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Previewing the 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Any questions about this year’s Buckeyes were answered pretty convincingly in September: a 77-10 demolition of Bowling Green, a 43-10 defeat of Tulsa, a 45-24 victory over Oklahoma and a 58-0 whitewashing of Rutgers. College Football Playoff in clear view, right?

Then October happened. Indiana stayed competitive in a 38-17 game. Wisconsin took the Buckeyes to overtime, then Penn State returned a blocked Ohio State field goal attempt for the winning score in a 24-21 upset. Last week, Northwestern gave Ohio State more than they bargained for, and the Buckeyes escaped with a 24-20 win at home.

Now it’s November, and which Buckeye team will show up? The CFP contenders from September, or the unsure, young team that emerged in October?

Junior quarterback J.T. Barrett is off to a fine start this season, completing 64% of his passes, averaging 209 yards a game with 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions this season. He’s also rushed for 531 yards (66 yards a game), scoring six more times on the ground. Running back Mike Weber has rushed for 770 yards (96 a game) and six touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Urban Meyer calls Curtis Samuel an H-back, but not in the traditional meaning of an H-back since Samuel is 5’11" and 197 yards. He’s rushed for 558 yards (averaging 7.9 yards per carry, scoring five touchdowns) and caught 44 passes for 539 yards and three touchdowns. In this case, "H" refers to a hybrid between a running back and wide receiver.

Fellow H-back Dontre Wilson has rushed for 73 yards and caught 19 passes for 252 yards. Wide receiver Noah Brown has caught 24 passes for 309 yards and a team leading six touchdowns. So what’s the issue with the Ohio State offense? It’s the offensive line. Penn State had eleven tackles for loss, including six sacks of J.T. Barrett to set the stage for the upset two weeks ago. The three new starters (left tackle Jamarco Jones, left guard Michael Jordan and right tackle Isaiah Prince) remain on top of the depth chart this week, for what it’s worth.

Defensively, Ohio State ranks in the top three teams in the Big Ten in every major defensive category: third in scoring defense (15.1 points per game), second in total defense (295 yards per game), third in rush defense (125 yards per game) and third in pass defense (171 yards per game). Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan leads the Buckeyes with 51 tackles on the season while defensive end Tyquan Lewis leads with five quarterback sacks. Safety Malik Hooker leads the Buckeyes with four interceptions on the season and ranks second in tackles with 50 this season. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has three interceptions and eight pass breakups.

This game is going to be a tough one for the Huskers to win; if they do, it’s likely to be a low scoring game. The Huskers defensive line will need to be disruptive and get pressure on J.T. Barrett to hold down the Buckeyes offense, and then count on the Nebraska offense to play a very clean game. Can they do this? We’ll find out Saturday night.

Below, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Buckeyes.

Whether other Big Ten fans want to admit it or not, the league's respect is based primarily on the accomplishments of Ohio State. The only other Big Ten school to even play for a national championship in this century is Nebraska, and the Huskers weren't even in the Big Ten at that time. And when Ohio State lost two straight BCS title games in 2006 and 2007, the Big Ten was derided as the "Big MAC" by the rest of the college football world. What changed as of late? It was when Urban Meyer went from embarrassing the Big Ten (at Florida) to knocking the SEC off their pedestal after the 2014 season at Ohio State. Sure, other schools (such as Michigan State) have restored some prestige to the Big Ten, but just like Alabama makes the SEC look really, really good, Ohio State is what's driven the Big Ten's national image in this century.

Going 50-4 the last four years since Urban decided to become a Buckeye has made Ohio State part of the national conversation in football. And while the shine from that 2014 national championship still glows in the trophy room, most of the players from that squad have moved on. In fact, Ohio State only returns six starters (three on each side of the ball) from last year's squad. But much like Nebraska did in the 90's, the Buckeyes don't rebuild, they reload. And unlike Nebraska's powerhouse teams of the past, Meyer's Ohio State rosters are stocked full of very highly touted blue chippers, no matter what evaluator you subscribe to.

