It is a puzzle, yes, but it shouldn't take a lot of tinkering to assemble it.
While it's almost a given that all inaugural College Football Playoff roads lead will through the Deep South and the Tuscaloosa-Auburn-Tallahassee area, the true shape of the postseason may hinge on what happens up in Columbus, Ohio, where Urban Meyer is trying to reshape Ohio State into a national title frontrunner after 2013's season-ending stumble. If the stars align, Ohio State is a team capable of striking a major blow in the name of Big Ten competitiveness to open the playoff era, providing a realistic challenge to Florida State, Alabama and the rest of the top contenders.
… That is, again, if the pieces fit together.
"I think it's our time coming, man," quarterback Braxton Miller said during Big Ten media days last week. "I think this year we've got a grasp as a whole team; we understand what we're doing to reach a high peak."
No major contender entering the 2014 college football season has a greater combination of uncertain moving parts and championship-caliber upside than No. 6 Ohio State, which rode a rare two-game (almost three-game) losing streak into the offseason but hopes to be better equipped than last year to return to the promised land. It must do so with an almost entirely new offensive line that returns only one starter, junior tackle Taylor Decker. It must do so with major questions in the defensive secondary, which proved to be a liability as the 2013 season went on, giving up too many big plays. It must do so without the service of Carlos Hyde, a bowling ball of a running back who averaged 7.3 yards per carry at 235 pounds. It must do so with an underperforming linebacking corps that gets an injection of young talent. It must even do so with a new, still-undecided kicker.
There is undeniably a lot to dislike, or at least be wary about, and Ohio State may be operating with a slim margin for error in the minds of playoff selection committee members because of what will likely be a decent but unimpressive schedule. Of its 12 opponents, only No. 8 Michigan State is ranked in the preseason coaches poll, with Virginia Tech, Penn State and Michigan all having noticeable flaws. The cross-division schedule is kind but not necessarily beneficial, as games against Wisconsin, Nebraska and/or Iowa would have provided more respectable challenges than Minnesota and Illinois.
As the year progresses, maybe Ohio State won't get the benefit of the doubt, based on its schedule and the current status of the Big Ten in the national conversation. But in terms of sheer talent, it probably should.
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We are entering Year Three of the Meyer era in Columbus, and he has on his hands one of the most talented Big Ten rosters in recent memory. Despite the 6-7 record before he arrived, the cupboard was hardly bare in the transition from the Tressel era, and since arriving, Meyer has solidified and even raised the talent level, signing recruiting classes ranked fifth, second and third nationally, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Only Alabama has also been in the top five each of the last three years. Now, he has a whole cast of young potential breakout playmakers at the skill positions (Dontre Wilson, Ezekiel Elliott, Jalin Marshall) and in the defensive back seven (Raekwon McMillan, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, Trey Johnson, Darron Lee), to go with all the proven parts still present.
He has a near-four-year-starter at quarterback who is both a perfect system fit for Meyer's spread option and has shown solid growth as a passer over his career. He has proven senior big-play threats at both wide receiver (Devin Smith) and tight end (Jeff Heuerman). He has what could be the nation's best defensive line.
It's that defensive line that could be the foundation for everything. It was very good last year, albeit a bit inconsistent, leading the charge for a defense that recorded 42 sacks (ranking a solid 21st in sack percentage) and allowed 3.3 yards per carry and nine touchdowns in 14 games on the ground. But it was only the beginning, because it was never really operating at full capacity last season.
Sophomore end Joey Bosa has All-America talent, showing it as his freshman season progressed with 5 ½ sacks in his last five games. Senior tackle Michael Bennett is coveted by the NFL and had 11 ½ tackles for loss, but he admitted to playing the second half of the season with essentially one arm because of a shoulder injury. Junior end Noah Spence, one of the top recruits in the class of 2012, had eight sacks and has shown signs of dominance as a speed rusher. And junior Adolphus Washington continues to grow into his role alongside Bennett as a tackle, after beginning his Buckeyes career as an end.
