OSU Buckeyes: Braxton Miller
But the Buckeyes aren't all the way back to where they want to be yet, at least not until there's some company for the last crystal football that was claimed more than a decade ago now.
Meyer's quick work a year ago in guiding Ohio State to a perfect record has put his team directly in the middle of any conversation about national title favorites this fall, and the momentum is seemingly only building after signing two banner recruiting classes to lay the groundwork for the coming years. The combination of facilities, existing talent, the coaches around him and a relatively manageable path to the BCS or the four-team playoff that is on the way all point to the Buckeyes remaining in the hunt for trophies with Meyer around.
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Next on the list is quarterback Zack Darlington, who wowed Tom Herman in a workout so much that the Ohio state offensive coordinator offered him the very next day.
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But it was nothing compared to the 72-hour window a week ago that essentially offered confirmation that the four-star quarterback (Bossier City, La./Parkway) has arrived on the national scene and isn’t going away.
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Phil Steele has issued his 2013 preseason All-America teams, and a total of 15 players from the Big Ten made the four squads.
Let's take a look:
- Ohio State QB Braxton Miller
- Nebraska G Spencer Long
- Wisconsin LB Chris Borland
- Michigan State LB Max Bullough
- Penn State WR Allen Robinson
- Wisconsin TE Jacob Pedersen
- Ohio State G Andrew Norwell
- Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard
- Indiana long snapper Matt Dooley
Some notes and thoughts:
- Lewan is an obvious choice for the first team, while Steele clearly sees the potential in Shazier and Roby after breakout seasons for the 12-0 Buckeyes in 2012. I don't see much separating Bullough from Shazier and Dennard from Roby, and wouldn't be surprised to see either Spartans defender moving up a team on the postseason All-America list.
- Ohio State's Miller is listed behind only Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and ahead of Alabama's A.J. McCarron and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater. It's clear Miller will enter the season very much on the Heisman radar. Nebraska's Taylor Martinez didn't make the top four signal callers, but can't be too far behind.
- Wisconsin's Pedersen is a solid player, but Penn State's Kyle Carter has the higher ceiling among Big Ten tight ends, in my view. Carter had 453 receiving yards in just nine games in 2012. He'll be a big help for Penn State's new starting quarterback, and could work his way onto the postseason All-America list.
- It's not a huge snub, but Northwestern's Mark should be better than a fourth-team all-purpose player. He earned first-team All-America honors in 2012, and also was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a running back. Mark could have worked his way onto the list as a running back. Instead, Steele went with former Penn State star Silas Redd as a fourth-teamer despite a so-so first season at USC. Mark's teammate Jeff Budzien also was snubbed from the kickers list after a near-perfect junior season.
- Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan didn't make the preseason list despite an excellent 2012 season. Ryan suffered a torn ACL this spring, but is expected back before the end of October. It'll be interesting to see if other Wolverines players besides Lewan put themselves in contention for postseason All-America honors.
- It's nice to see Steele recognize Wisconsin's Abbrederis, who might still be the Big Ten's top receiver. Like Pedersen, Abbrederis' numbers suffered in 2012 as Wisconsin sputtered on offense, and especially in the passing game. Abbrederis is an excellent route runner, a big-play threat, and a good return man.
- I'm interested to see which Big Ten linemen work their way onto Steele's postseason All-America teams. Keep an eye on guys like Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, Penn State defensive end Deion Barnes, Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Groy, Northwestern defensive end Tyler Scott, Penn State guard John Urschel, and Ohio State's dynamic young pairing of defensive linemen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.
RANKING THE TOP OFFENSIVE OPPONENTS
1. Allen Robinson, Penn State: As a sophomore, Robinson turned in one of the most productive seasons in program history for the Nittany Lions and comfortably led the Big Ten with 1,013 receiving yards. There were only two targets in the league who even finished within 200 yards of Robinson, who also tacked on 11 touchdowns and drew positive reviews for becoming a more polished route-runner during spring practice. The Buckeyes largely held him check last fall in a win at Penn State, limiting Robinson to 68 yards on five catches. And star cornerback Bradley Roby certainly will have this matchup circled on his calendar.
3. James White, Wisconsin: The stage finally belongs to White. And while the senior running back has done plenty of damage in the past while playing behind Montee Ball and enters the season as the NCAA's active rushing leader, the spotlight will finally focus on a dangerous rusher who has made the most of his opportunities in the past with 32 touchdowns to go with those 2,571 yards. The Buckeyes had their hands full with Ball a year ago, giving up 191 yards and a touchdown but countering with one memorable forced fumble at the goal line. Now it's White's turn to take a crack at Ohio State and see if he can come up with a better outcome for the Badgers than the loss they suffered at home last November.
