A mostly new cast of characters takes center stage in Columbus this season. J.T. Barrett, a four-year starter at quarterback, is gone. So is corner Denzel Ward, a top-five NFL draft pick. Another first-round pick in center Billy Price must be replaced as the anchor of the offensive line. But there’s no thought of rebuilding at Ohio State, only the wait to find out who the next stars will be.
The Buckeyes are an overwhelming (-110) favorite to win the Big Ten title. They are expected to make the College Football Playoff, joining a group that includes Alabama, Georgia and Clemson that are seen as distinctly better than whomever the fifth team on the list would be. Such is life when you’re recruiting classes consistently outpace the rest of the Big Ten by decisive margins and when your head coach is one of the all-time greatest in the history of the sport.
Urban Meyer’s record at Ohio State is an astonishing 73-8 and he’s the only coach in the conference that recruits well enough to have a legitimate shot at knocking off Alabama (although James Franklin and Penn State are on the path to changing that, and Michigan under Jim Harbaugh have made noises in the same direction). That’s why the need tor restocking an offensive line, finding a quarterback and putting some new pieces in place defensively don’t cause a ripple of concern.
The inexperienced offensive front is the biggest thing to keep an eye on in the season’s early stages. Ohio State doesn’t play anyone on the par of Oklahoma, the way the have the past two seasons, in non-conference play. But a September 15 trip to Arlington to play TCU will provide an early test. Two weeks later, the Penn State game comes early, with a trip to Happy Valley.
But those teams also have rebuilding to do up front and the Buckeyes are the team with explosive playmakers that can cover for some mistakes early on. J.K. Dobbins ran for over 1,400 yards last year and averaged better than seven a pop. Mike Webber would be a Heisman candidate at most programs, but with Ohio State he’s the change-of-pace alternative to Dobbins. Wide receiver Parris Campbell is as capable of anyone at taking a five-yard out and turning it into a big play. That’s a nice security blanket for young quarterback and the playcallers to have.
That quarterback is looking to be Dwayne Haskins, a sophomore who leads a three-man race to succeed Barrett. Haskins is the type of dual-threat QB that Meyer is always at his best with. Haskins played well in some emergency duty at Michigan last year in the second half of a close game and I would be surprised if there’s any real problems with the transition to him.
I’ll also be very surprised if Ohio State can’t get through the month of October with a record of at least 7-1. That keeps them in realistic control of their Playoff fate going into a November where they host Nebraska, visit Michigan State and then have the usual season-ending finale with Michigan on their home field.
By that point, we’ll know if the offensive line has gelled, if Haskins has played up to his potential and if the defense will avoid the meltdowns that saw them give up 93 points in consecutive weeks last year against Penn State and Iowa.
If there is still problems at the end of October, maybe we can think about a new team coming out of the Big Ten. Until then, the Buckeyes should just be penciled in as the favorite to win this league. The assembly line is still churning in Columbus.