"Everyone who asks about Adolphus, I always tell them I think he's going to have a ridiculous first half of the season until they find out who he is," Bennett said. "Because they know about me on the interior and they're going to try to double team me or shut me down, and Adolphus is going to rip them apart with a single team."
Bennett is confident, and he has a reason to be. There really is no simple solution for offenses in attempting to figure out whom to block and how to go about double-teaming. When everyone deserves to be double-teamed, there's no right answer. And while there are questions and youth behind the line, it's that front four that can set the tone for everything else the defense does. Having an athletic defensive line full of future NFL players, as has been proven in the SEC, is a great way to control games and ensure the offense doesn't have to win games by itself.
So then you wonder about that offense. While Miller returns as a Heisman candidate at quarterback, that doesn't mean his senior season will go off without a hitch. He's been banged up before, missing time with a knee injury early last season, then hurting his shoulder in the Orange Bowl and sitting out spring practice. It's only natural when you take the hits a quarterback normally takes, in addition to having 557 career rush attempts. Meyer's offense puts a quarterback in a vulnerable position, and Miller isn't the type of player who actively works to avoid contact, thus putting Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman in a somewhat unsettling position -- one in which a mostly new offensive line has to help protect a fragile quarterback, and the coaching staff has to try to protect him too.
"We have to be much more balanced than we've been," Meyer said. "Everyone's looking for a 50/50 ratio. We've been close a few times. When Alex Smith was our quarterback, we were pretty close to 50/50. With Chris Leak, I want to say we were pretty close. With Tim [Tebow], we were pretty close to I think 60-40, 65. Braxton, last couple of years, especially last year -- Carlos was so good. The offensive line was so good, and we were still trying to develop that receiving corps to be on par with the rest of the team, and I think we have."
That means the fate of the inaugural College Football Playoff bracket -- and the Big Ten title, depending on Michigan State's ability to meet expectations -- may come down to the one spot that isn't supposed to be a concern for Ohio State. It comes down to the surgically repaired throwing shoulder of Miller, and his willingness and ability to work from the pocket and use the variety of talented weapons around him instead of doing everything himself -- a culmination of a four-year developmental process.
"He's a lot better decision-maker," said Bennett, who played against Miller in high school and has seen him in practice ever since then. "He's a lot more confident about his offensive line and the weapons that he has around him. In high school, you knew pretty much 100 percent that he was going to take off running. And now in college he knows that he's got guys around him. He knows that his arm is strong enough to make those throws, so you want to rush him and control him, but if you just try to control him then he's just going to tear you apart in the pocket. If you want to rush and push him out of the pocket, then he's just going to run for 300 yards."
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Beating Ohio State will ultimately come down to making the right choices, of which there won't be many.
To help the offensive line, the Buckeyes are loaded with versatile playmakers who can make explosive plays in space -- keep an eye specifically on Wilson, who Meyer raved about, saying he's gotten stronger to become a more complete player as a runner and blocker. Even if the line has some issues, the Buckeyes have the weapons to spread the field and try to get the ball out quickly, assuming Miller trusts those around him, as Bennett says. On defense, the disruptive line may end up with four All-America candidates, making life easier for the young players behind them to establish themselves because of all the attention that will be paid to slowing down Bosa, Bennett, Washington and Spence. The Buckeyes, ultimately, have too many pieces for most teams to account for, and only defending champion Michigan State may have a chance to stop them (Nov. 8, in East Lansing) in the regular season.
Ohio State's players are understandably confident that, after a whirlwind ride ever since Jim Tressel stepped down in 2011, all those pieces will in fact fall into place again and reinforce Ohio State's lofty national status. And they should be confident, based on everything Meyer has accomplished, and everything this team has accomplished over the last two years -- even if no championships have resulted. While a lot can go wrong and nothing is guaranteed, no team outside of Florida State has a better chance of putting the pieces together and going undefeated. Few coaches are better equipped to solve the puzzle than Meyer.