Spirits are high in Columbus. After months of watching the Ohio State name being drug through the mud, there is light at the end of the tunnel. One of the best head coaches in the business (maybe THE best), is leading a young, hungry group of Buckeyes into a new era. This team will be debuting a new, electric offense with no more Jim Bollman at the helm. Recruiting is going very well. And if all of that wasn't already enough, the Buckeyes showed some swagger on national television during the ESPNU All Access series. Yes, life is good indeed.
As you might expect, with all those positives comes high expectations. It doesn't matter that the two-deep is littered with freshman and sophomores, that this 6-7 team is learning an entirely new system under a new coaching staff, or that the Buckeyes won't be allowed to take part in any postseason glory, talk of a 12-0 season is still very well alive. If USC's sanctioned season last year proved anything, those expectations are not out of the question at all. Yet, questions do remain. In fact, as we look forward to this team hitting the field a week from Saturday, there are five BIG questions that are on my mind.
1) Can Braxton Miller handle the pressure of the entire offense on his shoulders?
While many may act as if this question is blasphemous, it is something that needs answering. While Braxton took on a lot of pressure last season and showed an increased maturity as the season progressed, accumulating 517 total yards and five touchdowns in the final two games, that pressure will be turned up several fold.
Adding to that pressure is the fact that Urban's new offensive scheme depends on quality decision making out of the quarterback. If Braxton is playing poorly, the whole offense takes a dive. That's a lot for one young man to take on. After last year's tumultuous season I think he's definitely up to the challenge, but he still has to go out and prove it.
Second, Braxton isn't exactly surrounded by a wealth of playmakers on offense this year. Everyday we get a new name who might be the guy to step up at wide receiver, a position that is as much a mystery this season as it was last. The situation was in fact dire enough, that Meyer moved Stoneburner away from tight end to better utilize him. That should tell us something. Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are better suited on the field alongside Stoneburner than some of the guys fighting at receiver. Running back looks a little better with guys like Hall (out for a couple of games), Hyde, Dunn, Smith and Ball. Still though, I don't believe any of those guys will carry this team from the running back position.
While I really believe Braxton will overcome the aforementioned issues, it is a good reminder of the obstacles he does face. He has a lot to prove in 2012.
2) What happens to this team if a couple early losses happen?
This question has been on the back of my mind a lot over the last several months. What happens to the morale of this team if they take on a couple of losses in the first half of the season? I mean let's be realistic here, with UCF, Cal, Michigan State and Nebraska, that's not entirely out of the question. If that were to happen, would Meyer be able to keep this team motivated?
I hope so, but it's a big "if".
I don't care how many times Urban tells this team they need to have competitive excellence or that they should be an angry football team with a chip on their shoulder, with a bowl off the table, would this team remain hungry and bought in?
I believe there is a lot for them to stay motivated for. A 10-2 season. A victory over Michigan. Momentum and starting positions for 2013. Still, even slightly taking the foot off the gas could completely change the complexion of this season.
3) Has the back seven improved enough for this team to dominate?
We know the defensive line is stacked. Most of the B1G would love to have our third string line. While an increased pass rush is needed this season, it would appear Urban and company have answered the question marks there. That leaves the back seven.
I definitely believe we have an improved product back there. First at linebacker. The athleticism of Shazier, Grant and Sabino should be light years ahead of what we saw last year. Maybe it's me reliving the nightmare of the Nebraska or Michigan games, but I still think they have a lot to prove though. Are you sensing a theme? I think the biggest question here will be discipline and decision making. We know these guys are going to play fast and hit hard. We still don't know if Grant is a big time player in the middle, especially after struggling so much his rookie year. We also don't how much Sabino has improved at assignment football.
As for the secondary, a lot of questions still remain. First off, we are still not sure who is playing nickel consistently (multiple players have gotten reps there in fall camp). For a defense that will play this scheme so frequently, that's not exactly comforting. Our safeties have to show they're ready to hold their own on a team that wants to go undefeated. Both Barnett and Bryant were very green last year and deserve some grace, but we still need to see them wrap up consistently and not get burned so frequently trying to make the big play. At corner, I'm sure we all agree Bradley Roby is the man, but Travis Howard, eh not so much. I'm sure we all remember Howard Island being a frequent vacation destination for wideouts in 2011. If either one of these guys go down as well, then the Buckeyes have major questions at the position.
Are these units better? Sure. Dominant? Let's wait and find out.
4) Is Jordan Hall really the answer at playmaker?
Have you ever stopped to think about Jordan Hall? Here's a guy that people have acted like is the greatest thing since sliced bread this year, a guy that we are waiting to return from a foot injury like he's the answer to all of the playmaker needs. Yet, last season rushed for 405 yards and had 114 receiving yards (five total touchdowns) as a junior. I know the offense didn't suit him all that well, but I think he has a ton to prove before I get overly excited.
Last year outside of his performances at Miami and Purdue, I was pretty disappointed. Not once did he eclipsed the 100 yard mark, only had one run over 25 yards all season, and in only the two games mentioned did he he average over five yards a carry. He's supposed to be this amazing playmaker, yet averaged over a yard less a carry than Carlos Hyde (who did break the long runs).
Again, I understand Urban's offense and how Hall fits in. Still, he's a question. No guarantee until we see him on the field this season.
5) Is this team really better than Michigan?
Now it gets good.
I believe in Meyer's system and think he will quickly establish the Buckeyes as an elite team, but how this team fares in his first season is anyone's guess. Michigan on the other hand, is a little but more of a proven commodity. They return a majority of the playmakers that led them to their Sugar Bowl win last season, including Denard Robinson. Defensively, Greg Mattison proved last season that he will be a force to be reckoned with in the B1G while he's at Michigan. So yes, I expect them to be very good. We'll find out how good next Saturday.
While it's a tall task to ask this young Buckeye team to have a better record when the dust settles at the end of the season, it's a lot more reasonable to expect them to beat Michigan this year. The Wolverines haven't tasted victory in Columbus since 2000, and Ohio Stadium will be rocking on November 24th as this is the Buckeyes national title game.
If the Buckeyes come away victorious, as I expect them too, records won't matter. Buckeye fans can claim victory and that they were the better team. Let's hope they prove me right.
All in all...
I hope I didn't take any wind out of your sails or get too pessimistic. I'm extremely pumped for this season, as any in recent memory, and expect big things out this team. Still, rather than get carried away with bias or expectations, it's always important to ask the BIG questions. Let's see how the team responds to mine.