That took long enough, didn’t it Buckeye fans?
After 83 games involving FBS teams (well, 85 if you consider the two cancelled due to weather), the defending national champion and current top-ranked team in the nation Ohio State Buckeyes finally get the first chance to put their title, the first of the College Football Playoff era, on the line.
They do so against Virginia Tech in the Bucks first true road game to open a regular season since they played West Virginia in Morgantown on September 5th, 1998. On two occasions since then has the season-opener been played away from the Horseshoe but they were both neutral-site games (vs. Navy in Baltimore last season and vs. Miami (FL) in East Rutherford in 1999).
The Hokies come into this game knowing full well that one year and one day ago they upset the Buckeyes 35-21 in Columbus. The surprising win seemed to knock the then eighth-ranked Buckeyes out of the national championship picture. However, the right things happened from there on out and the Scarlet and Gray made the most of their fourth-seed in the CFP.
You all know what happened afterwards so it’s kind of redundant for me to delve into the details once more.
Ohio State-Virginia Tech: 5 Keys for the Buckeyes
But enough with rehashing the past. It’s time to focus on what needs to happen in order for OSU to escape Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, VA with a W in week one. Here are five things I’ll be watching out for:
JT vs. Cardale: Who Gets the Nod at Quarterback?
The story of the summer throughout training camp was who head coach Urban Meyer was going to name the starter between JT Barrett and Cardale Jones. As of right now, it seems as if it will all come down to whether Ohio State wins or loses the coin toss as to when this question will finally be answered.
Meyer has reiterated that he will not name a starter until game time. He has stated that the competition between the two is simply too close at this point. He also said that such a move has nothing to do with keeping their Monday opponents out of the loop, so to speak.
“I imagined if one of them was way ahead I probably would announce it, but they’re not, and it’s more for our team than who we’re playing,” Meyer noted at last Monday’s press conference.
A lot of people in print, visual, whatever kind of media have been reading into Barrett’s selection as one of the team captains (which is voted on by teammates) as a potential game-changer in the ultimate decision as to who gets the majority of reps. Meyer tried to play down such sentiments in his comments to the media.
“It’s a factor, but it’s not THE factor,” he stated. “The guy that’s going to give us the best chance to move down the field is going to be the guy taking the snap.”
Will Suspended/Injured Players Affect Depth?
Early on in training camp, the program announced defensive end Joey Bosa and wide receivers Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and Corey Smith would be suspended for the Virginia Tech game for violating team policies. The receiving corps took a further blow when sophomore wideout Noah Brown suffered a broken leg in practice on August 26th.
Both developments created lingering questions surrounding depth at those positions.
Expect freshman Sam Hubbard and true sophomore Jalyn Holmes to share reps in Bosa’s spot on the defensive front. Both were part of the Buckeyes phenomenal 2014 recruiting class (ranked third nationally by Rivals). On the other side of the coin, both are immensely inexperienced. Hubbard redshirted last year and though Holmes played in nine games, he registered just 11 tackles.
Hubbard was recruited as a linebacker but after adding a whopping 40 pounds of body mass from his senior year of high school he should have the size and stature to move up to defensive end. Even Holmes is 30 pounds heavier than when he originally set foot on campus, a testament to what they do in the weight room and nutrition-wise in Columbus.
The four suspended or injured players at receiver accounted for 1,063 yards and nine touchdowns through the air in 2014. Not hugely impressive until you factor in Marshall’s contributions as a runner and on special teams.
The second receiver position on the depth chart for the VT game lists James Clark, Johnnie Dixon and Terry McLaurin with “ors” next to their names indicating it’s still up in the air as to who starts. Clark is the only player among the three who has seen the field. He played as a true freshman in 2013 before ankle surgery enabled him to redshirt. The other two are also redshirt freshman.
Clearly Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller (who I’ll get to later) will need to step up.
Can a Loaded Hokies Defense Cause Fits Once Again?
All three units of the Va Tech defense wreaked havoc in every which way against the Buckeyes last season. Two of the three, defensive line and secondary, return virtually everyone from last season. In fact, those returning players accounted for 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and that crucial pick six that sealed the win for the Hokies in Columbus a year ago.
Defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s units in Blacksburg have always boasted exceptional secondary play that confuses quarterbacks and forces turnovers. 2015 should be no exception. Senior Donovan Riley (mastermind of that back-breaking late interception) replaces Kyosheon Jarrett (now with the Washington Redskins) in that rover safety position in Foster’s 4-2-5 nickel package. Cornerback Kendall Fuller will attempt to put together a season good enough to join older brothers Corey (Detroit Lions) Kyle (Chicago Bears) who currently play in the NFL.
The Hokies feasted on the relative inexperience of both Barrett and the OSU offensive line last season. That’s going to be much more difficult to do considering everything that’s happened between now and then. Regardless of whether Barrett or Jones get the majority or even entirety of playing time, expect the cohesion and communication of the big guys up front to be much better in the rematch.
The Evolution of Braxton Miller
Miller’s move to wide receiver/H-back was another major storyline heading into preseason camp. Buckeye fans will get their first chance to see what he can do on Monday night, and expect to see a lot of him. The above mentioned losses at the position should give him plenty of opportunities to get meaningful reps, especially considering both Marshall and Wilson occupied this position last year.
The two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year is pinning his NFL prospects on whether he can evolve into a different kind of playmaker than when he was calling the shots behind center. The versatility he displayed as a dual-threat quarterback should help him, particularly on jet sweep plays where his skills as an elusive runner should shine. Let’s hope it’s not too much of a baptism by fire in passing situations.
Is “Zeke” Ready To Pick Up Where He Left Off?
Much like Jones, Ezekiel Elliott had a final three games for the ages last season. His exploits in the Big Ten Championship and two CFP games has the Heisman hype train at full velocity for the junior running back out of St. Louis. With an O-line in front of him vastly more experienced and virtually intact from 2014, the pieces are in place for him to realize that potential.
There’s no doubt he’ll be tested right out of the gate though. We’ve already discussed the stacked nature of the Hokie defense in general and its front four in particular. College football writer Phil Steele ranks their defensive line fourth nationally (along with the secondary) in his 2015 season preview. As such, look for the battle in the trenches to be perhaps the biggest key to this game.
Throughout the summer I’ve continuously harped on the fact that the target on your back when you’re the national champions is always going to be much more magnified than if you were, say, a highly touted contender. OSU was the latter last season and nearly had everything fall apart with an early season loss to this same Virginia Tech squad they’re about to face Monday night. Only in this case, it’s on the road in a hostile environment.
The Buckeyes have become a different team since then, though. How different will ultimately be determined in a fitting finale to college football’s first week of festivities.