Cody Cousino / Multimedia editor
If not for a postseason ban, Ohio State football might be preparing to play in the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game. Instead, the Buckeyes’ season is over, even though they are one of only two undefeated teams in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision. The good news for the Buckeyes and their fans is that they should be in even better position for a national championship next season.
The progress made within the OSU football program in Urban Meyer’s first year as coach was remarkable. A team that went 6-7 in 2011 won all 12 of its contests in 2012. It is uncertain whether going undefeated would have been enough for the Buckeyes to earn a berth in the national title game, but they certainly would have been in the mix.
The 2013 season, however, sets up even better for the Buckeyes. They will bring back most of the standouts from this season’s team, have an incoming top-10 recruiting class and a schedule very favorable to the prospect of going undefeated again.
Offensively, the Buckeyes should only lose two starters from this season, redshirt senior wide receiver Jake Stoneburner and senior right tackle Reid Fragel.
Leading the returners for the Buckeyes will be sophomore quarterback and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller, one of college football’s elite playmakers as both a passer and runner. Junior running back Carlos Hyde should be back after a 970-yard, 16-touchdown season, while junior Corey Brown and sophomore Devin Smith are explosive playmakers at wide receiver.
With four of five starters back on the offensive line, and a plethora of playmakers around them, the Buckeyes should have one of the nation’s best offenses next year. Specifically, with a strong crop of returning runners including Miller, Hyde, sophomore Rod Smith and Jordan Hall, who is expected to be back as a fifth-year senior on a medical redshirt, a rushing offense that ranks 10th nationally in rushing yards per game this season could be even better next year.
Defensively, the Buckeyes will have to make up for some tough losses. Six seniors who started on this year’s defense, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and defensive end John Simon, will not be back next season.
The Buckeyes also face the potential losses of junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and redshirt sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby, potential first-round NFL draft picks who are eligible to declare as underclassmen but have yet to announce their decisions.
Even with all of those key losses, however, the Buckeyes have some tremendous talent returning at all three levels of the defense.
The star of next year’s defense could be sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier, who led the team this season with 115 tackles and 17 tackles for loss. On the defensive line, sophomore Michael Bennett and freshmen Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt have all shown big potential already. In the secondary, starting junior safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant are expected back for their senior years.
The Buckeyes have great players returning at nearly every positional unit on the roster and have an incoming recruiting class ranked within the top-nine teams by both Scout.com and Rivals.com. Meyer showed this season with players like Spence, Washington, Schutt and freshman running back Bri’onte Dunn that he can get immediate contributions from true freshmen, and he should be expected to cultivate production from them again next year.
Additionally, the Buckeyes have a schedule that sets up very well for them to win every game. Of the 11 FBS teams on the Buckeyes’ regular season, only five of them are against teams who finished the 2012 regular season with winning records. Only two of those games, against Northwestern on Oct. 5, and Michigan on Nov. 30, are scheduled to be on the road.
This weak schedule could also have a negative effect, as they might not have a chance to prove themselves with any marquee victory during the regular season, and will likely hurt their standing in the BCS computer rankings. They should, however, start the season near the top of the polls, and if they go undefeated, they will finish at or near the top.
When it comes to winning a national championship in a coach’s second year, recent history is also on the Buckeyes’ side. The last time an OSU coach was in his second year leading the team, Jim Tressel led the 2002 Buckeyes to a national title. And when Meyer was at Florida, he led the Gators to a national championship in his second year as coach.
It could be a tough pill to swallow for the Buckeyes to watch two other teams, one of which did not go undefeated, play for the Coaches’ Trophy on Jan. 7 in the national title game. Chances are good, however, that missing their opportunity this year will only motivate the returning players more to pursue a championship in 2013.