A year removed from a perfect season, the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes will begin life after NCAA sanctions as they open up the 2013 season with a matchup against the Buffalo Bulls in Columbus.
In a better-than-advertised Mid-American Conference -- a league that produced six nine-win teams in 2012 -- Buffalo under performed, going just 4-8 overall with a 3-5 mark in league play. The squad suffered through a six-game losing streak early on and could never fully recover. Despite the disappointing campaign, it was still Jeff Quinn's best showing since taking over head coaching duties in 2010.
"I think we have more guys providing leadership both on and off the field (this season)," Quinn said. "There is a lot more continuity and consistency. We are not satisfied at this point. We need to be out there ready to play."
In Urban Meyer's first season at the helm for Ohio State, he managed to bring the program out of the darkness of controversy quicker than anyone expected. Simply put, the Buckeyes were unstoppable in 2012, winning all 12 games, the most notable coming against Michigan State (17-16), Nebraska (63-38), Wisconsin (21-14 in OT) and Michigan (26-21). Unfortunately, an NCAA postseason ban restricted the squad from competing for the national title, but with the sanctions lifted, the path is clear for a championship run here in 2013-14.
"There's been zero conversation about anything other than competing for a championship," Meyer said.
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two programs on the football field.
The Buffalo offense under whelmed last season, scoring just over 21 points per game while managing less than 376 yards per game, and even though the unit saw improvement late in the season with Joe Licata under center, Alex Zordich has regained his role as the team's starting quarterback.
Zordich disappointed last season before losing his starting gig, completing just 51 percent of his passes for 1,254 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. The team won three of four with Licata at the helm, but his stats weren't much to write home about either (.528 completion percentage, seven TDs, three INTs). Regardless of the depth chart for this game, both signal-callers should see plenty of action this year.
Branden Oliver pieced together a fine season at running back in 2012, rushing the ball 148 times for 821 yards (5.5 ypc) while finding the end zone five times. Devin Campbell (502 yards) impressed as a freshman and should receive his fair share of carries as well.
The X-factor in the Bulls' offensive attack is wideout Alex Neutz, who was named to the All-MAC First Team despite shaky QB play, hauling in 65 receptions for 1,015 yards and 11 scores. There's not much receiving talent to speak of behind Neutz, however, as no one else tallied more than 261 receiving yards in 2012.
Defensively, Buffalo played much better in the second half of the season and finished the campaign ranked 37th in the FBS in total defense, yielding just 363.7 ypg. The unit also showed a knack for getting to the quarterback, racking up 34 sacks in 12 games.
Anchoring the UB defense is two-time all-conference performer Khalil Mack. One of the best linebackers in the country, Mack tallied 94 tackles, 21 TFL and 8.0 sacks a year ago, and it's not out of the question that he tops those marks as a senior.
Overall, the unit returns eight starters, among them Lee Skinner (89 tackles), Jake Stockman (58 tackles), Najja Johnson (five INTs) and Cortney Lester (four INTs).
Meyer implemented his spread offense upon his arrival at Ohio State, and the team took to it rather seamlessly, leading the Big Ten in scoring with 37.2 ppg, and a high number will once again be attainable in 2013 with the return of the team's Heisman-caliber quarterback.
Braxton Miller is the perfect signal-caller to run Meyer's system, equally dangerous inside and out of the pocket. He completed 58.3 percent of his pass attempts for 2,039 yards, tossing 15 touchdowns paired with just six interceptions last year, but where he really made waves was on the ground, as he rushed for 1,271 yards and 13 scores.
Adding to the Buckeyes' dynamic rushing attack will be tailback Carlos Hyde, who was able to take pressure off of Miller with 970 rushing yards to go along with 16 TDs, but he'll be out of action for the first three games of the season while serving a suspension. Jordan Hill (218 yards) is expected to be the lead back in Hyde's absence.
While Ohio State is clearly a run-first team, it has the luxury of leaning on a handful of trusty options in the passing attack. Corey Brown (60 rec, 669 yards, three TDs) is back as Miller's top target, and Devin Smith (30 rec, 618 yards, six TDs) is one of the best deep threats in the Big Ten. Meyer also has plans to incorporate highly-touted freshmen Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson into the equation.
Although the offense is ready to compete for the national title, the defense lags slightly behind. The unit gave up 22.8 ppg, a respectable number, but eight starters were lost after last season
"Defense is where the issues are," Meyer admitted. "We lost our entire front seven, (but) I believe we recruited well."
Linebacker Ryan Shazier (115 tackles, 17 TFL, three FF) returns and will be the unquestioned leader of the defense. Safeties Christian Bryant (71 tackles, INT, two FF) and C.J. Barnett (56 tackles, two INTs) and cornerback Bradley Roby (63 tackles, two INTs, 19 pass breakups) should ensure the Buckeyes have one of the best secondaries in the conference.