Ohio State’s youth did not get in its way of a College Football Playoff berth. But the Buckeyes still have plenty to work on before heading to the Fiesta Bowl.
Youth will never get in the way of Urban Meyer’s quest to win another national championship.
The Ohio State head coach has his No. 3 Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff once again, and he was able to navigate the 2016 campaign with a very young roster after losing several stars from the 2015 season to the NFL Draft.
There was a slip-up on the road at Penn State, which used the head-to-head win over the Buckeyes to claim the Big Ten East division crown and ultimately the conference title. However, Meyer and Co. rebounded from the loss to reposition themselves to make the national semifinals. Facing adversity once again in the regular season finale at home against Michigan, which held a double-digit lead, the Buckeyes rallied for a double-overtime victory and found themselves in the CFP because of their complete body of work, which also included wins over Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
What makes this season most impressive is that the two-deep is very young—which is a scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten, as well as national title contenders across the country.
Ohio State lost top receivers Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller, stud tailback Ezekiel Elliott and a slew of defenders, including Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple, from last year’s talented squad that went 12-1, with its lone loss coming to CFP semifinalist Michigan State.
Of course, we saw this fall that the Buckeyes simply reload—much like annual CFP entrant Alabama—so there are always going to be talented young players to step in and fill voids. But having so much turnover makes coaching even more important. And that’s why Meyer, who surrounds himself with top-level assistants, is one of the best in the college game. Still, he knows there is a lot of room to improve between now and the team’s Fiesta Bowl tilt against No. 2 Clemson.
As was the case last year, particularly when the team was essentially operating a two-QB system, the offense has never looked completely in sync. Against the Tigers, points will be needed, possibly in bunches. Clemson’s offense is run by Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, and he is surrounded by a plethora of versatile weapons. So Ohio State is going to have to be much more productive offensively than it was against Michigan State (17 points) and Michigan (17 in regulation). Becoming more cohesive on offense this month during bowl practice prep season will be a priority.
“Yeah, we’re going to do quite a bit [on offense in bowl practices],” Meyer said on Sunday during a Fiesta Bowl teleconference. “It’s not just passing the ball. We have to protect. We have to do a better job running the ball, too. I think we ran for 200 some yards against our rivals [Michigan]. That’s definitely why we’re going to practice.
“We have a bunch of new starters that have a whole year under their belt now, so we should be getting better. We’re going to be working really hard because we have to be very productive on offense in this game.”
Tailback Mike Weber was a 1,000-yard rusher this season (just the third Ohio State freshman to rush for 1,000 yards in a year), but he really wasn’t involved against Michigan. Meyer cited the Wolverines’ stout defense as the reason he deferred to more run-pass options with quarterback J.T. Barrett for much of the offense, which likely won’t be enough against Dabo Swinney and Co. A more versatile and creative offensive approach will be needed against the Tigers.
The Buckeyes’ secondary is very good, which is critical because Watson and his receivers will pose a big threat. But if Meyer and his crew are going to advance to the national championship game, a crisp effort will be needed on offense. Due to the inexperience at wide receiver, uneven O-Line play and accuracy issues from Barrett, the passing game has been up and down throughout the year.
“Offensively, we faced some good defenses and had a tough weather game,” Meyer said. “But we have to get back to where we were against Nebraska. Great balance, mixing up the run and the pass, protecting that quarterback.”
While the 2016 Buckeyes have proven to be quite the outfit despite having to replace the 16 starters lost last year on offense and defense, plenty of work remains. Luckily they’re in great hands.
In his career, Meyer is 10-2 in bowl games. He thrives when he has an extra “season” of practice time with his players. Additionally, he is 2-0 in the CFP, claiming college football’s holy grail two seasons ago with a quarterback that was named the MVP of the Big Ten title game in his first career start. Remember that the 2014 squad was young, yet it had no problem capturing the national championship. There is a precedent for Meyer and his staff to draw upon this time around.
If Meyer’s Power Spread offense is clicking on all cylinders and the defense is able to take advantage of a Clemson offense that has been turnover-prone at times, then another national-title opportunity may await Ohio State at Raymond James Stadium on Jan. 9 in Tampa.