The Big Ten is likely to be one of the more competitive conferences in college football in 2014. Despite the perception that the league is in a downturn, several teams are going to be vastly improved and will make the first year of the college football playoff system very interesting.
But sitting at the top of the B1G (once again) you can go ahead and pencil in the Ohio State Buckeyes, because regardless of how much the competition has improved, so has Urban Meyer’s squad, and they will be a tough team to beat this year.
Yes, I hear all of you Big Ten/Ohio State haters laughing at this point, and normally I might be right along side. But if you’ve watched Ohio State over the past two seasons, you’ll already know that they can score points in bunches, and have run away with many games before they even got started.
But defense was another thing altogether (the final two games of 2013 against Michigan State and Clemson can attest to that), and Urban Meyer is the first one to call out his team and his staff for the lack of production on the defensive side of the ball. Beyond that, he’s taken big steps to fix it.
Here’s why I think the Buckeyes will win the Big Ten in 2014.
There’s no question that one of the knocks on Ohio State football in recent years has been their seemingly light schedule. Well, 2014 is going to do nothing to dispel those feelings, but it will go a long way to helping the Buckeyes take lead in the conference.
Home games: Virginia Tech, Kent State, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan
Potential stumbling blocks: Michigan
Away games: Navy, Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, Minnesota
Potential stumbling blocks: Penn State, Michigan State
Not playing: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern
The Buckeyes have a very favorable home schedule, including a game against Big Ten newcomer Maryland. The tilts in Columbus Oh. will be rounded out by “The Game” for their home finale. The Wolverines are going to be tough as always in that contest, but probably wont be able to match the Buckeyes’ ability to score.
The road is a different beast for Ohio State. The Penn State game at Beaver Stadium is a prime time game on ABC/ESPN, and the Nittany Lions are tough to beat at home on national television. The Michigan State game may prove to be the toughest contest all year. But given how the rest of the conference looks, the Buckeyes could still lose that game and get to the Big Ten championship.
But the biggest scheduling factor is missing what could be four of the top teams in the Big Ten this season. That will be a huge advantage for the Buckeyes.
The Return of Braxton Miller
Starting quarterback Braxton Miller is the engine that makes the Ohio State offense go, and his announcement to return to the Buckeyes in 2014 was a huge boost for the team.
The reigning two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year is primed to have one of his best seasons as a senior, and he’s already proven that nobody in the conference can stop him when he’s healthy. Miller will miss the presence of Carlos Hyde in the backfield, but Hyde’s replacment — Ezekiel Elliott — is predicted to have a breakout season.
The biggest question will be the receiving targets that Miller has to work with, and from what was seen this spring, he’s got some serious speed running downfield under his passes. Redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall will be one of the biggest surprises this year. 6-foot-3 Michael Thomas brings the size and speed the Meyer likes in his receivers, and Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene, Jr., at 6-foot-5, is another huge target for Miller.
Meyer wants Miller to run less than in prior years (at least unplanned runs), and he’s brought in some bigger, faster offensive linemen to keep his senior quarterback protected. If Miller is given more time in the pocket, it could get ugly for opposing defenses. He was lethal enough when scrambling for his life much of the time.
As good as Ohio State’s offense was last year, it’s possible they will be even better in 2014.
New Focus on Defense
Urban Meyer said in this offseason that he wanted a defensive “overhaul” done, and he wasn’t kidding. As more and more of the recruits that Meyer has brought into his system take the field, the better the Buckeyes have been on defense.
Meyer has restructured his defensive staff after co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers left to become the head coach at James Madison and defensive line coach Mike Vrabel left to join the Houston Texans’ staff. To replace those two key coaches, Meyer hired Chris Ash to be the great guru of the Buckeyes’ pass defense, and former Penn State defensive line coach Larry Johnson to replace Vrabel.
The new coaches, along with a complete revamp of the preparation the players go through — especially in defending the pass — point to what could be one of the best defenses that Meyer has ever fielded, especially on defensive line.
Meyer wants more focus to come on the back end of the defense (where the Buckeyes were continually torched last season) and less emphasis on run-stopping. In the grand scheme of things it’s a solid philosophy (and one shared by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick), in that you potentially give up much less yardage on a run defense breakdown than on a pass.
Love him or hate him, Urban Meyer wins
Regardless of your feelings about Urban Meyer or his past actions, the track record speaks for itself. Everywhere Meyer has coached, his teams have won, and won consistently…a lot.
His continued focus on the culture at Ohio State, bringing players into a tight-knit group and making coaches accountable for the mistakes made by their units, all play in to why this man has so much success. He’s not going to let up or change to please anyone, and his players ultimately respect and work hard to win for him.
Given the schedule the Buckeyes have been gifted, along with returning and new talent, topped off with Meyer’s desire for success and the blueprint to make it happen, the Buckeyes will probably run away with the Eastern division, and finally break though for a Big Ten championship against the representative from the Western division.
The Buckeyes will finish the season 11-1, and walk into the B1G championship game with a huge chip on their shoulder, dismantling whoever the opponent is (but for the record, I’m picking Wisconsin out of the West).