At this point it seems like it would take something seismic to shake the Buckeyes off their current perch among the two or three best programs in the country. Oh, sure, Penn State got a big play at the right time and took the conference crown last year, but there’s no real question as to the best program in the Big Ten. That’s more true this year than it was a year ago with Ohio State returning 15 starters, eight on offense and seven on defense.
Well, start with the fact that running back Mike Weber and quarterback J.T. Barrett both return after combining for nearly 2,000 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns last year. Then note that four starters return on the offensive line, including first-team All-Big Ten center Billy Price. Those facts alone are enough for a bullish outlook on offense. If there’s a question to be answered here with Ohio State’s offense, it’s in the passing game, which displayed a shocking lack of explosiveness last year given all the talent on hand. That’s why new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, formerly the head man at Indiana, feels like the perfect fit.
Teams that are tough to handle up front become tough to handle at every level, and the Buckeyes return all four starters on the defensive line. Tyquan Lewis could have left for the NFL, but didn’t. Returnees Michael Hill and Sam Hubbard earned all-conference honors last year and Dre’Mont Jones was a freshman All-American. Ohio State’s fifth lineman, Jalyn Holmes, also appears headed for the NFL after his senior season. That should buy the Buckeyes enough to time to break in a secondary that has to replace three first-round picks.
Ohio State should be favored in all 12 games, but it’s something of an oddly ordered schedule. The Buckeyes open with a conference game against Indiana and then welcome Oklahoma to the Horseshoe. From there things get spaced out nicely. Ohio State plays Army, UNLV, Rutgers and Maryland before facing Nebraska in Lincoln. Then there’s a bye week before a big game against Penn State. November starts the cycle over again with a manageable build (for Ohio State certainly) towards the finale at Michigan.
Even though Ohio State will start out No. 2 in most national polls and there’s not much higher to go than that, this is still a program in 2017 that’s trending UP. As mentioned at the start, something big would have to happen to disrupt the current trajectory, but factor in the schedule and experience returning, and this particular squad should have playoff-or-bust aspirations. That’s always true in Columbus under Urban Meyer, but it looks especially tangible in 2017.