Team countdown: No. 21 Ohio State

Mike Huguenin
Yahoo Sports

On the one hand, Urban Meyer has arrived to help the program begin to get over the mess left behind by former coach Jim Tressel.

On the other hand, the Buckeyes are on NCAA probation, facing scholarship limits and banned from the postseason this fall.

Meyer and his offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, hired away from Iowa State, have installed the spread offense. That offense helped Meyer win two national titles at Florida in a three-season stretch.

While the offense likely will have some growing pains this fall, the defense should be quite stout as the Buckeyes try to bounce back from last season's 6-7 record. That was Ohio State's first losing season since 1988.

The particulars

Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in Big Ten (4th in Big Ten Leaders)
Coach: Urban Meyer (1st season; 104-23, 11th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – FB Zach Boren, WR Corey Brown, WR Chris Fields, G Jack Mewhort (moving to T), QB Braxton Miller, G Andrew Norwell, TE Jake Stoneburner. Defense (8) – S C.J. Barnett, T Adam Bellamy, S Christian Bryant, T Garrett Goebel, T Johnathan Hankins, CB Travis Howard, CB Bradley Roby, E John Simon. Special teams (2) – K Drew Basil, P Ben Buchanan.
Fast fact: Ohio State lost seven games last season. The last time the Buckeyes had back-to-back seasons with at least five losses? Try 1897 and '98.

Offense

Sophomore QB Braxton Miller looks to be a perfect fit for Meyer's version of the spread. Miller is a good runner who has the speed to get around the corner. But he has to get better as a passer. Miller threw 13 TD passes and four interceptions last season, but he completed just 54.1 percent of his passes and didn't look all that comfortable when asked to put the ball in the air.

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Braxton Miller's running ability isn't in question; his passing ability is a concern, though. (AP)

Miller will be dangerous on the option, but he and the running backs won't have all that much room until he proves he can throw the ball.

One issue for Meyer and Herman is the Buckeyes lacked offensive playmakers last fall; Ohio State has no proven feature back or a proven go-to receiver. Ohio State also needs three new starters along the line.

Senior RB Jordan Hall had a good spring, but he has a foot injury that will keep him out for at least the first two games this season. Junior Carlos Hyde, sophomore Rod Smith and true freshman Bri'onte Dunn will get carries in Hall's absence. Hyde is a squatty (6 feet/235 pounds) power runner; while he is effective between the tackles, he won't be viewed as a threat to get around the corner by top-level opponents. Smith (6-3/230) is another whose ability to get outside is questionable.

FB Zach Boren is a good one, but Meyer's offense generally doesn't use a fullback. Given the state of the wide receiver corps, though, coaches may figure it's better to have Boren on the field a lot.

The receiving corps is a bigger issue than the running backs. No one on the roster caught more than 14 passes last season. Corey "Philly" Brown and Devin Smith, who tied for the team lead with those 14 receptions, should be starters, but neither is proven. Junior Chris Fields and freshman Mike Thomas, who enrolled in January, also will see a lot of time. Thomas, a nephew of Keyshawn Johnson, graduated from high school in Los Angeles in June 2011 and attended Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy last fall.

TE Jake Stoneburner also had 14 receptions last season and he led the Buckeyes with seven TD catches. He should become an important weapon this fall; he can get deep and has good hands.

The line should be OK, even with three new starters. Ohio State should start five upperclassmen, including returning starters Andrew Norwell and Jack Mewhort; both are juniors. Mewhort played guard last season and will be a tackle this season; Norwell remains at guard. Junior G Marcus Hall has started six games in his career and adapted well to the new scheme in spring. Junior C Corey Linsley takes over for Michael Brewster, who had started for four consecutive seasons. Linsley, one of the strongest players on the team, has played mostly guard and tackle in his career. Senior T Reid Fragel is a converted tight end who has gained more than 40 pounds and now weighs more than 300. He has good feet and adapted well to the position change in spring ball. Depth is an issue, and a freshman or two could end up seeing time.

[Related: Penn State faced four years with no football had it not agreed to sanctions]

Defense

There are fewer issues on defense for co-coordinators Everett Withers and Luke Fickell. Both were interim head coaches last fall, Fickell with the Buckeyes and Withers at North Carolina. Withers will call the defenses.

Senior E John Simon and junior T Johnathan Hankins have All-America potential and head what should be one of the best lines in the nation.

