what he was getting into at Penn State, in terms of the current depth and sanctions. He and former coach Bill O'Brien worked together at Maryland, and he said the two had a lot of honest conversations about the current state of the Nittany Lions. The two have continued to talk since.
- Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia are both making transitions from defensive tackle to offensive guard, and Franklin said he has been pleased with their performances so far: "They're doing a good job for us -- and they have to. We're thin at that position."
- Franklin said he feels especially comfortable with the talent at running back and defensive line. Middle linebacker Mike Hull was more specific about naming the players who impressed him, pointing to backup linebacker Gary Wooten and cornerback Da'Quan Davis. Hull said Wooten is always around the football and that Davis, who missed part of the spring with a hamstring injury, has come up with several interceptions.
- Another open competition at the most critical position on the field -- quarterback -- is still playing out at Rutgers, and coach Kyle Flood isn’t ready to declare a winner in what would seem to be a wide-open battle. Flood indicated that Gary Nova, Mike Bimonte and Chris Laviano are all “really vying for that first-team job.”
- The change in conference affiliation has been welcomed with open arms by the Scarlet Knights, who can “feel the energy” as theypractice for their first season in the Big Ten. Defensive tackle Darius Hamilton said the team was already buzzing with excitement about the opportunity, and Flood called joining the league a “positive in every way.” The move also presents the opportunity for a rivalry to develop with new divisional neighbor Penn State, with both Flood and Hamilton citing the proximity between the schools as a bonus.
- Michigan's new offensive coordinator might be "insane" according to Devin Gardner, but Doug Nussmeier's might be just what the program needs.
- Michigan State backup quarterback Tyler O'Connor has no plans to transfer, even with Connor Cook ahead of him on the depth chart.
- Penn State moved a pair of defensive tackles to the offensive line, a sign of confidence in the players already on hand in the defensive trenches.
- The Ohio State offensive line has a bunch of new faces, but the guy leading the unit remains the same. Ed Warinner's presence continues to give the Buckeyes confidence they can reload up front.
- After a year away from football, Maryland receiver Marcus Leak has returned humbled, more mature and looking to make an impact.
- Brandon Scherff has always been known for his ability to look ahead, and that trait is a big part of the reason the star left tackle elected to stay at Iowa for another season.
- The tackles at Purdue are under intense scrutiny this spring, but the program has been pleasantly surprised with the play of sophomore J.J. Prince so far.
- Vincent Valentine had his body right ahead of spring practice, but the Nebraska defensive tackle realized quickly he needed to make some technical improvements to have a big sophomore season.
- Tanner McEvoy has played well elsewhere, but the Wisconsin junior made clear he'd prefer to stick around at quarterback.
- The latest twist in the drama unfolding at Northwestern: Trevor Siemian opposes forming a union, and the quarterback indicated "a lot" of teammates feel the same way.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer hired Chris Ash away from Arkansas primarily to fix Ohio State's problems in its pass defense.
What Ash found is that the biggest area of need might have been from the shoulder pads up rather than any scheme or philosophy.
"You talk about Ohio State and the history, and there have been some really good defenses and some really good defensive backs," the Buckeyes' first-year co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach told ESPN.com. "You knew what you were going to get when you lined up against Ohio State -- you were going to get hit in the mouth.
It's understandable why the secondary might have felt shell-shocked by the way last season ended. The last three games of the season saw Ohio State surrender 451 passing yards to Michigan in a one-point win, allow Michigan State's Connor Cook to register his first career 300-yard passing day in a Big Ten championship game loss and serve up five passing touchdowns to Clemson in the Orange Bowl defeat. That led to withering criticism from fans and media about the pass defense.
"It’s been everywhere about how bad our back end was," senior cornerback Doran Grant said.
Ash said he hasn't looked much at the past and doesn't really care about it. But he does want the defensive backfield to play with an attitude and confidence, a task that's not made easier by the loss of three starters from last season.
One way Ash has tried to instill those traits is by showing his players clips from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks' secondary. Seattle's hard-hitting, long cornerbacks and safeties set a tone for its entire defense.
"We made lot of cutups of them and said, 'Guys, this is how the best in the business play the game of football,’'' Ash said. "Are we going to be that? No, but we can be in our own way, and this is the way we need to play."
Ash wants his players showing energy and excitement on the field. So whenever a defensive back gives a great effort or celebrate a big play in practice this spring, you'll hear Ohio State coaches say, "Locker it." That's jargon for saving the video clip, which Ash will later show to his players in meetings.
Ohio State needed more change than just the mental side of the game, of course. Ash will help give the Buckeyes a more consistent and aggressive approach in its pass coverage, utilizing the Cover 4, or quarters, scheme. That will also feature some man-to-man, press coverage at times. It's kind of a combination of what Ash ran at Wisconsin, mixed in with some principals that Michigan State has had so much success with.
"We're taking the same approach that we take to stopping the run and putting it in the back end," Meyer said. "The feeling around here was as long as we stop the run and give up some passing yards, that’s OK. That’s not the case anymore. There are too many good throwing teams out there."
Grant is by far the most experienced player in the secondary and looks to take over the role of No. 1 cornerback after Bradley Roby's departure to the NFL. Working opposite him are junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple. The latter two were both big-time recruits, and Ash said Apple is probably the defense's most improved player over the latter half of spring ball.
Sophomore Vonn Bell, who made his first career start at safety in the Orange Bowl, tore his MCL early in spring practice. In his absence, the 6-foot-3 Tyvis Powell and the 6-foot Cam Burrows are taking first-team reps at safety. Both are former cornerbacks and are what Ash calls "the model of what we want to recruit here" at safety because of their speed and size.
They've got a long way to go to match the Seahawks, but the Buckeyes have very promising, if somewhat raw, athletes to work with. They hope that leads to a much better and more confident secondary this season.
"It’s not about the size or anything like that," Grant said. "It’s about going hard and being coachable. [The Seahawks are] a high standard, but Ohio State, we’re also a high standard."
Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD California Northwestern TBD Indiana State Indiana TBD Jacksonville State Michigan State TBD Appalachian State Michigan TBD Florida Atlantic Nebraska TBD Youngstown State Illinois TBD Northern Iowa Iowa TBD Ohio State Navy TBD Western Michigan Purdue 8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin