Three games into a new season, fans of the Ohio State football team have seen three different products on the field.
In the first game, the Buckeyes used a second half surge to beat Navy in Baltimore, but the team fell off in week two. A loss to Virginia Tech showed a different OSU — one that could very well struggle through the Big Ten schedule — despite moments of promise. In week three, the team shellacked Kent State, 66-0, but it’s hard to know exactly what that says about the Buckeyes’ potential.
With OSU scheduled for a week off before taking on Cincinnati, here are five thoughts to ponder about the team’s potential, personnel decisions and game planning for the Bearcats.
1. Is it a rebuilding year if a trip to Indianapolis is the ceiling?
Let’s face it, the chances of OSU making the first-ever College Football Playoff are pretty slim. The Buckeyes most likely needed to finish the regular season with an undefeated record to be one of the final four.
With one loss, those chances are all but dashed — especially since that one loss coming against an unranked team that fell to East Carolina the following week.
That said, OSU could easily be in the running for a conference title when December rolls around.
If the Buckeyes do make a trip to Indianapolis — where the Big Ten Championship game is set to be played Dec. 6 — it might not even mean they won the rest of their games. A loss to Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., wouldn’t by any means eliminate OSU from Big Ten-title contention, since there is no guarantee the Spartans won’t stumble as well, and a loss to any other team seems unlikely considering the general lack of impressiveness displayed by the Big Ten so far this season.
A Big Ten Championship is always on the list of goals for an OSU team, but it’s never at the top — meaning if that is the highest accolade attainable, the season wasn’t quite a success.
2. When will it be time to lean on the freshmen?
Coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting has been dominant since he arrived in Columbus, especially in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten.
As true as that may be, his freshman classes haven’t necessarily made the biggest immediate impact through his first two-and-a-quarter seasons, but this year’s bunch has a chance to change that.
You can forget about J.T. Barrett — as a redshirt he isn’t technically part of this year’s class — but there is still a plethora of talent that came in a year after him. Freshman running back Curtis Samuel has looked like the best option out of the Buckeyes’ backfield so far, while freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan has played very well in limited time on the field.
Neither are necessarily considered starters or “the guy” at their positions, but both should find more and more playing time going forward.
Beyond that duo, freshman wide receiver Johnnie Dixon won’t be redshirting, so it might be time to see what he can do against a team other than Kent State. Beyond that, there is depth along the offensive and defensive lines that could be provided if more true freshmen are given a shot.
Regardless of talent among some of the older players, OSU might want to start phasing in the youngsters as soon as possible, because they could legitimately provide game-changing impact.
3. Has Barrett’s general success put the writing on the wall for his backup?
Barrett, while not always convincing, has put up numbers that are hard to argue with so far this season. He threw for 312 yards and tied a school record with six touchdown passes against Kent State and has already picked up three Big Ten weekly awards.
If he continues to play well — especially when you consider a potential return of senior Braxton Miller next season — will 2014 mark the last season redshirt-sophomore Cardale Jones spends in Columbus?
Beyond Barrett and Miller, Jones would potentially be competing with the highly-touted recruit Torrance Gibson — who has yet to commit, but could be coming to Columbus next season.
Jones has never done a ton to turn the coaching staff away from him completely, but he’s never been overly impressive when on the field either. If he ever wants to start as a college quarterback, his best chance might be away from OSU.
4. Three weeks in, do any seniors regret coming back?
Coming into the season, OSU was widely expected to be one of the best, if not the best, teams in the country. When Miller went down with a torn labrum, that all changed.
While the team was still expected to be pretty good — and hasn’t been awful this season — a realist might say the Buckeyes’ season goals have to be adjusted.
With a potential National Championship seeming unlikely, do players like senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett, senior tight end Jeff Heuerman and Miller himself regret returning for one last go around for the Scarlet and Gray?
Bennett could have been a potential first-round draft pick, while Heuerman and Miller would very possibly have made an NFL team as undrafted or late-round pickups. There’s no certainty with that path, but the money it offers might go missed without the potential of bigger and better things awaiting the end of this season for OSU.
5. How worried is a young defensive backfield about taking on Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel?
Kiel, a redshirt-sophomore transfer from Notre Dame, was one of the highest-rated quarterbacks in recent memory coming out of high school. With just one game under his collegiate belt, he has already posted six touchdowns and better than 400 yards through the air.
While not as porous as it was at times last season, the OSU pass defense surely took notice, especially considering the youth in the lineup. The safeties — redshirt-sophomore Tyvis Powell and sophomores Vonn Bell and Cam Burrows — will have to be ready to step up and help an at-times struggling cornerback corps for the Buckeyes.
If that one position group holds strong, OSU could be looking at an easy win. But if it doesn’t, it could be another long day for the Buckeye faithful.