4. Brendan Bigelow, California: The numbers for last season were underwhelming for the electrifying running back, but Bigelow showed in one afternoon against the Buckeyes how difficult he can make life for opposing defenses. In fact, it was puzzling enough for one day why the Golden Bears didn't give him the ball more often after he turned four carries into 160 yards against Ohio State, and he only had 40 more carries for the rest of the season -- averaging nearly 10 yards per touch out of the backfield. A new coaching staff figures to ramp up the workload. The Buckeyes will have to be more fundamentally sound against him than they were in 2012.
5. Shane Wynn, Indiana: The pass-happy Hoosiers have a handful of receivers who could make a statistical claim as the top threat the Ohio State secondary will have to contain in November, but the diminutive, elusive junior is the most likely option to explode without warning. Wynn struck from deep against the Buckeyes last year, adding to the fireworks in a high-scoring affair with a 76-yard touchdown, and he finished the season with a team-high 68 receptions for the Hoosiers.
RANKING THE TOP DEFENSIVE OPPONENTS
1. Chris Borland, Wisconsin: The responsibilities for the senior linebacker might be changing along with a new scheme for the Badgers, but it's safe to assume Borland will be able to handle them, given his track record of success in the Big Ten over the last couple seasons. From the sheer volume of tackles (308) to the variety of ways Borland has produced game-changing plays with turnovers, few players will enter this season having had a more significant impact in the league already in their careers. The Buckeyes will be well aware of where Borland is and what he can do to wreck a plan of attack, and keeping him away from the football will be critical.
2. Tyler Scott, Northwestern: The pace wasn't quite the same, but the top pass-rusher for the Wildcats in 2012 finished with nine sacks, the same total that Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon posted for the Buckeyes. Scott will have the full attention of every lineman and blocking schemes will account for him first and foremost as teams prepare for Northwestern, and it will be up to a veteran group of Buckeyes on the offensive line to slow him down in the trenches and ensure that Braxton Miller has time to work in the pocket in what figures to be a hostile environment in October.
3. Khalil Mack, Buffalo: Without a bowl game and without even playing in all 12 games last season, the senior linebacker still finished the season with four forced fumbles, adding to his already impressive reputation for knocking the ball loose before deciding to return for one more season with the Bulls. The program record for forced fumbles (11) belongs to him already, and he's been an absolute wrecking ball in opposing backfields with 56 tackles for a loss in his career. The Buckeyes have no shortage of talent and experience up front, but they could still have their hands full right from the start as they face Mack in the opener.
4. Landon Feichter, Purdue: The Buckeyes were victimized by the sophomore safety last year in a tighter-than-expected win at home, but Feichter provided them with some company that could sympathize. Feichter's interception at Ohio State was his fourth a season ago, tying him for the most in the Big Ten and complementing his team-leading 80 tackles. The Boilermakers have been a pest for Ohio State in the past, and Feichter is certainly capable of making that the case again when the programs hook up in early November in West Lafayette, Ind.
5. James Morris, Iowa: The Hawkeyes had two linebackers rack up more than 100 tackles a year ago, and Morris actually finished behind teammate Anthony Hitchens and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier on the conference leaderboard for takedowns. But the senior more than made up for that by chipping in all over the field, making nine tackles for a loss, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and recovering one as well. Iowa has some question marks coming off a rough 2012 season, but linebacker play won't be a concern.
Ohio State 10: Post-spring power rankings, 6-10
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 6: DE John Simon
- Spring movement: The sophomore isn't yet a proven commodity on a game-by-basis in the Big Ten, but he's stepping into big shoes and looks more than capable of putting his own footprints all over the league in his first season as a starter. Washington closed his camp with a flourish thanks to four sacks in the exhibition game in Cincinnati, but it was actually his sack and forced fumble in the win over Michigan last fall that really started to build the buzz for the physical, nimble big man on the edge. The Buckeyes are counting on him to deliver on some expectations that are pretty high heading into summer.
- Key stat: Washington was largely limited to a supporting role during his first year on campus, but he made the most of his chances by chipping in three sacks off the bench -- turning them into a combined loss of 27 yards for opponents.
