With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
Next up is a matchup with the 2014 National Champions Ohio State, a team that loses just about everybody from last year.
Returning Starters: 6 (3 offense, 3 defense)
2015 Record: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)
Coach: Urban Meyer, 5th year (50-4)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2015 S&P+ Overall: 3rd
2015 S&P+ Offense: 14th
2015 S&P+ Defense: 7th
2016 S&P+ Projection: 14th (32 spots above Northwestern)
Ohio State entered the 2015 season as the reigning national champions and the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. It started the season 10-0, with its closest game being an intense 34-27 victory over Indiana in Bloomington. The game that wound up defining the Buckeyes’ 2015 season came against Michigan St. on November 21. At this point Ohio State had dropped to third in the AP poll, despite not losing a game. In that matchup, the Buckeyes fell to the Spartans in a very messy game, 17-14. They came out the next week and blew the doors off of their rival Michigan, 42-13, but at that point it didn’t matter. Due to the head-to-head tiebreaker, Michigan State was the Big Ten East division champion. The Buckeyes went on to solidly defeat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and finish 12-1, but despite all that, it was somewhat of a disappointing season.
There isn’t a lot that we know for sure about the Ohio State offense at this point considering they bring back exactly three starters from last year, but we can pretty comfortably state that it’ll still be really good. After all the dust has cleared from the quarterback dilemma in Columbus last year, J.T. BARRETT IS STILL ON THE ROSTER. Barrett was the best quarterback in the Big Ten in 2014, but got hurt at the end of the season. During that year, he threw for 2834 yards and 34 touchdowns and ran for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns. Then after Cardale Jones came in and led the Buckeyes to a national championship, Urban Meyer decided to stick with Jones at QB, even though Barrett was probably still better. Well, this is now officially Barrett’s show to run. At this point, he’s the only sure thing at any skill position.
The biggest position where someone will need to step up is running back. The 2015 Ohio State offense was basically just Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott ran for 1821 yards and 23 touchdowns while averaging 6.3 yards per carry, good enough to get himself picked fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys. Right now, it looks like the man to replace Elliott will be redshirt freshman Mike Weber. During spring ball it appeared as if the starter would be either Weber or Bri’onte Dunn, but Dunn has since been dismissed from the program so it looks like Weber will be the one to carry the heavy rushing load in 2016.
At wide receiver, redshirt sophomore Noah Brown seems to be the main candidate to lead the way. Brown has yet to do anything too meaningful on the field for OSU, but the four-star recruit had been gaining massive hype last year before breaking his leg. He’s finally healthy this year and will likely be the Buckeyes’ number one wideout. Beyond Brown, guys like Corey Smith and Curtis Samuel will catch passes, and ideally someone will emerge as a standout No. 2. As long as J.T. Barrett stays healthy, this offense will be fine.
Similar to the offense, almost no starters return to the defense. Out of the top 10 tacklers on the team, only three players return: leading tackler and linebacker Raekwon McMillan, defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis and cornerback Gareon Conley. Everybody else is gone. Gone are Joey Bosa, Joshua Perry and Eli Apple. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash also left to go coach Rutgers. Despite all this, the defense is still probably going to be solid, if not great.
The defensive line will have the most experience heading into the season, as the Buckeyes have Lewis along with Sam Hubbard on the ends. Lewis had 54 tackles, 14.0 TFLs and 8.0 sacks in 2015, while Hubbard had 28, 8.0 and 6.5 respectively. They’ll also have veterans in the middle with redshirt juniors Michael Hill and Tracy Sprinkle. Finally, the unit has a much-hyped early enrollee in Nick Bosa, who may end up being just as good as his brother.
The linebacking corps returns one of the defense’s best players in McMillan and fills in two capable starters around him in Dante Booker and Chris Worley. McMillan had 119 tackles last year, while Booker and Worley played in stints and had 22 and 17 respectively. This group will probably have some problems early in the season, but the presence of McMillan should be enough to hold it together.
Lastly, the secondary is the least experienced group on this defense. The three players that aren’t Gareon Conley had a combined 21 tackles last season, while Conley had 49 and 2 interceptions. Those players would be Malik Hooker, Erik Smith and Marshon Lattimore. Not at ton is certain here at this point, and due to inexperience, the Buckeyes may have some troubles defending opposing passing games throughout the season. The defense won’t be as good as it was last year but will still be fine, at worst.
Three Players to Know
Mike Weber, RB – Weber was a four-star recruit coming out of high school and at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, our friends over at Land-Grant Holy Land describe Weber as a "bowling ball." Apparently everyone on the team also calls him "baby Carlos Hyde." Weber dominated in spring ball, and has a shot to become yet another great Ohio State running back.
Raekwon McMillan, MLB – McMillan was Ohio State’s leading tackler in 2015, and while he wasn’t as flashy of a name as Joey Bosa, he’s still one of the team’s best defenders. He’s right up there with Anthony Walker as one of the best linebackers in the conference and will be making plays all over the field against Northwestern.
