Ohio State aiming to end SEC's title streak in 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ryan Shazier grew up in Plantation, Fla., and committed to play at Florida before its coach left. The star linebacker wound up playing for Urban Meyer a bit farther north, but he's reminded constantly of the region he left.
"I hear about it all the time from my cousin -- SEC this, SEC that," said Shazier. "There's one reason I came to Ohio State -- to beat up on the SEC."
Bradley Roby hails from Suwanee, Ga. The All-America cornerback would love to face Alabama so he could talk trash with close friend and Tide linebacker Adrian Hubbard -- and also because it would likely mean Roby's Buckeyes are playing on the final night of the college football season.
"The SEC has won, what, seven [BCS titles] in a row?" said Roby. "What better than for Ohio State to be the team that ends it? That's what we're looking to do this year."
A lot of people believe the Buckeyes to be the nation's best hope of ending the SEC's national championship stranglehold in 2013. That sentiment took hold the day Ohio State hired former two-time SEC and BCS champion Meyer some 18 months ago, and it gained momentum when his debut team went 12-0 in a season shortened by sanctions. While two-time defending champion Alabama will be the overwhelming favorite to hoist the crystal football again next January, the Buckeyes are a trendy pick to emerge as its prime challenger. In fact, at least one major outlet has already elevated Ohio State above the Tide.
But might all of this buzz be a bit premature?
By their own admission, the Buckeyes were a work in progress for most of 2012, feasting on a historically weak Big Ten in assembling their undefeated regular-season record and No. 3 ranking in the final AP Poll. Ohio State finished a modest 34th nationally in total defense (359.6 yards per game), 47th in total offense (423.8 yards per game), 13th in Jeff Sagarin's power ratings and 14th in Football Outsiders' F/+ efficiency ratings, respectively. They're certainly not apologizing for their feat -- two huge banners inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center celebrate the accomplishment and the players received "12-0" rings -- but few would dispute that Ohio State's record was deceiving.
Much of the enthusiasm for 2013 centers on the notion that the Buckeyes will follow the same path Florida did in its second season under Meyer, when it improved from a shaky 9-3 team to a 13-1 BCS champion. Gators quarterback Chris Leak, much like Meyer quarterbacks Alex Smith (Utah) and Josh Harris (Bowling Green), improved dramatically in his second season running Meyer's spread offense, leaving Buckeyes fans salivating at the prospects for star Braxton Miller in his second campaign under Meyer's watch. And as those same fans remember painfully well, dominant defensive ends Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss keyed Florida's 41-14 rout of Ohio State in that year's BCS title game (which began the SEC's current streak); Meyer's first batch of blue-chip defensive linemen are expected to play pivotal roles this fall.
No one can assess the roster better than Meyer himself. Looking out at the practice field this spring, did he see the same type of high-caliber athletes as he did during his six seasons coaching and coaching against those SEC powers?
"Yes, but not as many," he said during an early April visit. "On special teams, you see it's not the same. The depth is different right now. But we're working hard to make it better."
While known primarily as an offensive innovator, Meyer's best Florida teams won first behind their defense. His 2012 Ohio State team struggled defensively early last season, giving up too many big plays to mediocre opponents like Cal and Purdue, but it bounced back late in the year. Over the last four games, that same defense sparked big road wins at Penn State and Wisconsin and held Michigan to a mere 279 yards.
Unfortunately, the departure of six of the Buckeyes' starting front seven -- including standout linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins -- makes it difficult to build on that momentum. On the other hand, Shazier, a rising junior who was playing at an All-America level by season's end (115 tackles, 17 tackles for loss), is a nice cog to construct a unit around. The coaches will also count on former all-everything recruits like sophomore defensive linemen Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence and junior linebacker Curtis Grant to make the transformation from second-string youngsters into key contributors.
"The front seven, where we have a tremendous void, we're starting to see glimpses of some very good players," said Meyer. "Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence -- as far as talent, they can play anywhere in America, but they're still not exactly where they need to be."
It helps that the Buckeyes have three reliable veterans in their secondary in Roby, who led the country last season with 19 passes defended (interceptions and breakups) in 12 games, and senior safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett. Physical junior Doran Grant will likely line up opposite Roby at cornerback.
Still, it's on the other side of the ball where fans expect to see Ohio State make its biggest strides. For much of last season, the Buckeyes' offensive approach could best be described as "Run, Braxton, Run." The fleet-footed quarterback averaged nearly 19 rushing attempts per game and amassed 1,271 yards, though that wasn't always by design.
"Part of Braxton being the bell cow -- the main toter of the rock, if you will, was his inexperience in distributing the football," said offensive coordinator Tom Herman. "There were a lot of times the football probably should have been out of his hands but was still in his hands because of his lack of knowledge of what we were trying to do."
By all accounts, Miller -- a 58.3 percent passer last season -- became a more vocal leader and more complete player this spring, showing many of the same signs of progress that previous second-year Meyer quarterbacks have. Perhaps equally important, his supporting cast looks far more promising than it did at this time a year ago.
The offensive line, which returns four starters, is the undisputed strength of the team. Tailback Carlos Hyde, who recovered from an early-season injury to rush for 970 yards in 10 games, will take some of the load off Miller. Receivers Devin Smith, Philly Brown and Chris Fields have all earned Meyer's praise.
But Meyer is still looking for another playmaker or two to take the offense to another level, much like then-freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin did for the coach's 2006 Florida title team. The logical candidate is Jordan Hall, an injury-plagued senior running back who Meyer hopes to plug into Harvin's old hybrid H-back role. Unfortunately, Hall missed all but four games last season with foot and knee injuries and then sat out much of this spring with a hamstring injury. Meyer calls Hall's anticipated emergence "a necessity."
Meyer also points to incoming freshmen Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliott -- all four-star running backs/athletes and high school track stars -- as possible instant-impact playmakers. "I'm hoping they are exactly those kind of guys," said Meyer. "They're supposed to be. That's what the Rivals and Scout tell us."
Once an early draft fixture, Ohio State produced just three first- or second-round NFL draft picks from its past three squads; three-time Big Ten champ Wisconsin produced twice as many over that span, as well as more picks overall (14-13). This season, the Buckeyes should return to their once-given status as the most talented team in the conference, and while the schedule has a few potential speed bumps (a Sept. 14 cross-country trip to Cal, a home game against Wisconsin and a road game at Northwestern to open Big Ten play), they'll be seen as prohibitive favorites nearly every week leading up to their Nov. 30 finale at Michigan.
Schedule posters plastered around the football facility list that game as The Team Up North. They also include three more potential dates -- the Dec. 7 Big Ten championship game, Jan. 1 Rose Bowl and Jan. 6 BCS national title game -- that weren't on the table last year. Few doubt the Buckeyes have what it takes to get there. The question is whether the most talented team in the Big Ten is yet on the same level as the championship-winning squads down south.
"We have a big opportunity this year to do something special and I think we all realize that," said offensive lineman Jack Mewhort. "... You don't come to Ohio State to be in the back of the line, you come here to be on top, and that's what guys have been thinking about their whole careers here."
As for a possible BCS championship date, Mewhort said: "I'd be excited to play one of those big SEC powerhouses."
He's not alone. Seven years ago, Ohio State became the first victim of the SEC's run of dominance. Now, that very same program may hold the best hope of ending the streak. "I'm not saying we're 100 percent ready yet," said Shazier. "... But once the season comes, we will be the best team in college [football]."