Spring practice has barely started in some cases, and in a couple of Big Ten spots, the pads haven’t been put on at all yet.
But it’s never too early to forecast what should be another fascinating, competitive conference race this season. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Up first: The league’s representative in the College Football Playoff last year, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
1. The talent level: No coach in the Big Ten has recruited as well during as many years as Urban Meyer. And now entering his sixth season with the Buckeyes, his machine is fully operational, keeping the pipeline flowing with elite talent at every position. But what could make Ohio State even more dangerous this season is that Meyer won’t be trying to plug in so many first-time starters the way he did a year ago, with no shortage of experienced veterans returning from a team that exceeded many expectations by growing up quickly last season on the way to the College Football Playoff.
2. J.T. Barrett is back: Among all those battle-tested, proven winners returning to the starting lineup is the most productive quarterback in Ohio State history. Any records that Barrett hasn’t broken yet will likely fall soon, and those that he already has might be put out of reach for any future successors at the most important position on the field. The redshirt senior had issues at times last season with his accuracy and footwork, but he was relatively low on the list of offensive problems for a team that struggled to protect the passer, didn’t reach its potential at wide receiver and was overly conservative calling plays. Quite simply, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have been in the College Football Playoff without him -- and he’s more than capable of taking them back there again.
3. Kevin Wilson has arrived: The Buckeyes are quick to point out that their offense isn’t broken after putting up more than 39 points per game last year. But the humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl exposed some significant problems with the passing attack that could no longer wait to be addressed. That inconsistency had shown up previously, and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, Meyer’s major move to upgrade the attack was to bring in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson after he resigned from his post there last year. Wilson worked wonders with the Hoosiers and had the league’s highest-scoring offense two seasons ago -- edging the Buckeyes despite a clear difference in personnel. Giving him a full complement of weapons could be deadly for opposing defenses.
4. The defensive front seven is loaded: For all the conversations about Ohio State’s offense this offseason, there’s a good chance it won’t take that many points to win games thanks to the stingy Silver Bullets on the other side of the ball. Despite the loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes will have returning starters at every other spot in the front seven -- including a ridiculous surplus on the line. With Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes all deciding to stick around for another season, plus Nick Bosa heading into his sophomore campaign, Ohio State’s biggest problem might be finding playing time for all of its ferocious pass-rushers. And the Buckeyes may have found a ready-made solution for replacing McMillan, sliding Chris Worley inside and then filling his spot by sliding in another former starter in Dante Booker as he returns from injury.
5. Urban Meyer: When it comes down to it, the Buckeyes figure to always be in contention every year as long as Meyer remains in Columbus. The team he inherited lost seven games in 2011 -- and he has lost only six times during the last five seasons combined. Meyer has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up to get results, and changes are coming for the second time in his tenure thanks to Clemson revealing a flaw in his system. The last time was after the 2013 season when the Tigers picked apart a crumbling defense. Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash to revamp the pass defense, and the Buckeyes won a national title the next year. This time, it’s the offense that must improve after the goose egg in the semifinal, and Meyer will be expecting a very successful season again this fall.