COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State had a lot to play for last fall: Making people forget a year of NCAA investigations and innuendo, rebounding from the worst season in more than a century and living up to the expectations of a new coaching staff.
They more than succeeded with a stunning 12-0 turnaround.
Unlike those Buckeyes, however, the 2013 version is allowed to compete for a Big Ten championship and even a national title. A postseason ban is no longer in force for crimes and misdemeanors committed under the regime of deposed coach Jim Tressel.
The first step is Saturday's game against Buffalo, a rebuilding team hoping to make a good showing while the second-ranked Buckeyes are aiming to serve notice that they're a worthy contender to break the Southeastern Conference's seven-year stranglehold on No. 1.
"Coach (Urban) Meyer came in here and he went 12-0," safety C.J. Barnett said. "Last year we had a chip on our shoulder. We were kind of hunting, but now we're the hunted. We've got the target on our backs. It's tougher when everybody's gunning at you."
Here are five things to watch in the opener for both teams:
HYPE OR HOPE? Braxton Miller embarks on his Heisman Trophy campaign with a better handle on the offense and better mechanics when he steps into the pocket. His receivers are improved over last year. Plus, he has far more options in terms of playmakers.
Even Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn, if he could, would vote for Miller.
"Braxton, to me, is definitely a worthy candidate," he said.
Meyer says Miller will run less and throw more, which will keep him healthier and stronger for the stretch run.
MACK ATTACK: The Bulls' Khalil Mack is not just one of the best LBs in his conference, but in the country. He's so good that he's expected to be among the top couple of players at his position in next spring's NFL draft.
He's also so good that Ohio State's coaches are worried about him.
"He is an extremely, extremely talented player," Buckeyes co-offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "He poses some matchup issues that we'll have to gameplan for."
MAC ATTACK: Ohio State is 28-1 against current members of the Mid-American Conference, the lone smudge on that record being a 12-6 setback to Akron in '94 — 1894, that is.
It's unlikely that the Bulls have enough weapons to keep the Buckeyes at bay, but it's always important to note that the MAC has a history of pulling off shockers.
On Sept. 20, 2003, MAC schools knocked off No. 6 Kansas State, No. 9 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Alabama. That very same afternoon, Bowling Green had Ohio State on the ropes at Ohio Stadium but ended up falling 24-17 in the closest call for a Buckeyes team against an in-state rival since 1921.
YOUTH IS SERVED: Ohio State's offense is composed of grizzled veterans. But the defense? Not so much. Only two seniors will start on that side of the ball, Barnett and Christian Bryant at safety.
Most eyes will be on whether ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington can get to Bulls QB Joe Licata, and whether sophomore Joshua Perry and former five-star recruit Curtis Grant can carry the load at LB.
Also, the Buckeyes will have a freshman handling the punting: 21-year-old Aussie Cameron Johnston.
OLIVER! Buffalo RB Branden Oliver gained 821 yards last year despite missing five games and parts of four others.
If he has success, that's not a good omen for a rebuilt Ohio State defense with eight new starters.
If Oliver finds himself hemmed in a lot, then the Buckeyes will have taken a first step toward being taken seriously in the national-title picture.
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