- Last ranking: No. 5
- Last No. 7: FB/LB Zach Boren
- Spring movement: The Buckeyes have plenty of new faces coming in to lend a hand in the passing game, but Brown will again be the guy Braxton Miller looks for first after the two hooked up 60 times last fall. The big difference for Brown as a senior, though, figures to be how much more he can do with the football once he gets it. Urban Meyer gave the receiver a hard time early last season for his inability to make a defender miss, but that steadily improved throughout the season and doesn't look like it will be a factor again moving forward based on his agility and decisive cuts in camp.
- Key stat: He definitely kept the chains moving, but among the Buckeyes who finished with double-digit receptions last fall, Brown ranked last in that group of four in terms of yards per catch at 11.1 yards. As that total goes up, so will the point total for Ohio State.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 8: DT Johnathan Hankins
- Spring movement: The Buckeyes only had a glimpse at what the freakishly fast Spence could do as a freshman, but that was enough for them to feel good about plugging him in as a starter on the first day of spring camp. By the end of it, the defensive staff had even less reason to worry after the sophomore flashed his athleticism with three sacks in the spring game -- a performance that defensive line coach Mike Vrabel indicated wasn't even his best during camp. Ohio State appears locked and loaded on both edges, and it needs both Spence and Washington to live up to the hype for a completely rebuilt defensive line.
- Key stat: The Buckeyes had no shortage of guys contribute at least one sack, but among the linemen, Washington actually finished second in that group with just three quarterback takedowns -- well behind Simon's nine. Spence offered up one as a freshman, but that number should improve dramatically and help the Buckeyes find a tandem capable of balancing the pass rush on both sides.
- Last ranking: No. 9
- Spring movement: The experience on defense is stockpiled in the secondary, and no voice figures to carry as easily to the front as that of the senior safety. Bryant has made plenty of noise in the past with his vicious hits and a couple notable penalty flags, but there were few players more steady from the start of the undefeated season to the end of it as the ball hawk in the back end. The challenge for Bryant as he takes the next step is turning a few more of his passes defended into interceptions, and off the field he's embracing the fact that the pressure to mold a young defense is partially falling on his shoulders.
- Key stat: Bryant did his part to create some turnovers with two forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception. But it's the last number where the Buckeyes see the most room for improvement. He broke up 12 passes in 2012 but only kept his hands on one.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 10: CB Travis Howard
- Spring movement: Bennett won't be approaching his position on the interior the same way his predecessor did, for obvious reasons. But what the junior might lack in size compared to big Johnathan Hankins, he can make up for with technique and speed on the interior. The Buckeyes aren't expecting that change in style to be an issue, and after Bennett was able to stay healthy throughout the spring, that potential doubt about him might be erased as well.
- Key stat: A nagging groin injury limited Bennett to just eight games, and even when he was on the field, his workload was lighter than expected for somebody who entered the year as a potential starter. The Buckeyes will need a full season from Bennett, and definitely could use more than the 11 tackles he contributed as a sophomore.
Ohio State 10: Post-spring power rankings, 1-5
- Last ranking: No. 1
- Spring movement: There was nowhere the junior could go but down in the rankings, but his work in camp only solidified his standing as the most valuable player in the program. Miller's skills are only improving as a passer, and the work he can do with his legs is already well documented. If the Buckeyes are going to win a national championship, it will be their multitalented quarterback doing the heavy lifting.
- Key stat: Miller took a significant step forward in his passing accuracy last fall, bumping his completion percentage by more than four full points up to 58.3. He doesn't even need to duplicate that same level of improvement to cross a critical milestone in his development, because simply hitting the 60-percent mark would make the spread offense much more devastating.
No. 2: LB Ryan Shazier
- Last ranking: No. 2
- Spring movement: The junior was limited throughout camp as he recovered from surgery to repair a sports hernia, but his absence offered a clear reminder of how critical he is for a defense in transition after the loss of six starters in the front seven. The depth at linebacker is certainly not to the level the Buckeyes are used to traditionally, and the margin for error is still slim. But putting a healthy Shazier back on the field with his sideline-t0-sideline athleticism and nose for the football can help mask any growing pains that might be going on around him, and he's in line for more monster numbers this fall.
- Key stat: The raw totals were impressive on their own, but the rate at which Shazier made plays in the backfield speaks volumes about his ability to read and react to what he sees at outside linebacker. During his breakout sophomore campaign, one in about every seven tackles for Shazier resulted in a loss for opponents -- which can produce a lot of lost ground when a guy is piling up a total of 115 hits during the season.
