What a difference a year makes.
Last year at this time, heading into the Spring Game, the Ohio State football team had sky-high expectations. It was National Championship or bust. Fresh off an undefeated 12-0 campaign in a sanctioned 2012 season that prevented any postseason play, and with the addition of a top-five recruiting class, the Buckeyes were picked by some experts to compete for a title in January 2014.
After Auburn upset then-No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl Nov. 30, the Buckeyes moved in the BCS rankings to the No. 2 spot, which would have guaranteed them a spot in the National Championship Game.
Well, two losses later, and here we sit.
Gone is the historic winning streak. Gone is 1,500-yard running back Carlos Hyde, as well as four of five starting offensive linemen.
So, fans head into the 2014 season trying to figure out exactly what to expect from the Buckeyes on the field in the fall. Urban Meyer is still at the helm, and he managed to bring in another stellar recruiting class. Two-time defending Big Ten Player of the Year, senior quarterback Braxton Miller also returns beneath center. Much to the surprise of some fans, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell returns as well, but with two new additions in co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
However, many questions linger: Can the pass defense improve after finishing ranked No. 112 in the country? Can the offense finally establish a consistent intermediate passing game? Which, if any, of the five-star recruits can make an immediate impact? Really, the big question though, is how good is this team?
With the new four-team College Football Playoff system taking effect this year, it is difficult to put a barometer on what constitutes a successful season for the Buckeyes. OSU will always have high standards when it comes to football, and, since it is still one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes should be able to contend yet again for an undefeated regular season.
With another relatively weak non-conference schedule and a conference schedule that doesn’t include Wisconsin, Nebraska, or Iowa, and includes Michigan at Ohio Stadium, the Buckeyes will likely face their biggest test in the form of Michigan State Nov. 8 in East Lansing, Mich.
Should the Buckeyes avenge their Big Ten Championship game loss against the Spartans, they would likely be in the driver’s seat for a chance to win their first Big Ten title under Meyer.
A loss, on the other hand, would likely further the negative big-game perception of the Buckeyes. This team needs to win the Big Ten and win a major bowl game to help silence its critics.
As we saw last year, however, winning those games is easier said than done. The opportunity to prove themselves on the big stage was the Buckeyes’ for the taking, but in the end they let it slip away.
This year, fans can only hope for a season that helps OSU earn back the respect it once had and another chance to prove that the Buckeyes are truly an elite team.