J.T. Barrett, QB – This is the obvious one, but Barrett really is the lifeblood of the offense. If he gets going, this team will be able to almost score at will. His mobility allows him to evade the pass rush and gain yards with his legs. Barret is also good in the pocket and can beat you with his arm. He’s your archetypal dual threat quarterback.
Behind Enemy Lines
Colton Denning of SBNation’s Ohio State blog, Land-Grant Holy Land, takes our questions.
Best Case Scenario for Ohio State in 2016
Colton: The best case scenario for Ohio State is that they take home their second national championship in three years. How they get there is the tricky part. With road games at Oklahoma and Michigan State – as well as Happy Valley and Camp Randall – it’s not realistic to paint a scenario in which a young Ohio State team romps through the regular season undefeated. However, with Urban Meyer at the helm, and the most talent in the conference, a title is always a possibility. For Ohio State to reclaim the top spot in college football, I think two things need to happen:
First, JT Barrett has to stay healthy. With so many unknowns at the offensive skill positions, Barrett may be counted on to shoulder the load in the run game, especially early on. There’s also no proven depth behind Barrett at quarterback, so his health is paramount to the Buckeyes reaching their full potential in 2016.
Secondly, young talent must fill the void that NFL departures left, especially on the defensive line. If the line plays at a high level from the start of the season, it would go a long way in aiding the development of the young back seven and could lead to a stellar defense by the end of the year.
Worst Case Scenario
Colton: Flip everything around from the ‘best case scenario’ section, and you have the Ohio State nightmare season.
If all that happens, I still think Ohio State’s worst case scenario is only 8-4, with the Oklahoma game being the only certain loss. Road games against Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are all tossups, and while Michigan might be the best team in the conference, the Buckeyes get them at home.
Those are the only four conference games I can see them losing, and given that they’ve only lost once in regular season conference play under Meyer in four years, three B1G losses would be shocking. Even with the exodus of players to the NFL, it’s the most talented overall team since he’s been in Columbus, and I wouldn’t bet against his track record of developing stars, or winning big, for that matter.
Prediction for Ohio State vs. Northwestern
Colton: As long as it doesn’t play out like the nauseating 2013 game, then I’m good with whatever. In all seriousness though, this game would have been better suited for Northwestern if it were earlier in the season. Any advantage the Wildcats defense would have playing a young Ohio State offense will be gone by October 29. While I don’t expect the Buckeyes to go Tennessee on the Wildcats, they’ll put up points.
Conversely, I don’t know how Northwestern will keep up, unless the passing game is drastically improved by that point. I’d imagine they’ll have some success on the ground, but trying to fast tempo Ohio State on the road is a recipe for three and outs and a tired defense.
A 34-10 Ohio State win sounds about right, with Northwestern’s defense playing well, but ultimately spending too much time on the field for it to matter. (As an aside, I’m really excited to watch Anthony Walker play against OSU. What a stud!)
Season Prediction for OSU
Colton: I’ll predict Ohio State finishes the 2016 season 10-2 with one conference loss, winning not only the Big Ten East, but the conference as a whole, while just missing out on the Playoff.
There are a ton of new faces that must step up on each side of the ball, and while they may be unknowns at this point, they don’t lack for talent. Much will be made about the loss of Ezekiel Elliott, but Mike Weber is poised to be the next Buckeye running back to cross the 1000-yard mark, and along with contributions from Barrett and possibly Curtis Samuel, they’ll be fine in that department.
Defensively, it’s the same thing, although a tad more worrisome. The defensive line should end up playing splendidly, despite the loss of Bosa and Washington, even if depth is a bit of a concern. Hubbard may well turn himself into a first round pick next year, and Lewis is a candidate for double digit sacks.
Raekwon McMillan is an All-American candidate at middle linebacker and should help bring stability to the defense. While the linebackers and safeties are mostly inexperienced, both are stocked with high talent kids who haven’t seen major playing time mostly because the players in front of them were too good to take off the field.
While not exactly on the same level, I think Ohio State has reached where Alabama got to around 2011-2012. The recruiting classes have been so stacked with talent, that at this point it’s almost plug and play across the board, which is why I’m not overly concerned about the roster turnover. They have far and away the most talent in the conference, as well as the best coach. Michigan is on the rise, but I still think the Buckeyes match up very well against them, and The Game in Columbus will be what gives them the advantage over the Wolverines in the East, and in turn, the conference. They’re probably going to be in the thick of the Playoff race, and if they somehow beat Oklahoma, a Playoff appearance – and possibly more – isn’t completely out of the question.
The thing about Ohio State’s massive turnover is that while there may be some growing pains, it means almost nothing. The Buckeyes are replacing super talented players with more super talented players. It’s not next man up, it’s next four or five-star recruit up. Ohio State has one of the most talented rosters in the nation this season, even if it isn’t yet proven. Barring some sort of miracle, Northwestern will not fare well in this game. The last time the Wildcats played Ohio State, they lost a nail biter at Ryan Field (#KainColterGotTheFirstDown) and then proceeded to lose the next six games. While it’s unlikely that something like 2013 would happen again, the Buckeyes just simply have too much talent for Northwestern to compete with in Columbus.
Date: Oct. 29
Time: 4:30 p.m. CST