- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Braxton Miller collected his Big Ten offensive player of the year trophy in Indianapolis on the day of the league championship game last December. Since he took part in a halftime ceremony, Miller stuck around to watch Wisconsin whip Nebraska, 70-31, to clinch a Rose Bowl berth.
Of course, the Ohio State quarterback couldn't help but think about how his team had beaten both Big Ten title game participants.
"I got kind of upset watching it, because it was a different type of game than what I was expecting," Miller told ESPN.com. "I thought it would have been a different type of story if we were there."
Linebacker Ryan Shazier, like a lot of other Buckeyes, had similar feelings as he watched the BCS championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama about a month later.
"To be honest, I was feeling sick," Shazier said. "Because I felt like we had a great team and we should have been in the game. I feel like if everybody who had to watch that game can keep that in their head this year, it's going to push us to another level."
Ohio State completed just the sixth undefeated season in school history in 2012, and there are reminders all around the team's football complex about the achievement. There's a huge "Undefeated" sign in the main entrance, a banner for the 2012 season hanging in the indoor practice facility next to ones celebrating national championships, and signs proclaiming Lane Avenue near campus as "12-0" row. Players and coaches from last year's team received rings fit for a champion last week.
Of course, the Buckeyes couldn't play for a Big Ten championship or go to a bowl because of NCAA probation. And they say that's a big reason why they're not dwelling on their accomplishments but rather looking forward this offseason.
"Yeah, we went 12-0, but it didn't really mean much," receiver Corey "Philly" Brown said. "It's not like we won anything. I feel like none of our team got a taste of what it feels like to be playing for a national championship. That makes us more hungry to get there."
Along with the reminders of last year, head coach Urban Meyer had another banner put up in the football complex this spring with the slogan "The Chase." That was his not-so subtle message to the players to keep striving toward new goals. But Meyer said he hasn't noticed any sense of complacency with this group.
"I've watched for that," he said. "I've had our strength coach [Mickey Marotti] watch for that. I don't feel it. If I did, I'd jump in the middle of it."
Meyer's biggest concern this spring has been identifying new leaders. Outside of left tackle Jack Mewhort, he wasn't sure which players would fill the shoes of seniors like John Simon and Zach Boren from last year. He has brought in weekly guest speakers to talk to the team this spring about leadership, and he's hoping guys like Miller, Shazier, Brown and defensive backs C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Bradley Roby take on those roles. Of course, Meyer had similar worries about last year's team at this time, and it ended up having what he calls one of the best group of leaders he's ever coached. So that figures to work itself out.
The young front seven on defense also presents question marks, as Shazier is the only returning starter among the defensive line and linebacker units. But sophomores Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence showed with their combined seven sacks in the spring game that Ohio State is blessed with talented options up front, even if there might be a learning curve at work.
"We're going to have to live with some mistakes," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. "But our job as coaches is to say, 'Hey, what can they handle?'"
Will these Buckeyes be able to handle the increased expectations and pressure in 2013? Last year, they began the year ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press poll and weren't eligible to receive votes in the coaches' rankings. Even as they continued to win, they mostly operated outside of the limelight because of their absence from the national title hunt. This year, the spotlight will be on them from Day 1, as they should open the season in the top 5.
"We're definitely going to be a huge target," running back Carlos Hyde said. "We're back to where Ohio State usually is, which is the No. 1 team on the schedule that teams want to beat. It lets us know that we just can't come out and roll our helmets out and expect to beat a team."
The target is larger, but so too is the goal. The shackles of probation are off, and if Ohio State can pull off a repeat undefeated season, odds are its players won't be watching the national championship game from afar next January. Roby, the team's All-American cornerback, is confident that will happen. He says that "last year was the commercial, and this year is the movie."
"We've got the talent, and I'm not going to say the schedule is easier, but we don't play Nebraska and we don't play Michigan State," he said. "It's set up in our favor. All we have to do is go out there and keep grinding."