CHICAGO -- On the same morning Ohio State was officially anointed as the preseason No. 1 team in college football by the coaches, the first cracks in the foundation began showing. Such is life for a defending national champion, when there is nowhere to go but down and where there is never sure thing, especially when dealing with a roster of 20-year-old college students.
On Thursday, just before the start of Big Ten media days, Ohio State announced that defensive end Joey Bosa -- arguably the best player in college football -- will be suspended for the team's Labor Day opener at Virginia Tech, along with receivers Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and Corey Smith. Urban Meyer would only say the suspensions resulted from a "violation of team policies," but ESPN's Joe Schad reported that they were related to marijuana and academic issues. One-game punishments are often laughable because they typically come against Week 1 cupcake opponents, but in this case, the Buckeyes are going on the road to a hostile environment to play the team they lost to last year in their national championship season.
"Whether it's a sprained ankle or stuff, you try to create a culture where teams know how to move forward and not concern yourself," Meyer said. "When we lost Braxton [Miller] 10 days before the first game, you lose J.T. [Barrett] a week before the Big Ten Championship game, you push forward. You know, we're pushing forward. The comment I did make, we are playing an extremely talented team, very well-coached team on the road in a tough environment. However, we have recruited very well. So get going, move forward."
The suspensions come at time when Ohio State is trying to do what Florida State couldn't last year, repeat as national champion with a ton of high-profile talent returning. Last summer, there seemed to be no good reason to pick against Florida State to repeat as national champions, just as there's no good reason to pick against Ohio State now. The Seminoles returned Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, four senior starters on their offensive line and a loaded secondary, with several key players deciding to return for their senior seasons. They fielded a strong team, of course, going 13-0 again before their playoff loss, but there were cracks in the foundation all season with much worse injury luck, more mistakes from Winston (on the field, but also a one-game suspension) and less depth.
The preseason hype was justified, but for various reasons the Seminoles couldn't sustain the national championship level of play, winning a bunch of close games before unraveling against Oregon. It sounds simplistic, but winning a national championship once is hard enough. Winning it twice in a row -- staying motivated, staying healthy, staying out of trouble -- is an enormous undertaking. Ohio State is well aware of the dangers of complacency, something Meyer has emphasized all offseason.
"The approach is definitely different because it's harder to win a second one once you win the first one," defensive tackle Adolphus Washington said. "So [Meyer's] approach has been different. He's been grinding us a lot more, as far as workouts, putting us in tough situations where we gotta depend on each other to get through stuff."
For Ohio State, this all unexpectedly came a year ahead of schedule. Meyer said that he thought that last year might turn out bumpy, especially after Miller's injury in August, and he'll be the first one to say that the national championship came as a surprise.
"I remember talking to my wife saying it's going to be a tough one," Meyer said. "I almost accepted the fact that we're going to be -- I hope we get to a decent bowl game, and watch out next year if we get it all going. And all of a sudden, boom, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Von Bell, Tyvis Powell, Mike Thomas … boom, boom, Ezekiel Elliott started really blossoming. I told her that to hang in there, and I told her to make sure I hang in there because there's going to be some speed bumps along the road. I never envisioned [a national championship] at that point."
All those players named by Meyer were young players in development last season, the possible foundation of a future championship team. Instead, the development came rapidly, and the new era of the College Football Playoff created the opportunity for a team that improved significantly over the course of the season to still get a title shot despite an early loss. Ohio State wasn't close to the best team in the country in September or October, but it was by January. The quarterback injuries were unfortunate, but everything else aligned perfectly in the second half of the season.
Running the table and winning a national championship requires top-end talent and coaching, but it also requires luck. Right now, it's almost impossible to look at Ohio State's schedule and predict a loss. Unforeseen problems inevitably arise, though. Last year, the Buckeyes overcame the bad luck at quarterback. This year, bad luck might strike elsewhere. In fact, it already has, with the absences on offense perhaps having more of an impact than the absence of Bosa in that opener in Blacksburg against a great Hokies team.
"We're going to be a little bit disappointed, but again you've got to move on from it and learn from it, definitely," linebacker Joshua Perry said. "This is one of those experiences where we correct what happened, we talk about it, we learn from it and then we move on."
The Hokies beat Ohio State on the road last year -- Barrett's second start, behind a rebuilding offensive line at the time -- with an aggressive defense, and they'll be even better on that side of the ball this year, boasting one of the nation's best defensive lines and defensive backfields, with a relentless pass rush. Virginia Tech and defensive coordinator Bud Foster have had all offseason to build on what worked against the Buckeyes last year, and they have the personnel to give Ohio State's offense trouble like few others teams.
The suspensions of a handful of key players for the first game of the season may ultimately mean little. Ohio State will be still be favored, and it is so deep that it should be expected to take care of business without much of a problem. And even if Ohio State does actually lose to Virginia Tech, there's already a precedent set for Ohio State to overcome that and win a national title anyway. This team is more seasoned and deeper than last year's, which was a work in progress for the first two months until it got rolling late, just in time for the playoff. The Week 1 suspensions don't change the fact that Ohio State is the obvious, overwhelming choice to be No. 1. No team boasts more individual talent. No team boasts more depth. And as Meyer proved last year, no teams boasts better coaching. Now, it's a matter of being sure to stop any cracks in the foundation from spreading.
"All we can do is watch the indicators, watch it closely, and then dive into it with a sledgehammer if we start to see something that's disrupting the team," Meyer said. "We've dealt with one, and I knew this was coming for a while. And at some point, we're going to have to address it, and we did."
Ohio State is a clear-cut preseason No. 1 team. It may be a clear-cut No. 1 again in January. But as last year proved, a lot can change over the course of a season. How the Buckeyes respond will dictate just how possible a repeat really is.