(USA Today Sports Images)Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t the 25 best going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Baylor.
What happened in 2012
The Buckeyes had a perfect season and didn't play in a bowl game. They watched two teams they beat play for the Big Ten championship in Indianapolis.
Ohio State will always wonder what might have been. Had the school self-imposed a bowl ban for the 2011 team that finished 6-6, perhaps the NCAA wouldn't have imposed a bowl ban in 2012 and the 12-0 team would have played in the BCS. Maybe for the national title. Had the Buckeyes won the Big Ten and finished No. 2 in the BCS standings, they would have faced a beatable Notre Dame team for the title (Alabama was second in the BCS standings at the end of the regular season). And there's a good chance it would have done just that had the school not decided to let the 2011 team go lose its seventh game of the season to Florida in the Gator Bowl. That has to be haunting.
The big picture, however, is that Ohio State proved in Urban Meyer's first year with the Buckeyes that the Big Ten should be very worried going forward, especially after Meyer just landed by far the best recruiting class in the conference. Last season, without a roster full of his players or a ton of time to get the players fully on board with his schemes, Ohio State went undefeated. Quarterback Braxton Miller turned into an ankle-breaking star. The Buckeyes got some breaks, winning a pair of overtime games and having a 3-0 record in games decided by less than a touchdown in regulation, but perfect is perfect.
Even if there was unfinished business at the end.
What makes them interesting in 2013
The bowl ban is lifted, and the scary part is a 12-0 team returns a lot of pieces. The coaching staff returns intact. There are 51 letterwinners back. Nine offensive starters return from a crew that led the Big Ten with 37.2 points per game. Included is Miller, who randomly found himself on a Sports Illustrated cover last month and is a Heisman Trophy candidate.
CB Bradley Roby (USA Today Sports Images)There's not much reason to think that Ohio State won't be favored in every game it plays until the regular-season finale at Michigan. The defense has to replace seven starters including almost the entire front seven, but if the new defense can survive a September trip to Cal and a home game against Wisconsin, it should be just fine for the rest of the season. It's not like the Buckeyes don't have talented players to step in.
What needs to happen this spring
The big issue is on defense. Not much issue in the secondary, where three starters including tremendous cornerback Bradley Roby return. The front seven needs a ton of work.
The entire front four is gone, including defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, and tackle Johnathan Hankins, a second-team AP All-American. Ohio State always seems to have NFL-caliber defensive linemen, so the line should end up being OK. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington played plenty in the rotation last year. Defensive end Joey Bosa is a four-star recruit, and maybe he'll get a chance in the fall. But they key in spring is sorting out who will contribute early in the season on the line, as well as figuring out who will start at linebacker alongside Ryan Shazier. No other returning linebacker got significant reps in 2012.
People have started to recognize how great Shazier is, and this year he should become a widespread national star. He's a big, explosive player and a vicious hitter who kept getting better as his sophomore season went on last year.
Shazier finished the season with 115 tackles, including 17 for loss. He also broke up 11 passes to prove he can do it all. It wouldn't be a surprise if he replaced Simon as the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. As the only starter to return in the front seven, it will be a challenge. Opposing offenses will try to avoid him at all costs and test his lesser known teammates.
Miller has an incredible skill set and turned a corner last year with his passing as the new coaching staff did wonders for him. He matured tremendously as a passer, and is a great runner. He had six 100-yard rushing games last year.
But how much more progress can he make as a junior? He'll be great as a runner again, there's no worry about that. If he can take another step as a passer, Ohio State could be the team to break the SEC's streak of national titles. Even though Miller was better as a passer last year, he still averaged fewer than 200 passing yards per game and completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes. If he can bump his completion percentage, add to his 15 passing touchdowns and throw for a few more passing yards a game, Ohio State's already potent offense will be just about unstoppable. The good news for Miller is he has four returning starters back from a huge and talented offensive line. That will help his progression.
Sept. 14 at California
Sept. 28 vs. Wisconsin
Oct. 26 vs. Penn State
Nov. 30 at Michigan
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