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The 2016 Buckeyes: Severely Depleted, Still Favored

Pickerington Boys - Jake Butt and Pat Elflein  (Ricky Lindsay - MJ)
In the NFL Draft this spring, five of the first 20 selections were Ohio State Buckeyes. Before the fourth round was over, 12 OSU players had moved on to the NFL from Urban Meyer’s 12-1 squad of 2015. That mass exodus left this year’s version of the Buckeyes with just six starters returning, three on each side of the ball. Gone are the big names….Elliott, Bosa, Lee, Decker, Thomas, Miller, Apple...

Meanwhile, up north, the Wolverines are ascendant. Celebrity coach Jim Harbaugh came within a botched punt of setting up an undefeated Big Ten showdown with Ohio State on his home turf last November. His team returns 14 starters from a 10-3 group that thrashed Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl, and boasts six preseason 1st team All-Big Ten selections* coming into this fall’s campaign.  

So, it’s Michigan’s year, right?  Not according to the college football prognosticators who put together the preseason magazines.

The three big players in that market...Phil Steele’s, Lindy’s and Athlon’s...all pick Ohio State to win the Big Ten, with Michigan a close second. To what can we attribute this counter-intuitive conclusion? We could begin with some raw numbers...

42-13…..50-4…..#4…..#16

The first is the score of the game the last time the two teams met….in Ann Arbor on November 28, 2015.

The second is Urban Meyer’s overall record at Ohio State in four seasons. (32-2 in B1G)

The third is Ohio State’s average place in the national team recruiting rankings over the last five years.

The last is the uniform number of J.T. Barrett. It has been my experience that having a first-year starter at QB is a fairly reliable predictor of 1 or 2 conference losses. That is the position Michigan was in last year (2 B1G losses) and the position they are in again this year. Barrett will be a third year starter. That is all.

Lindy’s may have explained their selection most succinctly when they wrote, “We’ll still take OSU’s new starters over your returning ones all day” That’s seems to be the consensus. The Buckeyes may be green...but they are loaded.

Back So Soon?

The big story though, from the perspective of Ohio State fans, has got to be that, after several years of empty promises, Michigan finally does appear to be “back”. During the decade-plus of OSU dominance of the rivalry, its fans have been claiming that “all we want is for the Wolverines to be competitive again”…or that “the Big Ten is better when Michigan is good”, or some other front-running nonsense. Much of it was insincere and unpersuasive at the time….(you know we love it when Michigan is mediocre)...and now we’re about to get what we say we wanted.

It would be a mistake, of course, to neglect the defending conference champion Michigan State Spartans. The bloom is off their rose a bit after they got waxed 38-0 by Alabama in the playoff last year, and they lost significant talent from both lines and their secondary, plus their QB and top wide receiver. But they have both OSU and Michigan at home this year, after beating both on the road a year ago, and good coaching doesn’t graduate. Iowa played a soft conference slate a year ago, but they came within one play of the CFB Playoff, and can’t be discounted either.

Two of the three magazines, though, place the three beasts of the East ahead of any team out of the Big Ten West, the thinking being that Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska may have nice programs, but that they are not on the level of the East powers this year. Here’s how the three publications rank the top Big Ten teams nationally.

Steele’s: OSU (#6), Michigan (#12), Mich. St. (#13), Iowa (#14), Nebraska (#22), Penn St (#33)

Athlon’s: OSU (#3), Michigan (#5), Mich. St. (#13), Iowa (#19), Nebraska (#31), Wisconsin (#33)

Lindy’s: OSU (#4), Michigan (#7), Iowa (#15), Mich. St. (#22), Nebraska (#33), Wisconsin (#34)

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But Back to The Rivalry….

Harbaugh hasn’t been recruiting in Ann Arbor long enough to get the overall level of talent up to OSU standards just yet, but his team has plenty of experienced star power returning on both sides of the ball. Receiver Jehu Chesson and tight end Jake Butt are on everybody’s preseason All-Big Ten first teams, and standout tackle Erik Magnuson joins three other returning offensive linemen to give that unit some stability.

Jabrill Peppers (Leon Halip - Getty Images)
On defense, new coordinator Don Brown takes over a unit that was No. 4 nationally a year ago under D.J. Durkin, who left to take the head coaching position at Maryland. Brown has at least one high level performer in each position group on his defense, with end Chris Wormley, cornerback Jourdan Lewis, and linebacker Jabrill Peppers all preseason picks for All-Big Ten honors.

As noted above, quarterback is the question mark, with John O’Korn, who had 16 starts before transferring from Houston, battling Wilton Speight for the starting spot. Harbaugh will have to live up to his QB guru reputation if the Wolverines are to prosper in 2016. If they don’t, it won’t be because the non-conference schedule tripped them up.

I don’t expect it to happen, but if Michigan is in the playoff conversation when November rolls around, the committee should settle any arguments by noting the ridiculously soft slate of non-conference opponents the Wolverines have assembled for this fall.

Colorado is one of the weakest Power 5 conference teams in the nation, (ranked this year ahead of only perennial doormats Rutgers, Wake Forest, Purdue, Oregon State, Iowa State and Kansas among Power 5 teams.), and they are by far the strongest of Michigan’s non-con foes this fall. Lindy’s ranks the Buffaloes #71 out of 128 FBS schools, but Michigan’s other two non-conference games are against Hawaii and UCF...ranked #123 and #126 respectively. UCF won as many games last year as the Browns have Super Bowl trophies.