One of those returning starters is junior quarterback J.T. Barrett (6'2" 225 lbs.), who won't have to worry about a quarterback controversy now that Cardale Jones is gone. As a freshman, Barrett completed 65% of his passes for 34 touchdowns and 2,834 yards with 10 interceptions. He finished fifth in the Heisman balloting in 2014, but splitting time with Joneslast season, his numbers dropped to 63% passing for just 11 touchdowns and 992 yards. He's still a threat with his legs, rushing for 682 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2015. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Joe Burrow (6'3" 208 lbs.), who's father Jimmy and brothers Jamie and Dan all played for Nebraska.

Now that Ezekiel Elliott is a Dallas Cowboy and Bri'onte Dunn was dismissed for violating team rules in July, Ohio State is starting over from scratch at running back, as nobody who played last year returns. The likely starter should be redshirt freshman Mike Weber (5'10" 215 lbs.) who looked pretty impressive in last season's preseason practice before injuring his knee and missing all of 2015. He's in the mold of Carlos Hyde as a big back...and so is incoming freshman Antonio Williams (5'11" 215 lbs.).

A similar situation exists at receiver where only junior H-back Curtis Samuel (5'11" 200 lbs.) and senior H-back Dontre Wilson (5'10" 195 lbs.) are the only players returning with multiple catches last season. Senior wide receiver Corey Smith (6'1" 195 lbs.) caught five passes in 2014, but missed all of 2015 with a leg injury. Likewise, sophomore wide receiver Noah Brown (6'2" 222 lbs.) caught one pass in 2014, then missed all of 2015 with a broken leg. After that, it's a bunch of newcomers. With nine four-star wide receivers on this year's roster, you have to assume that the Buckeyes will find someone who can make a catch or two this season.

If you have been doing the math, that means there are two returning starters on the offensive line, and both are pretty good. Senior center Pat Elflein (6'3" 300 lbs.) was a first team all Big Ten honoree at right guard in 2014 and a second-team all-American at right guard last season. To accommodate Elflein's move to center, junior Billy Price (6'4" 315 lbs.) slides over to right guard after starting every game his first two seasons, earning second team all-Big Ten honors last season. Plenty of blue chippers await in the background to fill in the rest of the lineup, so again, you have to figure Ohio State will find someone to give them a competent offensive line.

Normally in these previews, I always look at last season to set a baseline, but with Ohio State, it's really tough to do with only three returning starters. On the defensive line, Ohio State did give us a bit of a preview in the Fiesta Bowl. Due to injuries and suspensions, the Buckeyes had to play the new guys - and play well they did. Junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis (6'4" 260 lbs.) is the lone returning starter; he had 54 tackles last season with 14 of them for a loss. He was limited last season due to a shoulder injury that required surgery in January. On the other side, sophomore Sam Hubbard (6'5" 265 lbs.) will replace Joey Bosa, the all-American now playing for the Chargers; Hubbard had 28 tackles with 8 for a loss as a freshman reserve.

Junior middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan (6'2" 240 lbs.) led the Buckeyes last season with 119 tackles. A freshman all-American in 2014, McMillan was first team all-Big Ten and a Butkus awaart semifinalist last season. Juniors Dante Booker (6'3" 233 lbs.) and Chris Worley (6'2" 225 lbs.) will be called upon to replace two NFL draft picks; as reserves last season, they added 22 and 17 tackles.

In the secondary, only junior cornerback Gareon Conley (6'0" 195 lbs.) returns as a starter; Conley started all 13 games last season with 49 tackles and two interceptions. At the other cornerback position, Ohio State will likely be turning to one of two sophomores with limited experience last season: either Denzel Ward (5'11" 180 lbs.) or Marshon Lattimore (6'0" 191 lbs.). It's much the same at safety, where it looks like sophomore Malik Hooker (6'2" 205 lbs.) will be one starter after playing 179 snaps last season as a freshman backup. At the other side, it could be either Erick Smith (6'0" 202 lbs.) or Cam Burrows (6'0" 208 lbs.), both of whom are on the mend from season ending surgeries in 2015.

At just about every other program (not named Alabama), this level of inexperience would seem to be a warning sign of a rather mediocre rebuilding season. But this is Urban Meyer's Ohio State program, a program that's stocked full of blue-chippers. Could Ohio State struggle to go 6-6? Absolutely. But could they go 11-1 or 12-0? Absolutely. And understanding Meyer's track record, I'd suggest that the latter is more likely than the former.