I wrote for FOXSports.com after the Braxton Miller news became official that his absence need not mean all of Ohio State’s hopes for the season go down the drain, and I do believe that. But it would be foolish to ignore the fact that plenty of the questions facing this team, both before and after Miller got hurt, could go either way. That was true with or without him.
So, what could go wrong?
Well, the offensive line might not be able to protect new starter J.T. Barrett. Right tackle in particular is a question mark until we see Darryl Baldwin in action.
Running back is well-stocked with a variety of body types and talents, but will anyone be able to create as many yards as Carlos Hyde did after contact? And, by the way, the new starter at running back is likely to face contact sooner than Hyde did, so this issue becomes even greater.
Will the receivers step up as expected? That’s another big if considering Devin Smith has had a tendency to drift in and out of games and fellow senior Evan Spencer is coming off a nasty injury in the Orange Bowl. We’ve seen glimpses of what Dontre Wilson can do, but he will certainly need to be more dynamic than he was in games last season to be a major factor this year, especially if defenses pay any extra attention to stopping him. Everyone else, for all their potential, has never done anything in a college game.
There is almost no way the defense will be as bad as it was at the end of the season last year, but it might take some time to get everything together. The new aggressive approach sounds great — and it does look good in the limited blips we’ve seen this fall and spring — but many such moves have sounded great in the offseason and fizzled in the fall.
The athleticism of the defensive line is not in debate, but there is no indication of how well Noah Spence’s replacement will do as far as making plays.
The good vibes from Urban Meyer about the linebackers are pretty believable as Joshua Perry is a legitimately talented guy with some experience who I think will play better closer to the middle of the defense, and Curtis Grant was solid early in the season last year before getting injured. I am also a big believer in the “football sense” of Darron Lee and Chris Worley, and their new role should be a good move since the Star position has been greatly lacking for the past couple of seasons.
The secondary? Again, what have any of these guys done in games? Will they create more big plays than they allow?
The bottom line is my overall optimism to begin with stems from the fact this entire offseason on offense was focused on basically moving the ball and scoring points without the things Braxton Miller does that are out of the ordinary. The Buckeyes should be able to handle much of their schedule without the special things he does, but that is an awfully nice trump card to have. How much will they need it? Probably not much before November. The schedule is more solid with more average teams than last season, so there could be more nervous moments than last year. Will that be when Miller is missed? Will those be created by youthful mistakes of the various players who are being counted on this season for the first time? Mistakes that were possible anyway?
Those are all questions that have to be answered, and the answers are more crucial now without the Big Ten’s best player to clean things up like he did at Northwestern last season. Like the play to start the last scoring drive at Michigan when Miller took a keeper outside for 32 yards. Like his tour de force against Nebraska the season before when the coaches turned to him to get the offense going.
Of course, Miller didn’t get it done when needed against Michigan State and Clemson, but the main reason he was in that position was the defense gave up more than 30 points. He was hurt for almost all of the Clemson game, too, which might explain how he missed an open throw to Philly Brown that could have changed the outcome of that game. And the fateful fourth down play against MSU that has been so hotly debated this offseason would have worked if not for a talented Spartan beating a talented Buckeye’s blocking attempt to take down Miller before he could get started. It’s easy to forget with how down the Big Ten has been recently, but those are things that happen between good teams.
There’s only one Michigan State on the schedule, and it remains to be seen how good Virginia Tech will be. The Big Ten Championship Game is bound to bring another team better than anyone the Buckeyes play in the regular season aside from the Spartans, and Michigan is a bit of a wild card, a team that has the potential to win 10 games but could end up looking similar to last season, too.
It’s trite but true — that’s why they play the games.