Michigan then opens conference play with two of their tougher games at home, against Penn State and Wisconsin, giving them a great shot at being 7-0 going into East Lansing on October 29. Road trips to Iowa City and Columbus in November may sober up the Michigan fan base, but their team could have a lofty, if somewhat inflated, national ranking by then.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, play all three of their non-conference games against teams coming off of 2015 bowl games, including that September 17 date with the Oklahoma Sooners in Norman. If they are still talking playoffs in November, they will have earned it.

Strength Up the Middle

As the pundits seem to realize, the Buckeyes have at least as many standout players as Michigan ...it’s just that most of the nation’s college football fans don’t know their names yet. Those names are subjects for a couple of August columns in this space, but for now, it’s a smaller group of “up-the-middle” Buckeyes who are grabbing the preseason ink.

Pat Elflein
On offense, it’s a center-guard-quarterback trio making up the returning starters for Ohio State. Pat Elflein is the first team center on the preseason All-America team for Steele’s, Lindy’s, and Athlon’s, after moving over from guard where he was 1st team All-Big Ten last year, picking up some All-American mention along the way. Elflein is the prototypical 3-star player who proves that star ratings of high school kids don’t mean a great deal. The senior from Pickerington has blossomed under Urban Meyer and line coach Ed Warinner into one of the nation’s best offensive linemen, after some of the local “experts” had questioned his scholarship four years ago.

Billy Price, the junior guard from Youngstown, and by acclaim the team’s strongest player, has been getting some preseason love as well. He was named 4th team All-American by Steele’s, and is either 1st or 2nd team All-Big Ten on everybody’s lists. The Buckeyes have promising young tackles Jamarco Jones and Isaiah Prince, plus JUCO transfer Malcolm Pridgeon ready to step in as starters this fall, but it will help them to have this kind of talent and experience closer to the ball.

And nobody is closer to the ball in Meyer’s offense than his quarterback, and it will be J.T. Barrett’s job this fall, with no controversy clouding the picture, as long as the junior from Texas stays healthy. Most of the pundits have Barrett’s name somewhere well down the list of Heisman candidates in the preseason, behind favorites named Watson, Fournette or McCaffrey, for starters. But a lot can change if J.T. is still upright, and the Buckeyes have a zero in the loss column come November.

It should go without saying that there are few things more meaningless and soon forgotten than preseason All-American teams. But OSU’s middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is positioned right where he was supposed to be when he signed with the Buckeyes as a 5-star recruit out of Hinesville, GA three years ago. That is, projected as a consensus 1st Team All-American entering his junior season. McMillan averaged 9.2 tackles per game a year ago, piling up 119 for the season, and no single player is more important for this team to keep healthy and productive.

The other two returning starters on defense for the Buckeyes are defensive end Tyquan Lewis, and cornerback Gareon Conley, and both are picking up some preseason recognition. Lewis (8.0 sacks, 14.0 TFL in 2015) was named to Steele’s All-American 4th team, and Conley is projected as an all-conference player, coming off a solid season with 49 tackles and 2 interceptions.

It Isn’t Easy Being Green

So the experts say experience doesn’t mean everything….good news for the Buckeyes, presumably...but it doesn’t mean nothing either. Phil Steele has put together a formula to rank the overall NCAA experience each team has returning.

It combines values for things like the percentage of total yards the previous season gained by returning players...the percentage of the previous year’s tackles made by returning players... the number of career starts by returning offensive linemen...and the percentage of seniors in the projected two-deep. It factors in injuries, returning lettermen, and whatever else...and then spits out an overall “NCAA Experience Chart”, ranking all FBS teams from 1 (most experienced) to 128 (least experienced)

No. 128 this year?  The Ohio State Buckeyes.

Make of that what you will.

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Phil Steele’s and Me….A Love Affair

When the wait for the new college football season moves from counting months to counting weeks, it’s time to make the annual trip to buy the preseason preview magazines. Regardless of which of the competitors I pick up for comparative purposes, Phil Steele’s remains the indispensable resource. My wife just shakes her head when she sees a decade worth of back issues stacked on my closet floor, while I counter that there is data in that pile not even the Internet can provide for me.

Steele says he doesn’t attend any college football games, because that would detract from the 365 days a year he spends compiling his opus out of his suburban Cleveland home. A fair percentage of the tightly-packed words in its 352 pages is spent reminding the reader how right he was in his calls of last year...and of two, five and eight years ago, for that matter.

But every year there seems to be some new ranking or analysis of turnover margins...career O-line starts returning...or adjusted strength of schedule to enlighten...or baffle...the fan who cannot get enough of this spectacle called college football. I find his complete schedules and scores for the last five seasons for every team particularly helpful. It’s 13 bucks well spent.

(And, no...he’s not my brother-in-law or anything...but that did go pretty much the way we rehearsed it)

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A Running Start

Don’t plan anything for Labor Day weekend….except of course planting yourself in front of the big screen. At least consider the lineup of games that college football is throwing at you in its opening weekend before you agree to Cedar Point...or camping in the Poconos or anything.

Saturday September 3

Alabama vs USC - Tradition much?  Neutral site game at Jerry’s World, Arlington, TX

Clemson at Auburn - Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson down on The Farm

LSU vs Wisconsin - At Lambeau Field, no less

Oklahoma at Houston - 2015 Playoff team vs Tom Herman’s surprise team of the year.

UCLA at Texas A&M - Matching two promising young QB’s, Josh Rosen and Trevor Knight

Sunday, September 4

Notre Dame at Texas - Two iconic programs. That’s all you need.

Monday, September 5

Ole Miss vs Florida State - look out for the ‘Noles in ‘16.

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On Twitter at @dwismar

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