By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Ohio State is coming off its worst season since 1999, finishing with a 6-6 record and not earning at least a share of the conference title for the first time since 2004. While the 2011 season had plenty of drama and a disappointing record, the Buckeyes won’t be down for long.
Just how soon can Ohio State fans start to think about a trip to the Big Ten title game? Try 2012.
With Urban Meyer taking over as the coach in Columbus, Ohio State will be in the Big Ten title game in 2012. Predictions are always subject to change over the next couple of months, but the Buckeyes should be the early favorite to win the Big Ten in 2012.
Here are five reasons why Ohio State will win the Big Ten in 2012
1. Urban Meyer is a proven winner – Big Ten championships are expected at Ohio State. Under Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes had seven seasons of at least 10 victories and played in eight BCS games. The bar is set high, but that won’t be a problem for Meyer. In six seasons at Florida, he won at least eight games every year, including three 13-win campaigns. The Gators made three BCS games in his tenure. Meyer also led Utah to a 12-0 record and a Fiesta Bowl appearance in 2004. Every program is going to have its ups and downs, so an eight or nine-win season will happen. However, Meyer has proven he is a national championship coach and a year off has charged the batteries for another run at a title.
2. Braxton Miller – In his opening press conference, Meyer did nothing to hide his excitement about Miller’s potential in 2012. Meyer has developed some solid quarterbacks in his career – Josh Harris at Bowling Green, Alex Smith at Utah, Tim Tebow at Florida – so Miller is in good company. He is a perfect fit for Meyer’s spread offense, possessing the mobility needed to execute the scheme, and figures to only get better as a passer this spring. Miller finished the 2011 regular season with 997 passing yards and 11 touchdowns, while adding 695 yards and seven scores on the ground. After a stellar freshman season, Miller has an enormous amount of potential and could develop into the Big Ten’s top quarterback next season.
3. The 2012 schedule – It’s not overwhelmingly easy, but it’s favorable enough to only expect one or two losses. The Buckeyes should sweep their non-conference slate – Miami (Ohio), UCF, California and UAB. In Big Ten play, Ohio State hosts Nebraska, Purdue, Illinois and Michigan, while making road trips to Michigan State, Indiana, Penn State and Wisconsin. Playing at Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin won’t be easy, but when you break down each opponent, it looks favorable. The Spartans will have one of the conference’s best defenses next season, but have to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins. The Nittany Lions are arguably the biggest mystery, as they will likely have a new coach and still need more offensive production. The Badgers lose quarterback Russell Wilson and may have to replace running back Montee Ball. Considering the question marks surrounding the road games, Michigan should be Ohio State’s toughest opponent next year.
4. The Big Ten’s Best Defense? – Despite returning only four starters this year, the Buckeyes finished in the top 30 in scoring, total and pass defense. While the 2011 Ohio State defense wasn't as dominant as some of the previous versions, there’s plenty to like next season. Defensive lineman John Simon could enter the draft, which would be a big blow to the defense if he leaves. However, assuming Simon returns, Ohio State will have nine returning starters, including a secondary that should be among the best in the Big Ten. Meyer has yet to pick a defensive coordinator, but whoever gets the job is inheriting a talented group with lots of upside.
5. Young Talent Ready to Emerge – While Miller is going to get most of the offseason spotlight, there is a handful of other young players ready to step up next season. Freshman Devin Smith led the team with 247 receiving yards, while sophomore Carlos Hyde rushed for 549 yards and six scores. Freshmen Curtis Grant (LB), Michael Bennett (DL), Doran Grant (DB), Ken Hayes (DL), Steve Miller (DL) and Ryan Shazier (LB) were all part of one of the nation’s top 2011 recruiting classes and each received some playing time this year. With an opportunity to get a full round of practices this offseason, each should make a bigger contribution next season. The Buckeyes’ 2012 recruiting class is ranked by most experts outside of the top 15, but that will change before signing day. Meyer was a terrific recruiter at Florida and his connections to the Sunshine State can only help Ohio State’s recruiting efforts there. It’s difficult to bank on freshmen making an immediate impact, but the Buckeyes will land some prospects that can help right away, especially with depth on the offensive line and at running back.
Anytime there is a coaching change, there is always the potential for a transition period. The Buckeyes will have their rough moments during the switch from Fickell to Meyer, but it should not be as drastic as some programs have experienced.
What could keep Ohio State from winning a Big Ten title next year? The first concern is obviously the NCAA and any bowl ban that is handed down from a recent investigation. And the other involves personnel. The Buckeyes have some key losses on the offensive line, including center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams.
While there are few personnel concerns surrounding this team next season, the Buckeyes are probably a year away from contending for the national title.
There’s plenty of time to revise and study predictions for 2012, but considering the returning personnel and Meyer’s arrival in Columbus, Ohio State is the early favorite to claim the Big Ten title.