College football is officially back, and Week 1, like all good things—the music of David Bowie, skeleton meme accounts, Jon Bois' 17776—is pretty weird. Ohio State plays on Thursday night, for some reason, and opens the season against Indiana, a conference opponent.
Adding to the stakes of the season's bizarre start? Ohio State's new offensive coordinator, Kevin Wilson, was Indiana's head coach for the last six years. Wilson, whose teams in Bloomington were always super-drunk-fun on offense, is a welcome addition to the coaching staff in Columbus. The Buckeyes' play-calling has stagnated at some of the worst possible moments in recent years, and J.T. Barrett's play at quarterback pretty much plateaued after his outstanding redshirt freshman season. It'll be on Wilson to get more out of the Buckeye passing game after a down year in that category.
Wilson's had a few months with his guys to get them ready. Barrett's week one showing could be a bellwether for his new OC's time at Ohio State.
Name: J.T. Barrett
Weight: 220 lbs.
2016 notables: 2,555 pass yards, 24 pass TDs, 7 INT, 845 rush yards, 9 rush TDs
Barrett enters 2017 with the weight of expectation squarely on his shoulders. After solid performances in the first 10 games of last season. Barrett's numbers plummeted in the season's final three contests. He looked like a shadow of his former self against Clemson, missing open targets and failing to get the ball downfield when the Buckeyes were in a hole.
But it's a new season, and there is a new stable of four- and-five-star talent for Barrett to throw the ball to. Wilson's ability to scheme will likely open up far more downfield throws for the seasoned QB than Ed Warinner was able to create last year, and potential big-play guys like Binjimen Victor, K.J. Hill, and Austin Mack have a year of experience under their belts.
Unlike previous seasons, Indiana's defense is looking better than their offense as we head into the 2017 schedule. Gone are the days when fans could expect a shootout when the Hoosiers took the field; what they might get instead is a more complete and competitive football team.
The heart and soul of the defense is linebacker Tegray Scales, who just might be the best defensive player in the conference. Scales is a tremendous talent, and his ability to bring down ball-carriers as well as drop into coverage to break up mid-range passes will make him a formidable opponent for J.T. Barrett. Barrett makes as much hay with his legs as his arm, and Scales is the kind of player who can disrupt both of those options. He'll get some help from LB/DL Greg Gooch, who's been a consistent force getting to the QB off the edge.
Behind Scales, the Hoosiers boast a secondary that might actually be the most talented unit on the team. They were a boom-or-bust group in 2016, turning the tide in games where their ballhawking aggression paid off but giving up huge scoring plays to lesser teams when their all-or-nothing gambles fell short. That fire is now paired with an extra year of seasoning; the Hoosiers return every significant contributor from the 2016 pass defense plus Andre Brown Jr. and Jameel Cook Jr., both of whom missed all of last season.
What to watch for
All of this is to say that the Indiana defense likely won't roll over for the Buckeyes. Under new head coach and former DC Tom Allen, the Hoosiers look better-equipped than in years past to give the Buckeyes a game, at least on defense.
(Stephen A. Smith voice) BUT!
There's little reason to think that Ohio State won't be able to get the job done on Thursday night. Barrett is a tremendous talent, and he has the added benefit of Mike Weber lining up in the backfield. Weber's ability to break tackles and hit his holes will take a good deal of pressure off of Barrett (provided Meyer's play-calling doesn't hit the same uber-conservative skid that has stalled the Buckeyes in the past), and freshman J.K. Dobbins, Weber's backup, has also emerged in camp as a real running threat.
Weber's about as consistent as they come. The real question is what Ohio State's new receiving corps will look like against an experienced secondary like Indiana's. Noah Brown and Curtis Samuel are gone, and with them a hefty chunk of the Buckeyes' receiving production from last season. It's unclear who Barrett's go-to guy will be through the air—K.J. Hill? Binjimen Victor? Parris Campbell? Terry McLaurin??—and it will likely take a few weeks for the WR depth chart to shake itself out. Campbell is a pretty safe bet for targets, given how much Meyer loves to use his H-backs; Victor might have the highest potential of the group.
It's a good problem to have. The big question for the Buckeyes heading into week one is whether or not Kevin Wilson and J.T. Barrett have the solution.