Since arriving in Columbus four years ago, Urban Meyer has transformed Ohio State from a program that couldn't get it done against the best schools in the Southeastern Conference—including Meyer's former Florida teams—to a perennial national power nearly on par with this decade's behemoth, Alabama.
This season, however, looks like a rebuilding project. Which, when you get to the Buckeyes' level under Meyer, can be a relative term.
Here's the bad news: Ohio State returns just six of 22 starters from a team that entered last season as the defending national champion. Stars Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, Tyvis Powell, Ezekiel Elliott, and Braxton Miller are gone, and the Buckeyes are second-to-last in the country in returning projected points per game (a player productivity measure similar to WAR in baseball).
Moreover, OSU's schedule isn't easy. The Buckeyes visit Oklahoma, a 2015 College Football Playoff participant that returns much more experience, and also play at Michigan State. Within their Big Ten division, they face blood rival Michigan; meanwhile, cross-division games against Northwestern, Nebraska, and Wisconsin (on the road) aren't gimmies.
With all of that in mind, it's easy to see why the sports book Bovada has OSU's over/under at nine wins—an improvement over the 8.5 it forecast in May, but not exactly Playoff-worthy, and hardly up to Meyer's standards.
That last part brings us to the good news.
Under Meyer, the Buckeyes have never won fewer than 12 games in a season. Indeed, his four seasons with Ohio State have been so incredible that it would be difficult to replicate in the NCAA Football video games (RIP). The Buckeyes have gone 50-4, including 31-1 in Big Ten regular season contests. They got over the SEC hump in 2014, beating Alabama in the first round of the College Football Playoff, and then won the National Championship.
So, yeah, this could be be a rare down year for Meyer. More likely, Ohio State has become the rarest of college football phenomenons: a program that doesn't have down years. Thanks to six straight No. 1 recruiting classes, Alabama is in that class. Though the Buckeyes haven't reloaded quite at that level, they play in a weaker conference (particularly this year) and recruit plenty well (their 2017 class is a monster).
Big Ten beat writers have picked the Ohio State to win the Big Ten, with 27 of the 29 panelists choosing the Buckeyes. Even with Michigan rising under Jim Harbaugh, that's not as crazy as it sounds.
While Michigan and Michigan State are starting new quarterbacks, the Buckeyes have the conference's best and most experienced quarterback in J.T. Barrett. They also have one of the Big Ten's best defenders in Raekwon McMillan.
More importantly, Meyer's freshmen and sophomores may be better than everyone else's juniors and seniors. Look at running back. OSU lost a star in Elliott. His replacement, sophomore Mike Weber, has the potential to be every bit as good. A former top recruit who picked Ohio State over home-state Michigan, Weber dominated this spring, and probably could have been a good player last year if not for being stuck behind Elliott. That's likely the case for most of Ohio State's former four-star and five-star recruits: they might not have been starting for the Buckeyes last year, but there's a good chance they could have started for almost anyone else.
If Ohio State's youngsters are as good as expected, and the Buckeyes can get back to a New Year's Six Bowl—even if they don't win the Big Ten—we can probably forget about them ever dropping from an elite level again. Talent is on hand, reinforcements are coming, and Meyer doesn't appear to be going anywhere. For OSU's rivals, this looks like the year to catch the Buckeyes, a temporary window of vulnerability. And maybe it is. But if what Meyer has accomplished so far is any indication, his program already has pulled away.
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