- Last ranking: No. 4
- Last No. 3: RB Carlos Hyde
- Spring movement: Roby also missed some action during camp as he took some time to let an ailing shoulder recover, but there's been little doubt about how much the redshirt junior's return to the program for another season will lift the defense. Aside from the physical tools that have him already projected as the top cornerback in the 2014 draft, Roby is tapping into some vocal leadership that he previously hasn't displayed and helping to bring along a group of talented young defensive backs who will ultimately need to replace him when he's gone. That provides both short- and long-term benefits.
- Key stat: Opposing quarterbacks aren't likely going to have much desire to test Roby in the passing game, which might make it important for him to fight off complacency and find other ways to make an impact. For starters, Roby is a willing tackler and finished with 63 a year ago, and helping against the run or blitzing off the edge could be ways to keep making a mark.
- Last ranking: N0. 3
- Last No. 4: CB Bradley Roby
- Spring movement: The bruising, high-scoring tailback was unquestionably the starter going into spring, and he didn't need to do much work to keep that position heading into the summer. And while there has never been more praise for Hyde and his potential to give Urban Meyer a 1,000-yard rusher, there's a chance now that the Buckeyes had a look at their backup options and came away feeling good about them that a few carries might slip away from him and wind up with Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn or perhaps Warren Ball in certain situations. What Hyde can offer certainly hasn't changed, but the Buckeyes might now be able to add a bit more variety to their ground attack.
- Key stat: When his 242 pounds are moving downhill with the kind of speed that isn't natural for somebody Hyde's size, the urge to just run over people might be tough to turn down. But the Buckeyes need more elusiveness from him when he does break through to the secondary, which could turn attempts such as his longest run of 29 yards a year ago into something much more explosive.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 5: WR Philly Brown
- Spring movement: The torch was ready to be passed with two-time captain John Simon moving on to the NFL, and Mewhort has locked his grip on it and become the type of guy Meyer leans on to get his message across and ensure the troops are all on the same page. Aside from his intangibles, Mewhort is back for another season as a starter after a productive junior campaign in which he emerged as one of the top blockers in the Big Ten. With three other veterans returning along with him, the group up front will set the tone for the Buckeyes all year long.
- Key stat: Miller's athleticism can bail out a missed assignment or two from his blockers, and it can occasionally get him in trouble as he tries to extend plays a bit longer than he should. So while the blame can be spread around, either way the Buckeyes will be trying to cut down on the 30 sacks they gave up a year ago as the offense tries to hit a higher gear.
Tom Luginbill, RecruitingNation's senior national recruiting analyst, has identified five names to remember among incoming freshmen who will enroll this summer. Luginbill already singled out Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple as an early enrollee who could make a difference this fall.
Two Big Ten freshmen make Luginbill's new list. Neither needs much of an introduction.
Michigan running back Derrick Green is expected to compete right away for a starting job. Ranked by RecruitingNation as the No. 5 running back (No. 38 overall player) in the 2013 class, Green will be Michigan's best option in the backfield as the Wolverines go back to a more traditional pro-set scheme that will emphasize power running. No Michigan back distinguished himself this spring, and Green likely will face the most competition from Fitzgerald Toussaint, who comes off of leg surgery.
Luginbill also likes the impact potential of Ohio State incoming freshman Dontre Wilson, who could be fill the so-called "Percy position" in Urban Meyer's spread offense in Columbus. Wilson, a speedster from Texas who picked Ohio State ahead of Oregon and Texas, brings playmaking ability to an offense that needs more of it other than star quarterback Braxton Miller. Although Jordan Hall returns to the mix after battling injuries throughout 2012, Wilson could have a significant role in the offensive vision with a strong preseason showing.
What other incoming freshmen (non-early enrollees) could make an impact in the Big Ten this season?
Here are a few:
Penn State QB Christian Hackenberg: It'll be Hackenberg or junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson starting for the Lions in their season opener against Syracuse. Unless Ferguson creates significant separation in camp, Hackenberg likely will be a factor this season.
Indiana DT Darius Latham: The Hoosiers need help along their defensive line, and could turn to Latham right away. A four-star prospect with good size and athleticism (played basketball in high school), Latham should be part of the mix up front at IU.
Michigan State RB Delton Williams: The Spartans need help in the backfield after no one really emerged this spring, and the coaches moved backup middle linebacker Riley Bullough to offense for help. There's a good chance Michigan State turns to an incoming freshman and Williams, the team's highest-rated recruit in the 2014 class according to RecruitingNation, will have a golden opportunity in camp.