Simon, who has played a lot at tackle in the past, had seven sacks, 16 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and 53 tackles last season. He is undersized (6-2/260), but is relentless and has a quick first step. Hankins is a physical force; while he does have some pass-rush ability (three sacks last season), he is at his best

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John Simon is the key player on a line that should be one of the nation's best. (AP)

clogging up things and made 67 tackles last fall. Senior Garrett Goebel returns for his second season as a starter and will play alongside Hankins. The other starting end will be either sophomore Michael Bennett or senior Nathan Williams. Williams, a good pass rusher, is coming off a knee injury that limited him to one game last season.

T Adam Bellamy started last season and will see a lot of time in the middle again. In addition, Ohio State signed an excellent group of defensive linemen, and you can expect at least three to see time this fall. Es Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were five-star recruits.

There will be three new starters at linebacker after Storm Klein was kicked off the team in July. Sophomore Ryan Shazier has the look of a future star; he runs well, packs a punch and made 58 tackles last season. Fellow sophomore Curtis Grant also looks like a future star. He was a five-star signee in the 2011 class but didn't play all that much; he has an excellent spring, though, and seems to have quickly grasped the new defense. The third starter likely will be senior Etienne Sabino, who never has lived up to his high school hype. He has started five times in his career and has 74 tackles; he made 62 of those last fall, though, lending hope that he can have a true breakthrough season this fall. Depth is an issue; there appears to be talent, but it is untested.

The secondary returns four full-time starters, but that unit struggled at times last season and the new coaching staff especially needs more consistency from the safeties. Starting CBs Travis Howard and Bradley Roby combined for five interceptions and 11 pass breakups last season. Roby should contend for all-league honors. Doran Grant will be a solid nickelback, but depth is iffy beyond the top three.

Ss C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant are returning starters who combined for 143 tackles, two picks (both by Barnett) and 14 pass breakups. Orhian Johnson is an experienced backup.

Special teams

The Buckeyes look good here. K Drew Basil was 16-of-19 last season, including 6-of-8 between 40 and 49 yards. P Ben Buchanan averaged 41.3 per attempt, though he did have two blocked.

Hall is a good kick returner, and Field had great success on a limited number of punt returns last season.

The coverage units did a nice job last season, and should be even better this fall because Meyer puts a tremendous emphasis on special teams. Expect to see a lot of starters on all four special teams units.

[Related: Steve Henson: Matt Barkley's commitment to USC can give Penn State hope]

Schedule

The Buckeyes open with four consecutive home games and have six of their first eight in Columbus. In all, the Buckeyes have eight home games and don't play any back-to-back road games.

Outside of a contest with UAB, the non-conference games (Miami of Ohio, UCF and California) should provide at least a modicum of difficulty. That's good because the first two league games are tough; at Michigan State and vs. Nebraska.

The regular season ends with games against Wisconsin (road) and Michigan (home). All in all, though, it's a navigable schedule.

Overview

Meyer's arrival should ramp up the offense – eventually. The offense likely won't be all that pretty this fall; there simply isn't enough proven skill-position talent. Miller should be fine, but will he get much help?

Thankfully for the Buckeyes, the defense should be extremely stingy. A big-time line will mask some deficiencies at linebacker, and the secondary should be better than it was last season.

There is no postseason available to the Buckeyes because of NCAA probation, and that means the players' motivation could wax and wane. Still, the schedule is such that if the Buckeyes don't win at least eight games, this will have been a disappointing season. The ceiling looks to be 10 wins.

[Related: Pat Forde: Scandal is all around college athletics]

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 9th nationally
The buzz: The Buckeyes foundered on the recruiting trail in the six months following Tressel's resignation. It was not until Meyer took over Nov. 28 that Ohio State's recruiting clout was restored. In the next two months, Meyer landed nine Rivals250 prospects and was able to bring in the No. 4 recruiting class nationally. One of the headliners actually is one of the few prospects Fickell was able to bring in during his short tenure as interim head coach – five-star DE Adolphus Washington of Cincinnati Taft. Washington will team with fellow five-star DE Noah Spence of Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt to form what should a potent pass-rush tandem in the future. – Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

QB Braxton Miller. At times last season, fans were able to see Miller scratch the surface of his potential. But there were a lot of factors against him, such as the lack of big-time wide receivers and a conservative offense. That changes this season with Meyer and Herman bringing the spread offense to Columbus. Miller was one of the stars of spring practice, and his presence will be that much more important at the start of the season because of Hall's injury. – Kevin Noon, BuckeyeGrove.com

For more on Ohio State throughout the season, check out BuckeyeGrove.com

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