COLUMBUS – Someone once suggested that if you walk into a room and everyone is saying exactly the same thing with no one disagreeing, it’s probably wrong.
Ohio State has to hope that theory is wrong because the 2014 national champion Buckeyes are everyone’s choice to repeat this season.
Well, at least everyone outside of Tuscaloosa and East Lansing and wherever all the other challengers for college football’s top spot call home.
When the Buckeyes got into last year’s College Football Playoff as the lowest-ranked of the four teams in it, some people thought they were undeserving. Now, with 16 starters back from that team, they’re the toast of college football.
Ohio State has a lot on its plate. Defending national champion. The first unanimous preseason No. 1 team in the history of The Associated Press college football poll. Being everyone’s target.
But it also has the same things which produced last year’s national championship.
It has talent that runs deep at every position on offense and defense. It has Urban Meyer as its coach, who with three national championships, has been through this before.
And it has a core group of players who know all about facing up to challenges after losing two Heisman Trophy caliber quarterbacks to injuries and still winning a national championship. Big expectations are just another challenge and probably not as big as the ones they faced in 2014.
“Tell us we’re underdogs and not very good and we’re going to run with that. If you tell us we’re a really good team, we’ll embrace that and like the pressure,” senior linebacker Joshua Perry said.
“We have to focus on the journey instead of the destination. Everybody is saying, ‘Repeat this, defend that.’ We just want to play ball games at a high level,” he said.
Senior offensive tackle Taylor Decker said, “You don’t want to forget what got you to where you’re at. You don’t want to forget how it feels not to be on top, not to be No. 1. But if we read too much into the expectations, guys will play tight.
“We played so well down the stretch because people were like, ‘Oh, they’re not going to win.’ So we were able to play loose. We always have the expectation we should win every game. Now that everyone else is saying it, it’s just another element, it’s uncharted territory,” he said.
The much-publicized competition between quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones has at times obscured the fact the Buckeyes are loaded at most positions, not just quarterback.
There are seven returning starters on both offense and defense and both kickers are back. And there are highly regarded young players waiting in the wings.
When Meyer said, “We’ve recruited well,” earlier this summer, it might have been the understatement of the year.
Barring something unexpected, like a devastating injury, Ohio State appears to be a team built for the long haul.
The offense starts with the two quarterbacks. J.T. Barrett threw for a school-record 34 touchdowns in the 12 games he started after Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Then, after Barrett suffered a broken ankle in the Michigan game, Jones threw for more than 200 yards in each of the three postseason games.
The heart of the offense, though, might be running back Ezekiel Elliott (1,878 yards rushing) and an offensive line that was transformed from a question mark to being one of the top units in the country at that position. Four of the five offensive line starters are back, led by All-Big Ten selections Pat Elflein and Decker.
Michael Thomas (54 catches last year) and Miller, who will play receiver in his final season, are the big names among the receivers. Finding a deep threat to replace Devin Smith is probably the No. 1 question on offense.
The role of Ohio State’s defense in its national championship drive probably doesn’t get as much attention as it should. In three postseason games, it shut out Wisconsin, held Alabama and Oregon to 6 of 29 on third and fourth down conversions and kept Oregon 27 points below its season scoring average.
Once Joey Bosa (13.5 sacks) returns from a one-game suspension for the opener at Virginia Tech on Monday night, he and Adolphus Washington will lead the defensive line. Perry (124 tackles), Darron Lee (7.5 sacks) and Raekwon McMillan will make the linebackers as strong as any position group. In the defensive backfield, safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell are returning starters, as is cornerback Eli Apple.
OSU will open its season against the only team it lost to last season. Virginia Tech stunned Ohio State by jumping out to an early lead and then, after the Buckeyes had tied the game 21-21, the Hokies scored twice in the fourth quarter for a 35-21 win.
Ohio State’s players for the most part have avoided using the word revenge about Monday night’s game, though some have embraced it.
Tight end Nick Vannett said, “We’re out for revenge.” But most of the players sounded more like defensive lineman Tommy Schutt.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it revenge but it is something that has been in the back of our minds since that game,” Schutt said.
Either way, it’s the first step in a journey Ohio State hopes will end the way all the predictions say it will.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.
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