Breaking down any given team’s strengths and weaknesses doesn’t paint a complete picture. To truly gauge a team’s win-loss potential in the preseason, analyzing the schedule is arguably just as important. We will have detailed, timely, matchup-based write-ups on each opponent in the week leading up. In the interim, we present to you our Northwestern opponent summer look-ahead. It’s a little thing called “Know Your Opponent.” The title describes itself: take a peek at the schedule, read up and head into the fall having already completed part of your weekly opponent studying diet.
Returning starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 4
2012 Record: 12-0 (8-0 Big Ten)
Coach: Urban Meyer, 2nd year
Bowl games are vaguely accurate barometers of teams success. Win more games, and most of the time you wind up slotted into a better bowl game (that sound you hear is Northwestern fans cringing at last season’s Gator Bowl placement; the Capitol One Bowl feels knows no sympathy). Ohio State may have been slotted into the very best bowl game last season at 12-0, were it not for the one-game bowl ban handed down by the NCAA in the aftermath of the famous tats-for-swag scandal. But it truly was a special season for the Buckeyes, and it was only Urban Meyer’s first as head coach. There were some scares – a seven-point nonconference win over Cal, a one-point win at Michigan State, a miraculous overtime win against Purdue, and so on – but there were even more good signs from a team that heads into 2013 as the favorite to not only win the Big Ten but emerge with a shot at challenging whatever assumed SEC opponent may emerge in the final rendition of the BCS National Championship game.
The name you need to know, and most likely already do know, is Braxton Miller. Miller was excellent last season, even as he struggled occasionally with missed throws and misread coverages. All dispatches out of Columbus indicate Miller has refined his throwing technique and accuracy, and a 16-for-25, 217-yard effort in the spring game is a nice way to substantiate those claims. Miller will have a group of talented receivers around him, including senior Corey “Philly” Brown, sophomore Michael Thomas and junior Devin Smith. Jordan Hall is the receiver/running back hybrid many believe Meyer will attempt to morph into something of a Percy Harvin facsimile, and with Carlos Hyde's recent suspension, expect sophomore Bri'onte Dunn and junior Rod Smith to take on more carries. Last but not least, the offensive line, which returns four starters, is arguably the best in the Big Ten.
More than half of last year’s starting defense is gone, and the Buckeyes are hoping some of Meyer’s first recruiting class is ready to fill in the gaps. One of the main emphases of that class was big, strong, fast defensive linemen, and Meyer plucked a few ready to contribute as early as this season. Five-star ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington will bookend the line with power and speed, and try to give OSU the athletic advantage Meyer always gloats about when explaining the difference between the SEC and Big Ten. The linebacking corps features one of the nation’s best in Ryan Shazier, who posted 115 tackles last season. The secondary is populated by some familiar faces; likely future first-round pick Bradley Roby* will man one corner spot and seniors Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett return at safety.
*(Roby was arrested on battery charges over the weekend. His status for the upcoming season is uncertain.)
Three players to know
Braxton Miller, Junior QB – It’s going to be impossible to not pay attention to Miller this season. His name should be in the Heisman conversation all season long, lest Ohio State suffer a few unexpected losses somewhere along the way. Last season was his first running Meyer’s offense, and the second one, with Miller having a better understanding of every mechanical nuance, could see him take another huge leap.
Devin Smith/Corey Brown, Junior/Senior WR – The benefits of Miller’s escapability and improvisational playmaking are legion, but if he wants to push the boundaries of Meyer’s offense, he needs to improve his throwing. Spring practice reports spoke of great progress, and if true, Smith and Brown – explosive targets who combined for 90 catches and 1,287 yards in 2012 – will be the main beneficiaries.
Noah Spence/Adolphus Washington, Sophomore DE – The talent is hard to quibble with; Spence and Washington are tremendous athletes with bright futures. They are also young and relatively inexperienced on a line that lost stalwarts John Simon and Jonathan Hankins this offseason. Both sophomore ends will need to play to their considerable potential this season.
Behind enemy lines: From Matt Brown (@MattLGHL), managing editor of OSU SB Nation Blog Land-Grant Holy Land, on what to expect from the Buckeyes this season:
"After Urban Meyer took a flawed roster to a perfect undefeated season, and then nabbed the #2 recruiting class in the country as an encore, expectations are sky high in Columbus. The Buckeyes return a legitimate Heisman contender in Braxton Miller, along with 4 returning offensive line starters, the deepest RB corps in the Big Ten, an, an experienced secondary, and a young defensive line that has the potential to be elite. The Bucks also have a very manageable schedule, with many believing that a road trip to Northwestern will be the toughest test of the season. Barring injury, a 2 loss season in Columbus would be seen as a huge disappointment. Ohio State fans expect to compete for not just a Big Ten title this year, but a National one.”
The pattern of Urban Meyer’s head coaching career foretells another dominant season for the Buckeyes in 2013. After taking over Utah in 2003, the Utes followed up in ’04 with a 12-0 season and a 35-7 whipping of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. One season after inheriting the Florida Job, Meyer led the Gators to a BCS National Championship. I don’t know if he can top, or even match, what he accomplished in his first season in Columbus; the Buckeyes set the highest possible standard, and plenty of things – missed field goals, weather, sheer misfortune and the like – can make all the difference. What Meyer does have is a team with enough star power, and enough depth around the margins, to end up exactly where it was at the end of last season. Only this time, the Buckeyes could have a BCS invitation waiting at the finish line.