The season is finally here. All of the anticipation, all of the analysis, it all comes down to this. Ohio State and Virginia Tech finally square off in Blacksburg Monday night in the final game of the first week of the college football season.
Ohio State comes into this one fresh off of a national championship season in which they saw their only loss of the season come against the Hokies in Ohio Stadium last September. Virginia Tech on the other hand, is coming off of a year that seemed like it would show promise after the big win against the Buckeyes, only to finish 7-6 overall, and 3-5 in the ACC. The Hokies ended their season with a win in the Military Bowl over Cincinnati.
Let's take a look at the two teams that will be facing off against each other Monday.
This year's contest will feature an Ohio State team that largely fields the same talent from the year before, with seven returning starters on offense, and eight on defense. Although Urban Meyer has not named a starting quarterback, it appears J.T. Barrett should be manning the offense for the Buckeyes, and although he had a poor performance against the Hokies last year, Barrett is coming off of a season where he completed over 64 percent of his passes, accumulating 2,834 yards and 34 touchdowns. Per Urban Meyer, we can also expect to see play out of Cardale Jones, who proved to be quite the quarterback himself in the Buckeyes' final three games of last season -- though not necessarily in the opener should he wind up not being the starter.
The running game for the Buckeyes should be different this season, as we saw Heisman candidate Ezekiel Elliot get just eight carries in last year's contest, totaling just 32 yards. During most of last season, 'Zeke was battling a wrist injury that left him unable to use his left hand. Elliott will be able to make good use of both hands in 2015, and after a strong finisht o last season, we can expect a much better game out of him this time around compared to last season.
The Buckeyes will be without WR Noah Brown, who suffered a broken leg late in training camp. Brown was receiving much praise from players and coaches for his play not only in the spring, but in camp as well. The Buckeyes have one lock at wide receiver with Michael Thomas, but should see Parris Campbell, Curtis Samuel, Johnnie Dixon, Terry McLaurin, Torrance Gibson, K.J. Hill, James Clark, Jeff Greene, and even yes, Braxton Miller, trying to fill the void for the injured Brown.
On top of the loss of Brown will be the suspensions of DE Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, and WR Corey Smith. Sam Hubbard or Jalyn Holmes is expected to fill the void for Bosa in this one, and has coaches expecting good production. At H-back, we will perhaps get a great look at Braxton and how he will fit into the position. Urban Meyer has liked what he has seen out of Miller, who made the switch to H-back back in July. Miller, who called himself the best athlete in college football this past summer, has the agility and lateral quickness to be a valuable piece for a Buckeye offense that has a plethora of weapons already in its arsenal.
Ohio State's probable greatest weakness isn't an X's and O's issue, but rather a mental one. The Buckeyes are strong in every aspect of the game, and it's hard to nitpick one factor that could honestly have a lingering negative impact on their season. That said, the greatest worry with this particular group is the unavoidable complacency that comes with having achieved what OSU did a year ago. Given what Ohio State dealt with against Virginia Tech a year ago, however, it's difficult to imagine that plays out the same way a second season in a row, suspensions or not.
Virginia Tech returns eight starters on offense, and nine starters on defense. While not thought of as an offensive powerhouse, the Hokies return starting quarterback Michael Brewer, who completed just under 64 percent of his passes against Ohio State for 199 yards, two touchdowns and two picks. Brewer completed 23 passes, seven of which went to different receivers.
The Virginia Tech defense will be the key for them in this contest just as it was last season. Bud Foster's group deployed the Bear front, putting pressure on a young, inexperienced J.T. Barrett, forcing him to have his worst game of his season last year. Barrett threw a total of three interceptions, including one that went for a touchdown. While a starter has not been named for Ohio State, one would think that perhaps with the experience gained by Barrett, as well as the showing we got out of Cardale Jones late last season, the same tactics wouldn't be as effective. The Hokies D is undoubtedly a challenge no matter who faces it or what scheme they deploy.
But what makes the Virginia Tech defense so great? Starting on the defensive line, you have Dadi Nicolas and Ken Ekanem, who were two spectacular edge pass rushers last season, having 9 and 9.5 sacks respectively last season which was among the top five in the ACC. Even defensive tackle Nigel Williams had 4.5 sacks of his own. Part of what makes that Bear front so great is the pressure, and they have players more than capable of handling such a task.
Another part of what makes Virginia Tech's Bear so effective is their defensive backs. Typically, you wouldn't see that type of defense in the college game as much as pro because of the multiple spread formations in the college game. But the Hokies have the defensive backs with the skills needed to make the scheme work.
Maybe the Hokies biggest loss from last season's team was Kyshoen Jarrett, a ballhawk type who led the team in total tackles and interceptions. On the other side of Jarrett though was Kendall Fuller, who showed a ton of promise in just his sophomore year in Blacksburg and is an even better pro prospect. You should expect to hear his name come Monday night early and often.
With the pressure applied through the Hokies defense, turnovers are expected. In fact, last season, when the Hokies created two or more turnovers, they were 6-1. That is the nature of the beast. It's one thing to get the turnovers going in your favor, but it's another thing to capitalize on them, and Virginia Tech is very good at doing so.
Last season, the best counterpunch (to the Bear front or otherwise) was a great rushing attack. In the four games that the Hokies gave up the most rushing yards (Pitt, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Miami), they lost each game. With a solid rushing game, those teams were able to avoid turning the ball over too many times, limiting chances Virginia Tech would get on offense, which is key when facing them.
Essentially the Ohio State game aside, the Hokies' biggest achilles heel last year was their offense. The Hokies have graded out in the 80s in Offensive S&P+ in two of the last three seasons including last year. Though some of that was probably the result of injuries and a lack of depth, quarterback Michael Brewer never quite lived up to the same moxie he showcased against the Buckeyes underneath the lights.
Early on last season, Shai McKenzie shared carries with Marshawn Williams and Trey Edmunds before tearing his ACL against Western Michigan, where Edmunds also broke his clavicle. While back at full health, McKenzie will be suspended for the Ohio State game for off the field issues. That led the way for Williams to take over, who also tore his ACL later on in the season against Duke.
But J.C. Coleman, who stands at just 5-foot-6, got his chance at the action at the end of the season and helped the Hokies win 3 of their last 4 games, including a standout performance in the Military Bowl against Cincinnati, where he rushed for 157 yards. Running backs coach Shane Beamer has said the Buckeyes can expect to see Coleman as well as Edmunds and redshirt freshman Travon McMillian.
Unless VT's offense showcases a marked improvement, the same lackluster scheme and execution could put an undue amount of pressure on a Hokies defense that would essentially have to play near perfect football to ensure a second straight upset win over Ohio State.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 31, Virginia Tech 20
Win Probability: Ohio State 73%
While Ohio State is the defending national champion, Blacksburg is by no means an easy place for any team to play. To expect a routine win, particularly after what we witnessed a year ago in Central Ohio, wouldn't be appropriate. Uncertainty definitely lies at the quarterback position at Ohio State, even though the Buckeyes should be in good hands regardless. Can Virginia Tech say the same about their offense?
As long as Bud Foster's defense does its part, expect to see the Hokies to hang around. But an extremely talented Buckeyes group have all the pieces to successfully avenge their loss from last season, even without their full allotment of usual depth.