The nation's knottiest quarterback competition gained some clarity on July 23, when senior Braxton Miller revealed he's moving to H-back—a hybrid receiver position. That still leaves Ohio State with the most enviable and intriguing QB race, between sophomore J.T. Barrett and junior Cardale Jones.
Each has established his credentials with a different style. Barrett went 11--1 as a starter last year, finished No. 5 in the Heisman voting and broke Drew Brees's 16-year-old Big Ten record by accounting for 45 touchdowns. At 6'2" and 255 pounds, Barrett is as much a deft distributor as a dynamic playmaker. His fractured right ankle in the regular-season finale allowed Jones to step in and lead OSU to victories over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, then Alabama and Oregon in the College Football Playoff. Along the way he established himself as an NFL prospect, a 6'5", 250-pound drop-back archetype.
So who'll be throwing bubble screens to Miller? The safe bet is Barrett. Coach Urban Meyer's best offenses have featured horizontal quarterback runs more suited to the nimble Barrett than the lumbering Jones. Receiver Devin Smith's departure to the NFL also hurts Jones, as the Buckeyes have no vertical threat to complement his biggest strength: the deep ball.
Ezekiel Elliott, a junior tailback, returns after breaking out for 696 rushing yards in three postseason games. Four starters return on the offensive line—known as the Slobs—including a top NFL prospect in senior tackle Taylor Decker (6'8", 315). The Slobs are no slouches: OSU averaged 6.2 yards per carry in the postseason.
The country's scariest rush duo highlights the defense; potential No. 1 pick Joey Bosa (a junior) and hybrid linebacker Darron Lee (sophomore) combined for 37½ TFLs last season. (Bosa and three other players have been suspended for the opener for a violation of team policy.) Expect to see Lee and senior linebacker Joshua Perry (8½ TFLs) in opposing backfields frequently, as OSU will blitz more this year.
Last year's title came a year ahead of schedule for the Buckeyes, but don't expect them to fall out of national contention soon. They currently have the No. 1--ranked recruiting classes for 2016 and '17.
Each of Urban Meyer's three national-title teams lost at least one game. A defeat this year could be dire, though, because he has few chances for résumé-building wins. The Buckeyes' only rigorous nonconference game is the opener at Virginia Tech; they could be three-TD picks in all their league road games (Indiana, Rutgers, Illinois and Michigan). A Nov. 21 date with MSU could be the de facto Big Ten title game.
In 2013, his senior year at Cleveland's Glenville High, corner Marshon Lattimore sealed a win by blocking a field goal with a leap so high that his thighs were even with teammates' helmets. "One of the freakiest athletes I've coached," says Glenville coach Ted Ginn Sr. The 6-foot, 195-pound Lattimore, a top 50 recruit, should announce his presence in the secondary after surgery on his hamstring last August wiped out his freshman year. The starting spot opposite sophomore Eli Apple is sophomore Gareon Conley's for now, but Lattimore may rise up during camp and snare it.
OPPOSING COACH'S TAKE
They lived off their defensive line last season—they could rush four and still pressure the quarterback. That helped prevent deep throws against a susceptible secondary with average corners and stiff safeties.... They aren't that complicated on defense, where they let their playmakers be playmakers. To attack them you have to be physical up front, protect the quarterback and take chunks of yards.... Joey Bosa is a headache when he flips from left to right end, especially with Darron Lee rushing from the opposite side. Lee may be the best rush linebacker in the country, and they move them around to create mismatches.... It'll be interesting how Urban Meyer handles the quarterbacks, because he wants everyone to be happy. I think J.T. Barrett is more well-rounded.... Of course when you have the offensive line they have, you don't need a great thrower. You just need someone to hand it off.
JEFF HAYNES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ELLIOTT)
SCOTT W. GRAU/ICON SPORTSWIRE (LATTIMORE)
ROBIN ALAM/ICON SPORTSWIRE (LEE)