CUT OFF AT THE PASS
In the January 2007 BCS title game, Florida's defensive line had five sacks and overwhelmed an Ohio State offense that gained just 82 yards. To Urban Meyer, then the Gators' coach, that dominance up front was a signature strength of the SEC, which won the next six titles. "What separated the SEC," Meyer says, "was the athleticism of the big guys."
In Columbus, that blowout is now viewed as a blueprint. As Meyer enters his third season at Ohio State, his SEC-caliber front four should bull-rush the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff. Tackles Michael Bennett, a 6'2", 288-pound senior, and Adolphus Washington, a 6'4", 288-pound junior, fit new line coach Larry Johnson's preference for leaner bodies and explosive hips over sloppy gap stuffers. Bennett, the son of West Point graduates, projects as a first-round pick after racking up 7½ sacks in 2013. A healthy Washington, who struggled with groin issues last season, brings the pass-rushing skills of a converted end; his return will leave opposing coordinators baffled about which tackle to double-team.
Defensive ends Joey Bosa (6'5", 285 pounds) and Noah Spence (6'3", 252) combined for 15½ sacks and 28 tackles for a loss last year, leaving Big Ten quarterbacks swiveling their heads. Bosa, a true sophomore and the son of former Dolphins first-round pick John Bosa, will need to be especially sharp the first two weeks while Spence, a junior, serves a suspension for a positive drug test. But once Spence returns, the Buckeyes' defensive front could look similar to Florida's line of 2006. "They have the potential," Meyer says, "to be the best I've had."
The worries for OSU come on the offensive line, where tackle Taylor Decker is the only full-time returning starter. In theory, that means Meyer should balance his offense with more passing after running on 63.3% of the snaps last season. But even after Braxton Miller(right) won the Big Ten offensive player of the year award for the second time and led the league with 24 TD tosses, he still needs work identifying coverages. Meyer has promised to call fewer designed runs for Miller; if he sticks to his word, it will mean that the senior has matured as a passer. That kind of growth, plus a front four that can throttle an offense by itself, could deliver the Big Ten its third national title since 1970.
OSU coaches see true freshman Curtis Samuel, a 5'11", 190-pound RB-WR hybrid, as a game-breaker they can use creatively out of the backfield. Samuel's 4.4 speed makes him the type of player Meyer loves to isolate in space with shovel and swing passes. (Think Percy Harvin.) If the Buckeyes line up Samuel in the backfield and sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson (4.3 in the 40) in the slot, they will have the sort of speed that puts extreme pressure on defenses.
Kent State is the only nonconference breeze on the schedule. Otherwise, Ohio State opens at Navy—whose triple-option offense is always a challenge—and faces Virginia Tech and Cincinnati in the Horseshoe, a slate that should be well received by the selection committee. The trip to Michigan State on Nov. 8, a rematch of last year's Big Ten title game, will be hailed all season as the de facto conference championship. That's why coach Urban Meyer isn't thrilled that the Spartans have a bye the previous week.
SI POWER RANKINGS / By Rotowire.com
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
SPECIAL TEAMS 84%
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
Whether you call him a tailback or a quarterback, Braxton Miller is the best athlete in the Big Ten. He's a hard guy to get down. But he doesn't scare you as a passer. We'd bring six guys and he still couldn't find anyone to throw it to. Most of their yards are on broken plays where he runs for 40 yards. If he figured out the passing game, he would be very scary. I wouldn't want to see that.
In watching Ohio State compared with a lot of other teams in this conference, the one thing they have is speed. They were the closest thing we saw to an SEC team. Schematically, Urban Meyer and [OC] Tom Herman do as good a job as anyone in the Big Ten. They were the best team we played last year, without a doubt. They really understand defenses and how to react to them. And they have the athletes to back up the schemes.
I can't tell you if they're going to be better than Michigan State. They both present their own challenges. Michigan State wants to control the ball and keep you from getting to 21, whereas Ohio State can just outscore you.
SCOTT BOEHM/AP (BENNETT)
JAY LAPRETE/AP (SAMUEL)
SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MILLER)