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Overlooked or Overrated? Ohio State Is College Football’s Great Unknown in 2016

May 24, 2016

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Between the loss of nearly a starting lineup’s worth of NFL talent, but the return of arguably the Big Ten’s best player and one of college football’s winningest coaches, this much seems to be certain when it comes to Ohio State’s outlook on the 2016 season: nothing’s for certain.

Despite very little having changed for the Buckeyes between the mass exodus of talent that occurred at the end of the 2015 season and the dead period that is this point of the offseason, prognostications on Ohio State’s upcoming campaign have seemingly varied by the day.

The latest public projection has painted a surprisingly bleak picture for the Buckeyes, with Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget sportsbook (via Covers.com) setting Ohio State’s regular-season over/under win total at a meek 8.5.

Unsurprisingly, according to at least one Las Vegas patron, the line on Buckeye regular-season wins has already moved to nine following last week’s initial posting.

And with good reason: Even with five first-round picks, 12 total draft picks and 16 former starters having moved on from last year’s team, winning eight or fewer games would be a massive disappointment for an Ohio State program that’s averaged 11.5 regular-season wins and compiled an overall 50-4 record since Urban Meyer arrived in 2012.

“We certainly don’t lower our standards just because a player moves on,” Meyer said this offseason. “That’s not what this place is all about.”

The early predictions when it came to the Buckeyes seemed to agree with Meyer, even after it had been known the likes of Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Michael Thomas, Darron Lee and Eli Apple were headed to the NFL. As early as February and as recently as a week ago, OddsShark.com listed Ohio State as either a favorite or co-favorite to win college football’s national title in 2016.

While some of that can be based on wanting to receive even money across the board, there’s a reason the Buckeyes have been viewed highly by some sportsbooks throughout the offseason. Despite all Ohio State’s losing, the Buckeyes bring back a third-year starting quarterback in J.T. Barrett, who appeared to return to his 2014 All-American form by 2015’s end.

Of the ultra-competitive Big Ten East’s other contenders—Michigan, Michigan State and even Penn State—none can say they even know who their starting signal-callers will be in 2016 at this point in the offseason.

Add in Meyer’s recruiting prowess and track record of player development and there’s certainly a strong case to be made that the road to the Big Ten title—and in turn, the College Football Playoff—will once again run through Columbus this season.

“There’s a lot of momentum at Ohio State,” Meyer said. “We can’t lose it because we’ve lost some good players.”

And yet for all the goodwill Meyer has seemed to have bought the Buckeyes in his time in Columbus, skeptics remain—even outside of the inexact science that are sportsbook odds. As early preseason Top 25s become more prominent, opinions appear to be even less bullish on the Buckeyes, given the uncertainty surrounding this year’s roster.

According to a composite Top 25 compiled by Bleacher Report’s Justin Ferguson, major media outlets have collectively pegged Ohio State as the nation’s seventh-ranked team heading into 2016. That’s two spots lower than Oklahoma, who the Buckeyes will play in the third week of the 2016 season, and three spots behind rival Michigan, which has seen the Jim Harbaugh hype train only gain steam in its second offseason.

Factor in road trips to Madison, Happy Valley and East Lansing on Ohio State’s upcoming slate and maybe that initial 8.5 over/under total makes a little more sense.

“OU’s going to be a real tough one. [Michigan State] on the road is no fun, and this may be the year Michigan finally takes back the Big Ten,” Golden Nugget college football oddsmaker Aaron Kessler told ESPN.com’s David Purdum. “Wisconsin and Penn State [on the road] are far from ‘gimme’ games.”

And yet still, “I do expect some over money to come in on the Buckeyes,” he added.

So which is it: Is Ohio State being overrated or overlooked in 2016?

While it seems to change daily, the answer likely remains somewhere in between.

This Buckeyes team is probably too talented to lose four regular-season games, but still possesses too many question marks to be considered a legitimate national title favorite. At this point, Meyer and his program have earned a level of required respect, but the amount of talent and experience Ohio State has lost should also be taken into consideration.

Then again, the last time the Buckeyes found themselves in a similar spot under Meyer came in 2014, with star quarterback Braxton Miller out for the year due to injury, first-round picks Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby off to the NFL, along with Carlos Hyde, Philly Brown and four-fifths of Ohio State’s offensive line. Despite the uncertainty—and an early-season loss to Virginia Tech—the Buckeyes went on to capture the first College Football Playoff championship, proving an old cliche true in the process.

It’s not where you start, but where you finish.

“Very similar to the 2014 team,” Meyer said of his own outlook and expectations for Ohio State in 2016. “You saw a steady improvement. And obviously, it culminated in a pretty good finish.”

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report’s Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruit rankings and info courtesy of 247Sports.

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