Ohio State S Vonn Bell: Unlike the other freshmen listed here, Bell doesn't play a position where Ohio State has an overly pressing need. But he might be too talented to keep off of the field, especially when the Buckeyes go to their nickel and dime packages.
Ranking the 2013 schedule
1. Michigan (Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor, Mich.): As if there could be another place to start this list. The rivalry is as strong as ever with Urban Meyer stoking the flames and making it a top priority to win The Game above just about everything else. If the Buckeyes indeed make another run at perfection this fall, the latest edition in the series could again have huge stakes aside from just bragging rights. The Wolverines slowed down Ohio State’s spread offense in a losing effort last year, but they’ll likely be needing more firepower of their own to potentially stop a title bid in Meyer’s second season.
2. Wisconsin (Sept. 28 in Columbus): The blood doesn’t get quite as hot for the Badgers as it does the Wolverines, obviously, but this is about as close as it gets for the Buckeyes to a backup rivalry. The two programs have also produced some classic games over the last few years, and with an evening kickoff set for the Big Ten opener for both teams, expect a fevered pitch and an entertaining evening in the Horseshoe. Ohio State will be looking to get started on the right foot in the league; Wisconsin will be looking for an early signature victory for a new coach.
3. Northwestern (Oct. 5 in Evanston, Ill.): The Wildcats normally wouldn't be making an appearance this high on the countdown, but Pat Fitzgerald has pretty much broken the traditional mold for the program at this point and will certainly have the attention of the Buckeyes. Another late kickoff will add a bit of extra hype for what might be one of the highest-profile games Northwestern has ever hosted, and the Buckeyes could have a tough test for their rebuilt front seven on their hands.
4. Penn State (Oct. 26 in Columbus): The full impact of the NCAA sanctions leveled against the Nittany Lions might not be felt yet this season, but losing the group of seniors who helped them weather the storm so impressively last fall will be a significant challenge for second-year coach Bill O’Brien. Penn State will have had some time to develop younger players by this point in the year, but if the Nittany Lions are going to test Ohio State at home, the freshman coming along the quickest had better be the quarterback. Either way, two tradition-rich programs hooking up is still going to move the needle.
5. California (Sept. 14 in Berkeley, Calif.): The Golden Bears weren’t supposed to put up much of a challenge last year in the Horseshoe, and they ended up forcing Braxton Miller and Devin Smith to conjure up some late-game magic to help the Buckeyes escape. Cal has undergone a significant change in leadership in bringing in new coach Sonny Dykes, but he has some offensive pieces to work with that have had success already against the Buckeyes -- and this time it’s the Buckeyes who will be traveling across the country.
6. Indiana (Nov. 23 in Columbus): Like offense? Probably don’t want to miss this one then. The margin of victory might have ended up being somewhat deceiving thanks to a couple fluky plays late in the game last year, but even without those late scores, the Hoosiers and Buckeyes had already produced plenty of fireworks thanks to innovative offensive minds on both sidelines. Indiana clearly has made progress under Kevin Wilson, and it could be capable of producing another track meet if the Buckeyes focus too much on their advantage in personnel.
7. Purdue (Nov. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind.): The Boilermakers have certainly made things interesting in the series over the last few meetings, and in the end they were the closest to keeping the Buckeyes from going undefeated last season before Kenny Guiton came off the bench to lead a remarkable comeback in regulation on the way to an overtime victory. For whatever reason, from different defensive looks to Ohio State perhaps getting complacent, Purdue has been a nuisance -- and now it has a driven coach with ties to the Buckeyes. The Boilermakers could use the boost a win would provide for Darrell Hazell's program.
8. San Diego State (Sept. 7 in Columbus): The Buckeyes might be getting more credit for their nonconference schedule if they still had an SEC team on it, though even the improved Vanderbilt squad that canceled a trip to the Horseshoe probably wouldn’t have made the slate look all that more appealing. But Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith did go out and find another team coming off a bowl appearance to replace the Commodores, and the Aztecs have been a tough out over the last few years. A season ago they finished 9-4, a mark that featured a seven-game winning streak at one point and included a win on the road over Boise State.
9. Iowa (Oct. 19 in Columbus): The Hawkeyes might not be the most exciting team around, but their occasionally ugly style of play can at least make things bothersome for opponents. The Buckeyes will be coming off a bye week and starting a two-game stretch at home when Iowa comes back on its schedule, so Meyer figures to have his team locked in for an opponent that only averaged 19.3 points per game last season on the way to a 4-8 record.
