Ohio State enters the 2016 season with more questions than the Buckeyes have had before at any time during Urban Meyer's tenure. Nine underclassmen joined last season's outgoing senior class in hopes of making it in the NFL. Some of them — including Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa — were among the most dominant players in college football over the last couple of years.
The end results of the mass exodus/player turnover in Columbus are the appearance of vulnerability and the hope that potential can quickly translate into production. Meyer has recruited as well as anyone in the country since he's been at Ohio State. That — combined with some key returnees — means Ohio State is likely to stay on or close to the top of the college football mountain in 2016. This also means that the Buckeyes will remain a target of opportunity for teams looking to impress the College Football Playoff Selection Committee with a quality win, so they'll have the full attention of every team on their schedule.
Three Reasons Why Ohio State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. J.T. Barrett's Leadership and Playmaking Ability
You could make a case for Barrett as the best quarterback in all of college football. His skills are a perfect fit for what Meyer wants to do on offense, and it's safe to say Barrett has mastered the scheme. Between his arm, his quick feet and his unselfishness when it comes to distributing the football, Ohio State shouldn't have much trouble moving the chains and putting up points — regardless of the lack of name-brand talent in the offensive huddle.
2. Greg Schiano Helping the Defense
Schiano's hiring as associate head coach/defensive coordinator went a bit under the radar considering the caliber of coach he's been at the collegiate level. The man who is essentially responsible for putting Rutgers on the map steps in to help co-coordinator Luke Fickell coach an underrated defense with stars at every level. Look for Schiano to solidify a secondary that will be led by Garion Conley and improve a pass rush that will feature Sam Hubbard — a star in the making — and Tyquan Lewis, who was just named to the Nagurski Watch List. Having one of the top linebackers in the country in Raekwon McMillan roaming the field is just icing on the cake.
3. Special Teams Controlling Field Position
Elite special teams play is a silent contributor to Ohio State's success. The Buckeyes were able to force opponents to travel greater distances to score than any team in the country in 2016. The average drive against Ohio State started just short of the 25-yard line (24.8). Cameron Johnston — one of the best punters in the nation — was a big reason for that and he'll be looking to repeat his success in 2016. On the other side of the ball, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson are both dangerous return men who should help the Buckeyes start drives in very good field position, just as they did a season ago when Ohio State began their average drive at the 34.5-yard line, which was third best in the nation.
Three Reasons Why Ohio State Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2016
1. The Loss of Star Power
We can downplay it all day, but the fact of the matter is that players like Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa and Von Bell are just special. Losing those guys as well as the other seniors and early NFL Draft entrants is going to impact the Buckeyes — especially early in the season. You can talk about recruiting rankings until you are blue in the face, but the reality is that nobody knows how anyone is going to pan out until a player is thrown into the fire. Talented as they have the potential to be, the Buckeyes are as raw as any team in the Big Ten heading into 2016.
2. The Schedule is No Cakewalk
The Buckeyes will still be figuring out who they are as a team when they visit Norman to face Oklahoma on Sept. 17. Later in the season, they travel to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State before finishing the season at home against a Michigan team that figures to be a national title contender. Going 3-2 in those five games would be quite an accomplishment for any team in the country. Unfortunately, no two-loss team has qualified for the College Football Playoff since its inception, and it's doubtful that changes anytime soon.
3. Factors Outside of Their Control
There are only four spots in the College Football Playoff. During the two years of its existence so far, one Power Five conference champion has been left out each time. It's only a matter of time until the Big Ten is on the short end of that stick. Strength of schedule, records and timing of losses all play a factor. If Ohio State runs the table, they probably have little to worry about. More realistically, however, is the possibility of being one of five or six one-loss Power Five teams. If that is the case, their College Football Playoff fate is out of their hands. The Buckeyes will need to sit back and hope that both they and their opponents have done enough over the duration of the 2016 season to impress the selection committee.
The Buckeyes are at least as talented as every team on their schedule. The Oklahoma game might very well be the only game all season where Ohio State is not favored. Urban Meyer’s team could lose that game and go unbeaten in the Big Ten, with the toughest conference game (including the Big Ten Championship Game) being the home tilt against Michigan. Given that, going 11-1 in the regular season with a win in the conference championship game should be more than enough to get the Buckeyes back into the College Football Playoff. Even with the loss of talent, the 2016 Buckeyes will still be one of the most gifted teams to a man in the nation.
Athlon's Projected Final Ranking: 3
Athlon's Projected Final Record: (12-1, 9-0 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.