Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel unleashed a positively May 8th-ian read on Ohio State and their talent-laden 2013 squad – the first in three seasons with realistic, tangible championship game aspirations – earlier today, and what it would take to restore Ohio State to the same lofty perch they occupied a little under a decade ago.
Predictably it took all of 30 seconds for mock outrage to become the currency du jour amongst SEC loyalists, with numerous tweets, internet comments, and message board posts dismissing Ohio State with a bevy of GIFs, lazy cliches, and poorly punctuated sentences en masse.
Amongst the specific origin points of the groupthink persecution complex were talking points from the likely future NFL first-rounders, linebacker Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby. Shazier, easily the best linebacker to wear the Scarlet & Gray since Rams mainstay James Laurinaitis, told Mandel, "I hear about it all the time from my cousin -- SEC this, SEC that," said Shazier. "There's one reason I came to Ohio State -- to beat up on the SEC."
Similarly, the never bashful Roby added. "The SEC has won, what, seven [BCS titles] in a row?" said Roby. "What better than for Ohio State to be the team that ends it? That's what we're looking to do this year."
And why shouldn't they? If you're a team hoping to win the highest prize of your respective sport of competition, should you one over the rest of field, look at recent history, and coyly tell anyone that will listen that you just hope you're not embarrassed when push comes to shove?
It'd be beyond myopic to assume that the other potential power brokers in, with apologies to Bob Stoops, the best conference in the sport not named Alabama aren't looking at Alabama's losses on both sides of the ball, thinking about all of the hard work they personally put in in the weight room over the course of the winter, and hypothesizing that if just one or two of their newcomers checking in for summer school in the next month or so pans out, that could be them in Atlanta holding the novelty sized conference logo in early December.
Of course it gets even more laughable when you consider the fan bases of teams that'll be fortunate to finish .500 in conference play dismissing Ohio State's admittedly lofty aspirations as untenable, or those with all but permanent annual reservations for New Year's Day in the greater Orlando or Tampa metro areas crowing that the Buckeyes "cheated" their way into beating a great Arkansas team in New Orleans in early 2011. But we're not here to talk about teams who need acts of god to play their way into title consideration.
If you're going to go about criticizing the team Ohio State will field in 2013, your best bet is going to begin by pointing out how many bullets they dodged in 2012. Playing up and down to opponents was the calling card of a team hamstrung by injuries for much of the season, and given Braxton Miller's work load, he seemed constantly destined for a trip to the ER – eventually actually winding up in one – before playing a quarter of the season of less effective football after miraculously shaking off what looked like a potential season-ending injury against Purdue.
From there, your salvos would be most effective by talking about what the Buckeyes don't have. After dealing with the ups and downs of the Ben Buchanan era at punter, Ohio State put all their eggs in the basket of Florida punter Johnny Townsend. But a zero hour change of heart saw the now Gator incoming freshman decommit in the final hours of National Signing Day 2013, leaving Ohio State with a bit of a quandary.
The Buckeyes now find senior kicker Drew Basil forced to assume double duties with the expectation being he'll be handling both the kicking and the punting this year. The early returns have been far from positive; Basil looked extremely shaky at his previous position of kicker in the Buckeyes' spring game. But we also all know Florida senior kicker Chris Hetland was just 4-for-13 on field goal attempts during their charmed '06 title run heading into the BCS Championship Game, where he proceeded to calmly and collectedly hit a pair of 40+ yard field goals in the Gators' rout.
Urban Meyer and first year special teams coordinator Kerry Coombs both seem completely confident in Basil's ability to handle both. But sometimes all it takes is one off game in either department to doom a season in which Ohio State will almost assuredly have to go unbeaten to even have a shot at the SEC's top team.
And then there's that. The Buckeyes' schedule projects to be one of the worst amongst power conference teams in the country. A road trip to rebuilding Cal under first-year head coach Sonny Dykes and the Buckeyes hoping San Diego State improves on a season that saw them go 9-4 under former Brady Hoke defensive coordinator Rocky Long highlight a low difficulty September. Even the end-of-the-month, prime time conference opener against Wisconsin doesn't have the feel of the two schools' recent bouts; the Badgers will be retooling under another coach in his inaugural campaign, former Utah State headman (and Urban Meyer defensive line coach) Gary Andersen.
A night trip to Northwestern to start October might be Ohio State's toughest Big Ten road date, and though they face three road games in the month of November, both months include bye weeks with which to both prospectively mend their wounds and prepare for the future tasks at hand.
But still, maybe you're satisfied that Ohio State can navigate a very manageable schedule, their greatest shortcomings working themselves out. Surely there has to be some glaring weakness which will surely mean their inability to keep up with college football's best, right?
One of the tropes from earlier today is that Ohio State's collective lack of starts on the defensive line was an ahistorical weakness that none of the other recent national champions have shared. While the learning curve at defensive line almost assuredly doesn't match that of the linebacker positions, quarterback, or especially the offensive line, is experience really that necessary when you have elite level talent at a position?
The SEC's recent title run unsurprisingly suggests both go a long way, but not every team was reliant solely on purely upperclassmen on the line of scrimmage:
2012 - Alabama
2011 - Alabama
2010 - Auburn
Eguae FR (RS)
2009 - Alabama
2008 - Florida
2007 - LSU
Favorite JR (a sophomore started the year)
Kirston Pittman SR (a sophomore started the year)
Note: Rahim Allen, one of those sophomores, remained high in the rotation, as did Ricky Jean-Francois, who wreaked absolute havoc on Ohio State in that year's BCS championship game. His year of eligibility? Also a sophomore.
2006 - Florida
The thing about Meyer's teams is that while certainly the first had a bit more senior leadership than the latter, depth on the line was the absolute key. The ability to not lose a beat when you go from the front liners to the second unit is critical, and anyone familiar with Ohio State's recruiting as well as their projected starting lineup on the d-line for this coming season can attest that Meyer is repeating his formula.
Let's take a quick look at the Buckeyes' prospective starting four on the d-line:
Adolphus Washington SO
Joel Hale JR
Michael Bennett JR
Noah Spence SO
Both Washington and Spence were 5-star guys coming out of high school, and Washington and Bennett both possess the kind of otherworldly athleticism that allows them to flex inside and out, playing both defensive end and tackle alike. With other studs like Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Tracy Spencer (another dual-threat guy), Billy Price, Donovan Munger, and Michael Hill joining Steve Miller, J.T. Moore, Chris Carter, Ivon Blackman, and Jamal Marcus to spell the aforementioned, a paucity of guys capable of coming in and making a play on the opposing quarterback isn't exactly a shortcoming for this iteration of OSU.
If you're still hellbent and dead determined to trumpet the "because they're Ohio State" card, there's probably no convincing you in an off-the-field capacity. The next nine months are going to be particularly trying on your typing dexterity, so be sure to both stretch your hands from time to time as well as practice apropos ergonomics accordingly.
Can Ohio State end the SEC's relative chokehold on the top spot in college football? I think the players they'll suit up, their relative depth, and the coaches calling the shots suggest they can. If you'd prefer to think otherwise because you're confident they're "too slow", "too not the team that beat yours soundly", or "too northern", it's a big Internet. And we both know you're not going to rest until every last corner of it knows your stance on the matter.