It didn’t take Urban Meyer long to put Ohio State football back on the map, going 12-0 in his first year, even while being hindered by NCAA probation incurred during the Jim Tressel era. Now the Buckeyes are free and clear and come into the 2013 season as the heavy favorite to win the Big Ten title.
TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage will look at whether Ohio State is set to run away with at least a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game on December 7 in Indianapolis.
Ohio State has seen some adversity in the summer with the suspension of running back Carlos Hyde, but in terms of its on-field impact, it’s going to be negligible. Hyde is a talented runner to be sure, but the Buckeye offense is built around a veteran offensive front and the all-everything capability of junior quarterback Braxton Miller. The running back options are interchangeable and if fifth-year senior Jordan Hall is forced into a larger role, I have no problem seeing him enjoy a big year.
It’s the defensive side of the ball that Ohio State has to get figured out. There’s a new front four, and a group of mostly young linebacker, anchored by Ryan Shazier. Meyer can lean on a very good secondary, with lockdown corner Bradley Robey and veteran starters at the safety position.
There’s no reason to think Ohio State will disappoint this season. They’re going to score a lot of points, and even if the front seven is vulnerable, opponents are going to be forced, by the pace of the game, to have to throw a lot and into the strength of the defense.
Ohio State should be 11-0 on November 30, when they would begin a potential three-game run to decide their national hopes—at Michigan, a potential Big Ten Championship Game, then the possible BCS National Championship Game.
Wisconsin got a break with the probations of both Ohio State and Penn State in 2012, and the Badgers were able to represent this division in the conference championship game in spite of finishing third with five losses. That was a lucky break, but there was nothing lucky about what happened in Indy last December.
As a partisan Wisconsin fan (I live about an hour’s drive from the campus and go to several home games ), I drove to Indianapolis with a friend, completely pessimistic about what might happen, and instead ended up shocked, as the Badgers dropped 70 points on Nebraska and got a third straight Rose Bowl trip.
What followed was an offseason of transition, as head coach Bret Bielama left for Arkansas and Gary Anderson was hired away from Utah State to replace him. The coaching change, along with uncertainty at quarterback have kept preseason expectations tempered, but this is a very deep and balanced team.
The famed UW running back will be led by James White, a backup to Montee Ball the past two years, who’s ran well enough to start almost anywhere else. And there’s explosive sophomore Melvin Gordon. There are good passing targets in wide receiver Jared Abberderis and tight end Jacob Pedersen.
Defensively, the Badgers have a solid front seven, with seniors starting at every position and linebacker Chris Borland back at the heart of it. The issue will be how fast Anderson can get a secondary in place.
And uncertainty at quarterback doesn’t mean a lack of options. Sophomore Joel Stave started several games last year and played well, before an injury ended his year. Sixth-year senior Curt Phillips stepped in and led some clutch drives. Other well-regarded recruits from both the high school and juco ranks are in the mix.
Anderson has coached a spread-oriented offense in the past, and the fact that either he, or the players on hand, have to make an adjustment is enough to think Wisconsin cannot realistically challenge Ohio State for a spot in Indy. That, and the fact the head-to-head game is in Columbus, and Ohio State has all the virtues outlined above. But Bucky can aim for a 10-win season and possible at-large bid to the BCS.
THE MIDDLE CLASS
Purdue, Indiana and Penn State are all bowl-caliber teams—though in the case of the Nittany Lions they remain on probation for the crimes of Jerry Sandusky. It’s not fair, but it’s still a reality right now. Purdue won six games a year ago, but didn’t look good doing it, and a coaching change resulted. Indiana leapt from 1-11 to 4-8 last year, and given all the returning talent and further leap to 6-6 is hardly out of the question.
Purdue: Darrell Hazell got the Boilermaker job after doing a good job at Kent State and winning the division title. I like Hazell’s chances of making an immediate impact on the Big Ten. He’s in the weaker of the two divisions, he’s got an experienced defense and he’s got a veteran offensive line. Purdue will have to settle on a quarterback, but I like this team to jump into third place.
Indiana: Think of this as the second in a three-year process where Indiana reaches respectability. They’ve got a load of returning starters, and the team was so young, that the same will be true next year. They’re going to score a lot of points, as quarterback Cameron Coffman and a veteran trio of receivers are all back in the fold. They should be improved on both lines, and incoming freshman corner Antonio Allen will quickly impact the secondary.
Penn State: Bill O’Brien did a good job in his first year, going 8-4. We should note, however, that talent was not a problem. There wasn’t a mass exodus of players after the NCAA sanctions as many presumed, so while O’Brien deserves extraordinary credit for keeping his kids focused on football, this probably was an eight-win team in terms of its personnel.
The harder days start to set in now, with a lot of retooling to do in the defensive front seven and uncertainty at quarterback. I did get a kick out of one line O’Brien had, regarding the apparent difficulty his QBs had in picking up the offense in the spring—“It’s not the easiest offense to pick up.” It reminds me of Charlie Weis showing up at Notre Dame and talking about his “decided schematic advantage” over everyone else. O’Brien, like Weis, was offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, and apparently coaching Tom Brady makes everyone think they’re a genius.
Illinois has lost 14 straight Big Ten games. This division has enough weak spots, and the Illini offense enough returning starters that they should at least steal one win somewhere from a napping opponent. But defensive problems mean this is still the conference’s worst team and it’s really not even close.