Photo courtesy of Ohio State Athletics
By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: If ever there was a season to forget for Ohio State, it was last year. The Buckeyes' BCS hopes were all but shattered before the season even started, as longtime head coach Jim Tressel resigned in May 2011, amidst fallout from a memorabilia-for-cash scandal.
The scandal also saw senior quarterback Terrelle Pryor depart for the NFL rather than face suspension, while three other key offensive players were forced to sit out games. Luke Fickell stepped in as interim head coach, but the 2011 Buckeyes hardly resembled the powerhouse team they were once thought to be. OSU lost its final four games to finish 6-7, the program's first losing season since 1988.
Underneath the wreckage was the Buckeyes' first loss to arch-rival Michigan in eight years. Interestingly enough, OSU ended the season in the Gator Bowl with a 24-17 loss to Florida, a game dubbed by some as the Urban Meyer Bowl. A couple of months prior to that meeting, in November, OSU had hired the former Gators' coach to become the next Buckeyes' head coach beginning in 2012.
OFFENSE: Braxton Miller was thrown right into the fire last year as a freshman, as he took over for starting quarterback Joe Bauserman after three games. While Miller struggled at times and often relied to heavily on his legs -- he posted three 100-yard rushing games and led the team on the ground -- the youngster showed noticeable improvement as the season progressed.
Meyer said that growth process has continued throughout offseason workouts and camp, and he is excited to see what Miller can do with a full year to prepare in the system.
Whether the Buckeyes have enough talent at the skill positions is a fair question. Three players tied for the team lead last year in receptions, with 14 apiece.
The backfield is a bit more intriguing, as junior Carlos Hyde and senior Jordan Hall have the potential to form a solid tandem. Hyde averaged a healthy 5.3 ypc last year and scored six times, while Hall is a jack-of-all trades who can be used in the slot, out wide, or in the backfield to keep defenses off balance.
If the passing game struggles to get off the ground, it wouldn't be a shock to see Meyer employ some offensive looks similar to his '08 national champion Gators team with Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin.
DEFENSE: Meyer retained Fickell to run the defensive unit, which boasts plenty of experience but gave up far too many big plays in 2011. Can Fickell turn the defense around after filling the unenviable role of interim coach last year?
Meyer focused his recruiting efforts on trying to bring more speed to the front-seven, which he pointed out as being one of the biggest differences between the level of play in the Big Ten and SEC. For the first time in recent memory, last year's Buckeye defense was consistently gashed on the ground, while they allowed opposing quarterbacks ample time to sit in the pocket and make throws.
One of Meyer's first orders of business is making sure that does not happen again. He'll lean on senior defensive end John Simon (16 TFL, 7.0 sacks last year) and mammoth junior tackle Johnathan Hankins (67 tackles, 11.0 TFL) for their usual production, but one or two guys need to step up at linebacker.
Smallish weak side linebacker Ryan Shazier impressed last year as a freshman, although the competition is wide open for the other two spots.
The secondary is loaded with experience, led by junior all-conference safety C.J Barnett, and a few of the underclassmen appear to be pushing seniors for snaps.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Jordan Hall is a capable return man, having averaged 26.3 yards per kick return. But with an expected increased role on the offense, he could cede punt return duties. One candidate for that job is junior Chris Fields, who returned one of his five punt opportunities last year for a 69-yard touchdown against Toledo.
Senior punter Ben Buchanan put forth his best season in 2011, placing 27 punts inside the opponent's 20, while averaging a healthy 41.3 yards. Junior kicker Drew Basil was a model of consistency last year, making 16 of his final 17 tries. The Buckeyes, with questions on offense, will need Basil to pick up right where he left off late last season.
OUTLOOK: It's easy to forget that as recently as two years ago, Ohio State had just reeled off its sixth consecutive Big Ten title. While Meyer no doubt faces lofty expectations to rebuild the program, he isn't exactly starting with a doormat.
With the team ineligible for postseason play this year due to NCAA violations however, those expectations are directed more towards 2013, when Meyer has had a chance to work in his first recruiting class. In the meantime, he'll use this season as an opportunity to put his stamp on the program and set the foundation for 2013 and beyond.
At Big Ten media day, the head coach said that he, just like the players, is still adapting to change.
"The thing I don't understand and really have a complete grasp of is our opposition, of our opponents, because I don't know the conference very well," Meyer said.
Still, while there will be a bit of a feeling-out period, Meyer also made it clear his team has no intention of looking beyond 2012 simply because it is not eligible for postseason play.
"There's no such thing as a buffer year in college football, certainly not at Ohio State and certainly not with myself and our staff and our players."
For the seniors who don't get to vie for a conference title or bowl game, it is about playing for pride and laying the groundwork for future classes.
Road games at Michigan State and at Wisconsin will provide stiff tests. The Buckeyes will be home to face Nebraska and Michigan. Double-digit wins may be asking a bit much of Meyer in his first year, but nine victories with a signature win or two, and of course, beating Michigan, would be a promising start to the next era of Buckeye football.