May 4, 2016
Many college football fans and experts anticipated Ohio State running to—and through—the College Football Playoff in 2015, but head coach Urban Meyer‘s loaded team failed to defend its title and live up to the hype.
And after losing 16 starters—11 of whom were taken in the NFL draft last week—expectations for the 2016 campaign aren’t nearly as high.
There’s certainly optimism among the Buckeyes despite returning only three starters on each side of the ball, and in fact, it’s those starters who are the biggest reason for hope.
Offensively, the Buckeyes will be strong up the middle with center Pat Elflein (who’s transitioning from right guard), left guard Billy Price and quarterback J.T. Barrett all back for another year. The Buckeyes’ coaching staff is using those three as the foundation for what it’s building on offense—which will move at a much faster pace than it has in the past this fall.
“The two things that you sleep good at night are when Pat Elflein’s your center and J.T. Barrett’s your quarterback,” co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said, according to Tony Gerdeman of The-Ozone.net. “You sleep good at night.”
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State returns a starter at every level of its defense with defensive end Tyquan Lewis, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan and cornerback Gareon Conley in the fold. McMillan’s presence is particularly vital because he serves as the natural leader in the middle of the defense.
“I don’t care what sport you’re in. I know I can look across the ball and see Pat Elflein there at center and J.T. Barrett at quarterback and Raekwon McMillan standing in the middle of your defense, and you’ve got an opportunity to be really good,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said, per Gerdeman.
The Buckeyes will lean heavily on those six to guide a young team through one of college football’s most difficult schedules this fall.
Ohio State’s 2016 schedule starts off with two tricky games in reigning MAC champion Bowling Green and an explosive Tulsa squad, but things will take a decidedly difficult turn in Week 3 when the Buckeyes hit the road for a showdown with playoff contender Oklahoma.
Ohio State’s conference lineup will see a spike in difficulty as the Big Ten shifts to its new nine-game league slate. The Buckeyes’ three cross-divisional matchups are Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska, all of which are expected to compete for the Big Ten West in 2016.
A pair of tough two-game stretches—on the road against Wisconsin and Penn State in October; a road tilt against Michigan State and the home bout against Michigan to close out the regular season—will define Ohio State’s title chances.
It’s a tough slate for such a young team, which will take the field in prime time under the lights four times during league play and almost certainly on the road against Oklahoma:
This gauntlet would have challenged even last year’s loaded team.
The Land of the Wolves
Unlike last year, Ohio State will shift from being the hunted to the hunter—and in doing so, the team has adopted a new mantra for the 2016 season.
Ohio State is officially “The Land of the Wolves.”
That saying—and the coinciding attitude shift—has been plastered around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center this offseason. The Buckeyes lifted and practiced under a big screen that looped and reinforced the wolf-like mentality, and the team is gladly embracing it.
“The land of the wolves mindset is as a wolf every day, I feel like you wake up and you’re just trying to find your next meal,” Barrett said this spring, according to Eric Seger of Eleven Warriors. “You’re always attacking.”
That attacking attitude will be a welcome change after last year’s pressure-packed campaign. Ohio State’s experienced team was expected to march its way to another title while churning out blowouts on a weekly basis, but those results never materialized.
All-American defensive end Joey Bosa admitted that the pressure of perfection got to the team and impacted the season. But that burden has been lifted—similar to the 2014 season, when Ohio State gained momentum instead of trying to maintain it, during its improbable playoff run.
If the Buckeyes recapture the magic created two seasons ago, it could be a special season in Columbus.
So what are the realistic expectations for this year’s Buckeyes team?
With the lack of experience and the brutal schedule, it’s easy to envision Ohio State falling behind in the College Football Playoff race this fall. The trip south to Oklahoma will be tough to survive, and back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Penn State in prime time will be hard to navigate early in the Big Ten season.
Ten regular-season wins would be a huge accomplishment for Meyer and the Ohio State coaching staff. Losing as many as four games this fall is in the realm of possibility, but looking back at the 2014 season, it would be foolish to completely rule out a playoff run as well.
It will all depend on how the team comes together this fall. If perimeter weapons emerge to replace lost receiver starters Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller, and if Mike Weber proves a suitable replacement for running back Ezekiel Elliott, this team could surge.
All recruiting information via 247 Sports.
David Regimbal is the lead Ohio State football writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.
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