"Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" Courtney Avery ponders. Oh, it's real...it's also just a memory by now.
For the first time in many years, I, a Michigan fan, can talk about the Buckeyes during an offseason without being reminded of the previous November's failure on the gridiron. This is a new and strange time indeed. This past November's triumph has appeared on BTN no less than 8,342 times since then, and the same things happen without fail each time I happen to catch it, as if I am constantly seeing it all for the first time. I have a minor panic attack throughout the Buckeyes' final drive. I laugh when head referee Bill Lemonnier spits out his cough drop when informing us that Fitzgerald Toussaint did not, in fact, get in the end zone. I enjoy the rich and wondrous silence of one Chris Spielman. I feel kind of sorry for Luke Fickell and then I don't because WOOOO.
In spite of the Sugar Bowl, Michigan's first BCS win since the first day of the new millennium, I automatically turn to the OSU game when thinking about the 2011 season that was. Yet, several months later, most of what I can conjure up regarding that game is still some primordial form of WOOO and YEAHHH and maybe a cliche about monkeys no longer being on backs. It's all still a bit unfocused, which, if you can't tell, is already being painfully reflected in this post. I sat down to write this after writing posts about Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, and Minnesota with relative ease in previous weeks. I sat down to write this and felt as if the part of my brain that provides me
the ability to BS untold dozens of papers with inspiration went blank. The win this past November was a Big Thing, but thinking about it strangely seems to produce nothing but a lot of white noise. This seems odd, even a little frustrating. It's partly attributable to writer's block, but I think that something more is at play here.
I could talk about how much Ohio State football circa 2012 can remind some Michigan fans of Michigan circa 2008 (not to say that all--or any--if these connections are accurate or worth considering). I could talk about how much the win this past November means to me, the program, and Brady Hoke. I could talk about how Urban Meyer is clearly the worst person of all time and probably attends Fight Club-esque dolphin-punching sessions with Michael Rosenberg, and also how Urban, gasp, has favorites on his football team...but that would be childish and pointless.
The fact that the recent past escapes analysis and projection, a time of obvious happiness that remains vague nonetheless, might be some sort of physiological sign: it was one win, stupid. Time to move on.
Brain, you're probably right. Last year was a weird interregnum for the Buckeyes. After the Robespierre-ing of one Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes messed around with the Directory and the Consulate for a little while (i.e. Luke Fickell) before a native son,
Napoleon Bonaparte Urban Meyer, returned from the foreign land that is 18th century Egypt 21st century Florida to steer the ship of state out of turbulent waters. Now I realize that this means that Michigan is England in this analogy and I'm not sure how I feel about this. I guess Admiral Nelson's "England expects that every man will do his duty" was the early 19th-century version of "the expectation is for the position." Okay, enough about that.
The point is, I think, that it's time to look to the future. This is in and of itself indicative of the state of affairs; that is, that there even is a future to look forward to. No longer are we looking to the past--the Novembers of 2001, 2002, and 2004-2010--while writing pathetic emo posts exclaiming WHYYY while watching Wolverine Historian videos of Michigan-Ohio State games from the '90s at 3 in the morning, definitely not while sobbing (or worse, the 80s and 70s...yeah Harbaugh, you guarantee that win!). Personally, as convenient for me to do as this may seem to Buckeye fans, I'm laying down a blank slate. My entire experience with the rivalry sort of lends itself to this mindset at this particular point in time: at 23, I've essentially experienced two long and obscenely dominant runs, one from each program. Michigan took the 1990s, whereas the Buckeyes of course took the last decade. Add a still relatively new Michigan head coach in Brady Hoke and a first-year Urban Meyer to the mix and it seems like a pretty good time to reset the game and no it's definitely not at all like those times when you're playing NCAA and you somehow find yourself losing to Purdue in dynasty mode and then you realize that you have to go do some things and no you didn't just exit the game (or completely turn off the console in a fit of panic after finding yourself down three scores to Iowa at home and oh God it's just like 2002 all over again) just to avoid the loss and a blemished virtual season, no you have principles but hey the laundry ain't gonna do itself .
I guess what I'm trying to say is that the fact that we can look forward to this year, the fact that we can look up and down the roster and say that Michigan not only has a chance to win in Columbus this year, they have a really good chance, is a feeling that still needs some getting used to. My only trip to Columbus for The Game came back in 2008, that horrific and awful year. We've come so far. Remember that time that Nick Sheridan was our quarterback and we went backwards on that first drive after that Stevie Brown pick and then proceeded to attempt and miss a field goal? That was 2008 Michigan in a nutshell. It was just one long, embarrassingly facepalm-inducing series of unfortunate events. Well, no more. Sorry, I'm talking about the past again.
From a personnel standpoint, the Buckeyes seem to be a cut or two below Tressel's best squads--based on pure talent alone--but that does not mean that this is an untalented team (far from it). The Buckeyes will trot out the best defensive line in the conference this season, with a terror like John Simon coming off the edge, John Hankins being a corporeal hey-Michigan-I-told-you-so-lol, and Nathan Williams returning from an injury that forced him to miss basically all of last season. The back 7 is a little dicier but should be, at minimum, competent if not fairly solid. Ryan Shazier is a star in the making, and you'd have to think that the light will finally turn on for Etienne Sabino this season. Storm Klein, who, despite a spectacular name, was not so spectacular last season, often looking downright slow. Klein lost his job to sophomore Curtis Grant this spring. As for the secondary, the Buckeyes return all four starters from a group that actually did pretty well last season by the numbers. Travis Howard wasn't exactly the lockdown sort that many hyped him up to be last offseason, but he should be better. However, like Sabino, this season is it for Howard. As of May, Howard was listed as a co-starter with Doran Grant, so if the former struggles he could be eating some bench.