10. Buffalo (Aug. 31 in Columbus): The Bulls probably won’t be providing much in the way competition over four quarters against a team expected to be ranked in the top five in the country, particularly on the heels of a 4-8 season last year. But they will provide some fresh bodies for the Buckeyes to test themselves against after nearly a month of playing against each other in training camp. And no matter the opposition, the first week will offer the first glimpse at Ohio State’s spread attack in Meyer’s second season, give a peek at the new-look defense -- and officially welcome back football.
We’ll give as much detail as we can and go behind the scenes to see why these Class of 2014 standouts are so attractive to the Buckeyes.
Next on the list is Brandon Harris, who wowed Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman in a workout last week before picking up an offer three days later.
Vitals: Harris (Bossier City, La./Parkway) is 6-foot-2 and 186 pounds.
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We’ll try to give everyone a chance to get their questions answered.
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@JKing4483: Demarre Kitt, Raekwon McMillan, Da'Shawn Hand, Jabrill Peppers. How are the Ohio State Buckeyes looking there?
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2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier
Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)
Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)
Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)
Tackles: Shazier* (115)
Sacks: Simon (9)
Interceptions: Howard (4)
1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.
2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.
3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.
1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.
2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.
3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.
When you live in Louisville, horse racing and handicapping are about all you can think of this time of year, in between bites of Derby Pie. So, like last year, I've imagined what the Big Ten 2013 program would look like if the championship chase were more like a horse race. I think the odds would go a little something like this (like the Churchill Downs toteboard, our odds only go up to 99-to-1),:
Ohio State: Even
Despite being scratched from last year's race by NCAA probation, the Buckeyes are the odds-on favorites this time around. They've got big-time winners both at trainer (Urban Meyer) and on the reins (Braxton Miller), and their schedule looks like they should get a clean trip.
The Wolverines are switching running styles this year, ditching the spread for a more traditional passing offense led by Devin Gardner. No need for blinders, as Taylor Lewan has the blind side locked down. Still, this entry hasn't had enough first-place finishes in its recent past performances.
The Huskers have been like one of those tantalizing horses in the program with a huge Beyer speed figure that always disappoints when you put the big money on them. Expect them to be a major pace-setter because of their early schedule, but that defense will determine whether they can make a long-awaited trip to the winners' circle.
Pretty good value here for a three-time defending champion of the Run for the Rose Bowl. Still, the Badgers are operating under new connections this time around (new coach Gary Andersen) and will have to prove they can track down Ohio State in the Leaders Division.
Another good option for those seeking value, as the Wildcats might be the wise-guy pick after last year's 10-win season. The problem is the potential of a very bumpy trip with that schedule (Ohio State and Wisconsin as crossover opponents). And there will be a lot of jostling in that Legends Division.
Michigan State: 20-to-1
Some bettors like to look for the bounce factor, meaning they seek out otherwise successful horses who are coming off one bad outing. The Spartans look like the best bounce candidate following last year's 6-6 season, which came after two straight double-digit win seasons. They have a more favorable post position (er, schedule) this time, but their early works suggest some lingering questions about the offense.
We've reached the real long shots now. Jerry Kill has shown that his charges take off in their third year of training, and the Gophers have turned in some encouraging works. Still, they'll need to run a perfect race to factor in the money.
This would be a Giacomo-level upset. An exotic pick, at best. But with the Hoosiers' ability to score points, they could pull off a shocker if everyone else falters.
Handicappers got burned by picking Purdue as their sleeper last year. The Boilermakers might be even more of a mystery horse this year with a new trainer in Darrell Hazell. Still looks like an also-ran, but don't forget that they seem to run neck-and-neck with Ohio State lately, for whatever reason.
Failed to fire last year, and the speed figures aren't pretty. If you're betting the Hawkeyes, you're basing it on the pedigree of Kirk Ferentz. Should show more fight this time, but might be too much of a plodder to hit the board.
Stumbled out of the gate, no rally, didn't factor in 2012. Equipment changes on offense (new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system) should help. But Tim Beckman has a lot of work to do to show he's not saddling another nag.
Penn State: Scratched
DQ'd by the NCAA. (Now accepting future wagering on 2016).
So there's how I'd write the program. What kind of odds would you give to each team, and who would you put money on in 2013?