Ohio State begins the 2015 season as reigning national champions. Who would have thought we'd be saying that after 2014's loss at home to
ACC Iowa Virginia Tech in week two? Some things do remain the same as last season however. J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones have been battling all camp to determine who will start at quarterback. Unlike last year, Urban Meyer isn't tipping his hand until the first-team offense takes the field.
The Buckeyes face a familiar opponent in the aforementioned Hokies; the only team to beat them in 2014. The whole country is sure to be watching during prime time on Labor Day as the Buckeyes begin their title defense. Here are five things to watch for against Virginia Tech:
Who's under center?
It's been the biggest question of the 2014 offseason:
Who takes the Illinois job? Who will start at quarterback for Ohio State? After Braxton Miller's switch to H-back/punt returner/touchdown maker, Cardale Jones and JT Barrett dueled for the second straight fall for the right to quarterback the Buckeyes. No matter who starts, they should be in good hands.
After the Virginia Tech game, Barrett rebounded to win Big Ten quarterback of the year, set the conference record for touchdowns responsible for (45), finished second in the country in passer rating, and fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman. Jones opened up the offense to a degree we hadn't seen before, made critical throws against one of the top defenses in the country, and won a national championship in the process. Each brings a unique skillset to the offense. McCown-Manziel, this is not.
Unfortunately, we won't know which one it will be until the Buckeyes take the field Monday night. That being said, would anyone be that surprised if neither came out for the first play? Chris Fowler screaming, "BAW GAWD, THAT'S BRAXTON MILLER'S MUSIC!" to a nationwide audience would be a joyous way to kick off the season. Can't put anything past troll god Urban Meyer.
King of the hill
Winning one championship is tough enough, let alone producing an encore performance. Starting off with the Virginia Tech game, Ohio State looks to join 2011-12 Alabama as the most recent team to repeat in college football, and would obviously become the first team in the playoff era to do so. The new system adds a curveball to what was already a tough task, as Florida State found out last season. The Seminoles undefeated regular season would have put them in the national championship game in previous years, but the playoff added an extra game to their schedule, providing us many LOLs as a result.
Ohio State faces similar problems this season. Not only will the usual pitfalls pop up in a title defense, but it's hard to expect a team to go 15-0 or 14-1, regardless of how stacked they are. FSU brought back almost every key contributor in 2014, but teetered on the edge all season, despite a talent advantage in every game. Given the random nature of college football, all it takes is one bad week for Ohio State to be on the outside looking in, which almost was the case for the Buckeyes in 2014.
Monday's game won't tell us everything about the season to come, but a road win in a tough environment would be a good start. Regardless, expect Urban Meyer to have to pull out the brass knucks at least once this season -- a la Ric Flair -- in order to stay on top.
The big uglies
Check any defensive line stat from last season, and Virginia Tech was likely near the top of the country. The Hokies were first in adjusted sack rate, and also finished in the top ten in both adjusted line yards and power success rate. Virginia Tech's top four linemen accounted for over 52.5 tackles for loss, and generally dominated opposing offenses. Nearly everyone of note returns, including stud defensive tackle Luther Maddy. Maddy only played in four games last season, but was one of the most fearsome tackles in the country in 2013, eating up space and registering 13.5 tackles for loss. This isn't great for an Ohio State offensive line that looked lost in both run blocking and pass protection in last season's defeat.
Though four of five starters return, this isn't the same Ohio State line whose lunch money was stolen by the Hokies last September. After a rough start, The Slobs rebounded to finish 2nd nationally in adjusted line yards, gashing top flight defenses that utilized Virginia Tech's 'bear front' wrinkle. Senior Chase Farris will take over at right tackle for Darryl Baldwin, and has the pedigree to excel in his new starting role, despite it beginning in less than ideal circumstances against a tough defense on the road. Other storylines are receiving more attention heading into Monday night, but make no mistake, this is a matchup between two of the best lines in the country.
Next man up
'Next man up' became a rallying cry for the Buckeyes last season, and with good reason. Braxton Miller's injury forced J.T. Barrett into action much sooner than anticipated, and Barrett's subsequent injury led to Cardale Jones leading the Buckeyes to a national title. It was a cool story that showed the power of perseverance and teamwork (not to mention great coaching). Thanks to a bit of offseason skulduggery, the Buckeyes will be operating against Virginia Tech with the same mindset.
The suspensions of Joey Bosa, Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson weren't a surprise to the team, but still leave Ohio State vulnerable at two key spots. Youngsters Jalyn Holmes and Sam Hubbard will be counted on to pick up the slack for Bosa, with both having the requisite size (6'5, 265) to play the position. Hubbard has drawn rave reviews dating back to last season, and we'll finally get to see the former linebacker recruit in action on Monday. It wouldn't be shocking to see either have a good game against what's historically been an underwhelming Tech offensive line.
The losses of Marshall, Smith, and Wilson sting, but the Buckeyes have arguably the two most explosive players on the roster at H-Back already in Braxton Miller and Curtis Samuel. Samuel played well in his opportunities last season, and even if Miller is still adjusting to the position, there shouldn't be much of a concern there.
The real intrigue comes at the outside receiver position. Corey Smith had his moments, but battled inconsistency last season, including a dropped would-be touchdown against Virginia Tech. The loss of Smith wouldn't have been as big an issue if not for the unfortunate injury to Noah Brown which further reduced depth in fall camp. The depth chart now lists youngsters James Clark OR Johnnie Dixon OR Terry McLaurin as Smith's replacements, with only Dixon receiving limited playing time last season before taking a medical redshirt. And as luck would have it, they're facing one of the best secondaries in the country.
Credit: The Key Play
Episode II: Revenge of the Urb
Ah, the 'revenge game' in college football. Facing an opponent who beat you last season with bragging rights on the line is one of the things that makes the sport special.
Whether it was the 2014 Buckeyes paying back Michigan State for dashing their national championship hopes the previous season, or David Boston stunting on Marcus Ray in 1998, we all have our favorite Buckeye revenge moment. Revenge games are so cool that even beating Purdue 49-0 after 2009's debacle in West Lafayette felt way more special than beating Purdue ever should.
After last season's humbling defeat, Ohio State not only begins its title defense on Monday, but does so against the only team it lost to in 2014. Given Urban Meyer's history in these type of games, that may portend good things for the Buckeyes.
Meyer is 9-2 all-time against teams that have beaten his squads the previous year, including last season's 12-point victory over Michigan State. All the more impressive, four of those wins came against top 10 teams. Not many have been nail biters either, with an average score of 32-21. Meyer is lauded as one of the best motivators in the country, and his record in these types of games helps explain why.
The two losses? The first came at the hands of noted Meyer pest Tommy Tuberville in 2007, while Alabama's victory in 2010 accelerated the 'Nick Saban ran Meyer out of the SEC' narrative.
Ultimately, those 11 games might not tell us exactly what's going to happen in Blacksburg on Monday night, but two things are certain: 1. Meyer gets his teams ready for revenge games 2. URBAN'S TOO SCARED TO EVER BRING BACK HIS TEAMS TO PLAY IN THE GREAT STATE'A ALABAMA, PAWWWWWWWWWL.