Maturing starters should help Ohio State come back in '17

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) In the end, the Ohio State Buckeyes' youth and inexperience was exploited by Clemson in the desert.

On the bright side, most of the team that reached the College Football Playoff with only six returning starters and the youngest squad in a Power Five conference will be back next year, likely including quarterback J.T. Barrett.

Barrett and the Buckeyes offensive line struggled on Saturday night as Ohio State was routed by Deshaun Watson and Clemson 31-0 . The running game was shut down, and the only reason the beating wasn't worse was because of All-American safety Malik Hooker and a Buckeyes defense that did what it could. Ohio State was held to a season-low 215 yards and shut out for the first time since 1993.

Ohio State sent a record dozen players to the NFL draft last year, leaving coach Urban Meyer with a young team he thought could be a year away from competing for a championship. But Barrett carried the overachieving team on his back when the passing game faltered, H-back Curtis Samuel emerged as a star and the Buckeyes finished 11-1 with a thrilling double-overtime win over Michigan.

But Ohio State's inexperienced offensive linemen were exposed and Barrett was pummeled.

Barrett, who was injured when the Buckeyes won the 2014 national championship, seemed to indicate that he would return for his final year of eligibility.

''I didn't really give it that much thought, but it will be really hard for me to walk away when we just lost 31-0,'' he said.

Just one starter - All-American center Pat Elflein - is out of eligibility, along with punter Cameron Johnston and kicker Tyler Durbin. The rest of the starters and most of their backups were underclassmen.

The Buckeyes likely will be dinged by some players leaving early for the NFL again but likely will be a preseason top 5 pick and make another strong run for the playoff.

''Our anticipation is to get back here next year and take a good swing at it and realize we've got a lot of work to do,'' Meyer said.

Curtis Samuel, the only player in the nation with 800 yards passing and 700 yards rushing, has another year of eligibility but could leave early for the NFL. He said he hasn't made a decision yet.

On the defense, the fifth best in the nation this year, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, defensive end Tyquan Lewis and cornerback Gareon Conley are juniors and could make the jump early. Hooker, a redshirt sophomore, had said he'd be back, but on Saturday night said he'd have to talk to his family before making a final decision. Linebacker Chris Worley and defensive end Sam Hubbard said they would return.

Mike Weber, a redshirt freshman who rushed for over 1,000 yards during the season but fumbled twice and dropped a pass Saturday, will be back at tailback behind Barrett next year. A promising group of young receivers including Noah Brown, K.J. Hill, Terry McLaurin and Parris Campbell also will return.

A trouble spot will be the offensive line - again. With the departure of stalwart Elflein, guard Billy Price - who said he'll definitely be back next year - could follow in Elflein's footsteps and move to center. The team also will return starters Isaiah Prince, Jamarco Jones and Michael Jordan, all of whom had their ups and downs this season and were dominated by Clemson's defensive line. Prince struggled all year, and the lack of depth on the O-line limited the options.

Meyer said he will take ''a hard look at some things,'' which could involve some further scrutiny of co-offensive coordinators Tim Beck and Ed Warinner, and receivers coach Zach Smith.

''They love you then they hate you then they love you again,'' Weber tweeted after the game. ''The Buckeyes will be back!''

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More AP college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 .

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Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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