The first week of the 2015 season concludes with an excellent primetime matchup on Labor Day, with consensus No. 1 Ohio State traveling to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech in a tough opener for the defending national champs.
The Buckeyes, minus four suspended players, will be looking to avenge their lone loss of 2014, a 35–21 Week 2 defeat in Columbus, while the Hokies hope to upset Ohio State for the second straight year en route to bouncing back after three seasons of mediocrity and offensive struggles.
Here are five storylines to watch for Monday night’s game, which sees Ohio State open on the road for the first time since 2005:
1. The winner of a highly intriguing quarterback battle is finally revealed
Will it be J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones? Urban Meyer has said the starter won’t be known until he runs onto the field Monday night, thus concluding one of the more memorable preseason storylines of recent seasons (especially before it was reported that Braxton Miller was moving to receiver).
Meyer removed some of the drama when he said last week that both quarterbacks would get snaps this season, but you have to expect there’ll be one primary signal caller. Barrett seems to be considered the favorite, as his well-rounded game makes him more of an asset in Ohio State’s spread attack, but even after the starter is revealed it will be interesting to see how much playing time the backup receives, especially if the first passer struggles against Virginia Tech’s fearsome defense. And if Barrett is indeed the winner, the country will be watching for any signs of rust in what will be his first game back after suffering a broken ankle against Michigan last year.
2. Braxton Miller makes his long-awaited debut at wide receiver
The switch to slot receiver (or H-back in the parlance of Meyer’s system) is a natural one in terms of Miller’s athleticism and playmaking ability. There are few athletes in the country more dynamic than him. The question with the move lies in the technique involved and Miller’s catching ability. Can he make a seamless transition after spending the first four years of his career behind center? Monday provides the first opportunity to find out.
Meyer seems to think so—Miller is listed atop the H-back depth chart heading into the opener—and Ohio State’s offense could depend on it. With Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and Corey Smith suspended for Week 1 and Noah Brown lost for the year due to a broken leg, the Buckeyes will be lacking proven contributors in the passing game. Against a dominant group of Hokies pass-rushers and perhaps the top cornerback tandem in the country, Ohio State will need Miller to produce in order to come away with a win. A potential X-factor: Miller is also listed No. 1 at punt returner.
3. Virginia Tech’s struggling offense faces a defense without Joey Bosa
The fourth suspended Ohio State player is the most important one. Bosa, a preseason SI All-America, is a force on the defensive line in stopping the run and especially in rushing the passer. The rest of the Buckeye defense is littered with proven stalwarts and young talents, and Darron Lee and Adolphus Washington, in particular, are adept at creating pressure. But the absence of a player of Bosa’s caliber could still have a significant impact on the game.
The punchless Hokies managed just 4.93 yards per play last year, good for 12th in the ACC, and considering Virginia Tech placed 102nd nationally in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, Bosa would’ve been a nightmare to deal with. Ohio State’s D still poses a significant challenge, but the Hokies caught a big break. With quarterback Michael Brewer returning and a healthier and more experienced collection of skill players, Virginia Tech should be improved on offense, but how much will that affect Monday’s outcome?
4. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott looks to continue his impressive run
While Jones’s unexpected star turn at the end of last season created plenty of headlines, it was Elliott who truly carried Ohio State to the national title, running for an astounding 696 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 9.2 yards per carry in the wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. That late-season tear has rightfully put Elliott on the short list of preseason Heisman contenders, a position bolstered by the fact the Buckeyes return a strong, experienced offensive line.
Elliott faces a tall task Monday in picking up where he left off last season. Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster’s defense has been excellent for years, and this season the Hokies might have one of their better units in recent memory. They return plenty of experience and also get back several players who had injury-shortened 2014 campaigns, including defensive tackle Luther Maddy. If Elliott can have success against the Hokies’ fearsome front, the Heisman hype will certainly be validated.
5. Hokies are attempting an upset that would be even more surprising
With the memory of Ohio State’s title run fresh in our minds, as well as the fact that Virginia Tech struggled to a 7-6 finish last season, the Hokies’ upset last year in Columbus seems even more shocking in retrospect. But at that early point in the season, a young Buckeyes team was still coming together, and Barrett hadn’t yet developed into the Heisman candidate he eventually became. Meyer now has his machine at full operation, and Ohio State enters Monday night a significant favorite even taking into account the four suspended players and the tough atmosphere the Buckeyes will confront at Lane Stadium.
Should Virginia Tech indeed knock off No. 1, Ohio State can take solace in the fact that it proved last year such a defeat isn’t a deathblow to its playoff hopes, especially because it would come at the hands of an ostensibly stronger team. Still, losing would be a discouraging way for OSU to start its title defense.