2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: For most programs, winning 12 games and going to the Orange Bowl would be considered a wildly successful season. For Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeyes, who finished ranked No. 12, it simply meant there is more work to be done to bring a national title back to Columbus.
In racing out to a 12-0 record for the second straight year, the Buckeyes looked every bit the BCS title contender many pundits had pegged them to be at the outset of the season. All but two of their dozen victories were decided by double digits. There were back-to-back wins over nationally-ranked conference foes (23) Wisconsin (31-24) and (16) Northwestern (40-30). Following a mid- October bye, there was a three-game stretch that saw OSU thump Penn State, Purdue and Illinois (the latter two on the road) by an average margin of 60-16. And, of course, a thrilling 42-41 win at Michigan.
However, all of that momentum came to a screeching halt in the Big Ten title game, when a victory would have sent the Buckeyes to Pasadena for the BCS Championship. Instead, they allowed Michigan State to reel off 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to win it, 34-24. A month later against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, OSU committed four second-half turnovers and, for the first time, lost a game when scoring at least 35 points (40-35).
OFFENSE: The 2013 Buckeyes boasted the nation's No. 3 scoring offense (45.5 ppg) and No. 5 rushing attack (308.6 ypg). However, a lot of that production came from All-Big Ten back Carlos Hyde, who was a second-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Then again, all-conference quarterback Braxton Miller contributed 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground last year, and he was poised for possibly even greater success before a recent shoulder injury put an end to his season before it even began. With Miller, who is the reigning two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year on the shelf, redshirt freshman T.J. Barrett will likely start the season under center.
Leading receiver Corey Brown has moved on, but senior Devin Smith appears ready for an increased role after catching 44 passes for 660 yards and 8 scores last year. The same goes for senior tight end Jeff Heuerman (26 rec, 466 yds, 4 TDs).
During his media day session, head coach Urban Meyer called out the offensive line as one area of concern, saying he did not see enough growth during spring sessions. Only one starter returns from last year's unit that paved the way for OSU's national-best 6.8 ypc team average.
DEFENSE: The defense returns eight starters, but two of the unit's biggest stars, linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby, went in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft. Cornerback Doran Grant had 3 interceptions to go along with 13 passes defended and 58 tackles last season, and he now steps into a leadership role as a senior.
"We completely have blown up and started from scratch, an area that we were not very strong in, pass defense," Meyer said. "And (def. coordinator) Chris Ash has done an admirable job of installing a brand new pass defense that we're going to test and see how it goes during training camp. Went very well during spring."
Up front, disruptive tackle Michael Bennett (11.5 TFL, 7.0 sacks) returns along with sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa (13.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks).
Meyer noted that his linebacking corps lacks a big-name talent such as former OSU standouts James Laurinaitis, A.J. Hawk or Shazier. However, he likes the progress the group has made as a whole.
"It's the best the (linebacker) group's been right now," Meyer said. "And that's just as far as chemistry, as far as trust, as far as operating as a unit. So I'm anxious to see them play ... It's about time we played linebacker ball, linebacker play the way Ohio State is used to. I think you're going to see it this year."
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Buckeyes are looking for a new kicker after Drew Basil was lost to graduation. In steps freshman Sean Nuernberger, a two-time Kentucky all-state kicker. An unproven collegiate kicker on a national title contender always makes for high drama. Then again, with the offense lighting up scoreboard every Saturday, Basil attempted only 10 field goals in 2013.
At punter, Cameron Johnston became a rather significant weapon last year as a freshman. He averaged 44.0 yards on 49 punts, with a long of 71 and 11 punts that traveled more than 50 yards. Johnston pinned an impressive 31 punts inside the 20 with only two touchbacks.
OUTLOOK: OSU will begin the 2014 campaign ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll. But make no mistake, the Buckeyes are ultimately playing the regular season for positioning in the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Of note on the schedule, a Week 11 trip to East Lansing in a rematch of the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes open the season at Navy then come home to face Virginia Tech. They open league play at new Big Ten member Maryland on Oct. 4, followed by a bye week and then the other league newbie, Rutgers. OSU gets Michigan at home this year.
With Miller out of action and the loss of some big-time talent to graduation, Meyer has his work cut out for him. But since he took over at Ohio State in 2012, the coach has produced one top-notch recruiting class after another so it will be interesting to see if he can mold this year's club into a national title contender.