Ohio State ended its season the way it started, undefeated yet uncertain of how good they actually are.
As the seconds ticked away and it became clear that OSU would indeed down rival Michigan, 26-21, fans started pouring toward the Ohio Stadium’s gates, and eventually onto the field. Their Buckeyes had just completed a perfect season, the sixth in program history, in coach Urban Meyer’s first year in Columbus.
But in that moment of utter jubilation, I could not help but to think “What now?”
As exciting it was to see OSU complete such a historic season, it was also incredibly anticlimactic.
The Buckeyes are 12-0, but are they the best team in college football? Because of a postseason ban due to NCAA violations stemming from 2010’s “Tattoo-Gate” scandal, we might never know. And mind you, the coach and players directly involved with that incident are no longer a part of the current OSU squad.
An appropriate send-off
Ironically enough, the man partly responsible for OSU’s probation, former coach Jim Tressel, was in attendance Saturday, as the 2002 national championship team celebrated its 10-year anniversary.
In his return to the Horseshoe, Tressel was met with raucous applause from the home crowd. Eventually the former players picked their coach up and carried Tressel on their shoulders before putting him down and exiting the field.
It was a feel-good moment watching Tressel be honored in such a fashion. Yes, the man made a mistake, and lost his job for it. But his achievements at OSU should far outweigh that one glaring lapse of judgment. He gave OSU its first national championship in 34 years. He turned Michigan into his annual punching bag, winning all but one of his contests against the Maize and Blue. Toward the end of his tenure he lost some big games, but overall he was 4-3 in BCS bowls-5-3 if you count the vacated 2011 Sugar Bowl.
It was also appropriate because Saturday’s game was the last that OSU will play under the shadow of probation. Judging the stadium’s reaction to Tressel’s presence, it seems that in the eyes of Buckeye Nation, the shadow looming over Tressel’s legacy is subsiding as well.
Give an extra helmet sticker to…
The entire senior class.
Because OSU couldn’t play in a bowl game, the seniors were given the chance to leave prior to the season to transfer to any other program and play immediately.
“They had a free pass to go anywhere in the country that they wanted to go,” Meyer said of the senior class earlier in the week. “And to a man they stayed, to a man they improved, and to a man they had their best year of football.”
After leading the Buckeyes to a 12-0 season, Meyer said that the senior class would go down as one of the best in OSU history.
“I want to make sure they’re properly recognized as one of the great groups of seniors in the history of this program,” Meyer said after the game. “However we’re going to do that, maybe we’ll get 19 bronze statues.”
A look ahead
With OSU’s 2012 season in the books, it’s officially acceptable to look forward to the future. It might be a bright one in Columbus.
Meyer-coached teams have historically made great strides in their second season. After taking command of Florida in 2005, Meyer led the Gators to a national championship in 2006-perhaps ironically against Tressel’s Buckeyes. Before that, he coached Utah to a 12-0 record and a BCS bowl win in 2004 after accepting the job the year prior.
For Meyer to improve upon this season next year he will have to go 14-0 and win the national championship. The expectations will be sky-high, but he’ll have the talent and schedule in place to reach them.
Braxton Miller will return as a preseason Heisman favorite, and rightfully so. The sophomore was incredible in his first year in Meyer’s system, becoming the first Meyer-coached quarterback ever to run for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
If Miller continues to progress, particularly as a passer, he will become one of college football’s most lethal signal-callers. With the likes of wide receivers sophomore Devin Smith and junior Corey Brown also returning, OSU’s passing attack should be greatly improved.
It’s not as if Miller will have to carry the load by himself, either. There was a time, early in the season, when defenses could key in on Miller and shut down the Buckeyes’ rushing attack. That all changed with the emergence of junior running back Carlos Hyde.
Despite missing two games, Hyde rushed for 970 yards and 16 Touchdowns, and Meyer said he’s “developing into one of the best backs in the country.” Hyde will also benefit from an offensive line that returns four of five starters.
On defense there are some key losses, particularly in the front seven. Defensive ends Nathan Williams and John Simon both graduate, and junior defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins will likely depart OSU early for the NFL Draft. Fortunately, Meyer brought in some of the nation’s elite defensive line prospects in last year’s recruiting class, and three of them showed flashes of greatness this year.
“Sometimes you recruit guys that are overrated,” said Meyer of freshmen defensive linemen Tommy Schutt, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. “(Those guys) are not overrated. They’re going to be great players here.”
At linebacker, the Buckeyes lose seniors Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein. But arguably the best of OSU’s linebacker trio, sophomore Ryan Shazier, returns, as do both of the Buckeyes’ safeties, juniors C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. The biggest question mark on defense is at cornerback. Redshirt-sophomore Bradley Roby played at an All-Big Ten level this year, and could test his luck in the NFL Draft. If he does, OSU will be in trouble, as redshirt senior cornerback Travis Howard is also gone.
Bringing Roby back for his junior year could be Meyer’s most important recruiting task, but he’s bringing in some exceptional high school talent too. ESPN currently ranks OSU’s class as sixth best, and that can improve in the coming weeks. Meyer did an exceptional job recruiting skill positions players that better fit his system, and that should pay dividends next fall.
OSU benefited from a soft schedule on rout to an undefeated season this year, and next year’s schedule might be less imposing. A trip to Michigan will be tough, but the Buckeyes host Wisconsin and Penn State, and don’t play Nebraska or Michigan State.
The “marquee” out-of-conference game is on the road against a California team that just stumbled to a 3-9 record and fired its coach. Traveling cross-country could provide some difficulties for OSU, but the Golden Bears likely won’t.
With so much talent returning and an easy schedule at hand, it’s entirely possible that OSU will run the table again next year. Next time around, the finish won’t be so anticlimactic.