All in all, this Buckeye defense should be pretty decent. The DL will mask some of the weak spots in the back 7, but the two-deep is still well-stocked. Of course, given everybody's desire to compare Ohio State under Urban to Michigan under RR (again, not me), this season is going to be made or broken by the offense and how Braxton Miller et al handle the transition from Tresselball to the power spread.
The Buckeyes must replace Mike Adams, Michael Brewster, and JB Shugarts. Despite all the talent that Tressel was able to bring to Columbus over the years, offensive line has seemingly been a position that has seen players go in and not get much better, physically, technically, and otherwise. This hints at subpar coaching, which Ramzy mentioned explicitly re: Bollman's tutelage of Brewster. Of course, there's a mostly new staff in town now, but it's unlikely that one season will be enough to make an enormous difference here.
The skill position players are no quite as imposing as they once were, either. Carlos Hyde will be a fine power back, in the mold of a probably better DeShawn Wynn sort, and Jordan Hall will definitely be a useful player in Urban's offense. There may not be a star in this group, but, as all Michigan fans will tell--probably in the same breath as the aforementioned dolphin-punching tidbit--that Urban has never really put too much of a premium on traditional tailbacks. So, maybe it's not a huge deal. As long as Hyde can pick up enough tough yards to keep Braxton Miller from spontaneously combusting, then the Buckeyes are probably good there.
Similarly, this group of receivers probably does not have a star in its ranks, but guys like Devin Smith and Evan Spencer are still only mere sophomores. From my probably inaccurate perspective, slot guy Philly Brown seems to come from the Steve Breaston school of wide receiving: quick as lightning, questionable hands. I've heard a lot about Verlon Reed, who exists and is saying things. Incoming freshman Michael Thomas is a wild card here. He seemed to have a pretty good rapport with Miller if his spring game stats are any indication (of course, general "it's just the spring game" caveats apply).
Jake Stoneburner's recent legal issues have him sitting in a bad position right now, but I'm about infinity% sure he'll play come September. Urban did pretty well with tight ends at Florida, particularly guys like Aaron Hernandez and Cornelius Ingram. Stoneburner is arguably Miller's best receiving option, as he boasted a ridiculous 7 TDs on a mere 14 receptions last season. While the TD figure is great, Stoneburner will need to up his overall production, and I think that Urban--and a relatively weak WR corps--will afford him that opportunity.
Then, you know, there's Braxton Miller. If you all want something to deflect attention away from the inevitable Urban=RR derpitude, here's something: OSU fans can look to Miller's performance last season in The Game as a harbinger of future excellence, not unlike the at that point somewhat anonymous Troy Smith's annihilation of Michigan in 2004. This would be the worst case scenario for Michigan fans, obviously. Is it likely? Probably not, but: a) this is all mostly baseless speculation and b) I don't think any of us care how Miller does throughout the course of an entire season...it's all about how he does against Michigan. Although it didn't end in a win for the Buckeyes, we saw what a freshman Miller could do last season, in the Big House, against a defense that featured several key players who will no longer be wearing the winged helmet.
In the end, as reductive as it may seem, the 2012 season for the Buckeyes will come down to how quickly Braxton Miler takes to Urban's offense. We know how the offensive transition went for Michigan (see: "not well"), but Urban has the perfect quarterbacking fit on his roster right now whereas RR had Steven Threet and Nick Sheridan. Speaking to the installation of a new offense, Ross Fulton of Eleven Warriors--who does a lot of great work over there, for those with an eye for schematics--has a great post from March about how exactly Meyer goes about getting everything in place:
Meyer installed his base offense at Utah in six practices. Meyer took the same approach to building the offense outward as Brown describes. Every day, Meyer installs two to three: 1) formations; 2) motions; 3) run plays; 4) protections; 5) quick game; 6) dropback game; and 7) "screen/deceptives." Each day builds off the previous day. For instance, Day 1 begins with Meyer's basic 3 x 1 and 4 x 1 shotgun formations: doubles and trips with and without a tight end. The run plays are also of the same 'family.' Both speed option and zone read employ zone blocking, providing the offensive line repetitions. The downhill routes are all variants of four verticals, providing the base of the route tree for future days.
In the end, as is the case for every offense, it's about blocking, catching, not dropping the ball when it is handed to you, and making things happen when thing fall apart and the center literally cannot hold. There are issues of timing and conditioning and terminological recalibration, but I think that we often overestimate the importance of scheme, especially when it comes to "the spread."
The OL is probably not going to be all that great and the skill players as a group probably fall somewhere on the spectrum between "meh" and solid/solid+. Simplicity on offense will be the Buckeyes' best friend, especially in September and into October. If the Buckeyes can get through September without overworking Miller and/or getting him killed a la Denard last September, then that will be a spectacular win for Urban. If Miller needs to carry it more than 15 times per game against the likes of Miami (OH), UCF, Cal, and UAB, then that's sort of a bad sign. Luckily for OSU, the first real test doesn't come until the MSU game on Sept. 29, but you'd like to save Miller's legs for when they're really needed during conference play.
I think that the Buckeyes are anywhere from a six to a nine win team this season, a variance which I think is almost entirely accounted for by how Braxton Miller performs. But, then again, I am the guy that compared contemporary Ohio State football to late 18th-century/early 19th-century French politics. My opinions should probably be considered with some amount of suspicion.