The last time the Buckeyes hired a new head football coach, he led the scarlet and gray to a 14-0 season and a national championship in his second season in Columbus.
However, that undefeated run came somewhat out of nowhere, as Jim Tressel's squad managed just a 7-5 season the year prior (albeit including a win against Michigan in Ann Arbor). So, with Urban Meyer leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated season in 2012, expectations will be a bit higher this year than they perhaps were heading into the 2002 season.
The Buckeyes finished third in the final AP poll and were ranked 9th in FEI at season's end. After the awkward Fickell interregnum, the Buckeyes were back to playing great defense, in addition to hiring the perfect match to quarterback Braxton Miller's skill set. Miller took a big step forward in 2012, his sophomore season, connecting on 58.3 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,039 yards (1,159 in 2011) and rushing for 1,271 yards as well (715 in 2011). Miller finished fifth in the Heisman voting behind Johnny Manziel, Manti Te'o, Collin Klein and Marqise Lee; needless to say, Miller will be a favorite for the award this season.
Like 2002, last season was not without its close calls. The Buckeyes defeated California--a team that finished just 3-9 and fired Jeff Tedford--by just a touchdown at home in September. The next week, Meyer's squad held a tenuous 21-15 lead early in the fourth quarter before finally putting the Blazers away late with a Miller touchdown score.
Having made it through the nonconference slate unscathed, OSU eeked out a one-point victory in East Lansing, impressively holding Le'Veon Bell to just 45 yards rushing on 17 carries.
The Buckeyes went on to dismantle the eventual Legends division champs at home the next week, 63-38, but somehow gave up 49 points on the road in Bloomington, a 52-49 victory (note: the Hoosiers scored twice in the final two minutes, making it look closer than it probably was).
The next week, the Buckeyes were once again forced to go to overtime against Purdue, who has given the Buckeyes trouble in recent years. This time, Miller wasn't even the hero, as Kenny Guiton was forced into action after a Miller injury. Nonetheless, Guiton tossed a touchdown strike with two seconds left in regulation to tie the game, 22-22, and the Buckeyes managed the win in OT, unlike in 2011.
The Buckeyes pulled out a solid 12-point win in Happy Valley, ending Penn State's five game winning streak. Illinois the next week offered the Buckeyes a chance to breathe for the first time in weeks, but not for long, as the Buckeyes had to roll into Madison the next week for what was sure to be a raucous Camp Randall environment.
The Badgers tied things up, 14-14, with eight seconds left in regulation. Once again, the Buckeyes were forced to win in OT, where they did just that, not allowing the Badgers to score and escaping with a 21-14 victory. The Nebraska thumping notwithstanding, one could argue this was the most impressive victory of the season for the simple fact of: a) where it was played and b) the Badgers held the Buckeye offense in check, holding Miller to just 145 yards of total offense. Montee Ball's fumble at the OSU 2-yard line in the fourth was a crushing blow for the Badgers, but they did eventually tie it anyway. It wasn't pretty, but it was another classic matchup between these two squads, and a win at Camp Randall is never anything at which to scoff.
I don't need to tell you what happened on Nov. 24, but for the sake of consistency, Meyer scored a victory in his first experience with The Game, like Tressel. Michigan was about to head into the half up 21-17 after Denard Robinson's spectacular 67-yard touchdown run, but the Buckeyes quickly drove down the field for a field goal. In the second half, the Buckeyes kept the Wolverines off of the scoreboard, capping the season with a 26-21 win.
These days, preseason title matchup predictions generally go as such: it's Alabama versus [insert team]. Understandably, many are penciling the Buckeyes in that second spot after an undefeated season that must have been somewhat unfulfilling under the circumstances.
The schedule certainly has its potential pitfalls, but it does set up nicely for another undefeated run. Although Cal had a disastrous 2012 season and went through an ensuing coaching change, as we all know, Big Ten teams going out west often results in heartbreak (Michigan fans know this well). The Buckeyes should roll, but this is the game to watch in the nonconference, depending on how high you are on San Diego State, who went 9-4 last season.
After the nonconference, the Badgers come to town for what should be one of the better games of the conference schedule. If the Buckeyes win, they cannot rest on their laurels, as a date in Evanston with my Northwestern Fightin' Warrior Poets awaits. Naturally, this seems to be the trendy "upset" pick, so we'll see. I have a feeling it won't end up being that close, but the Wildcats are a legitimate Big Ten contender this season and should not be taken lightly.
The schedule eases up a bit after that up until The Game. The Buckeyes have a few hoops to jump through before then, but an 11-0 start is a real possibility once again.
Personnel-wise, the offense brings back four out of five starters on the line. With that said, the OL does need to do a better job of keeping Miller's jersey clean; OSU gave up 30 sacks in 2012, tied for 90th in the country. That will happen when you have a quarterback who attempts to extend plays with regularity, but, as the Michigan game showed, the line did allow opposing rushers to get to Miller untouched from time to time.
The Buckeyes also return all skill players of note not named Jake Stoneburner. Miller is back, as are receivers Devin Smith and Corey "Philly" Brown, the latter also bringing a dynamic presence to the punt return game.
I admittedly have tuned out of the offseason legal issues in Columbus for various reasons, but senior tailback Carlos Hyde will likely be there carrying the ball for the Buckeyes this season. The Buckeyes always have skill position talent, but Hyde would have been a big loss; he racked up 970 yards on 5.2 yards per carry in 2011, and is poised to be Urban Meyer's first 1,000-yard tailback. Rod Smith and former Michigan target Bri'onte Dunn will spell Hyde in the backfield, and Miller will of course get his fair share of designed (and otherwise) carries.
Defensively, co-coordinators Everett Withers and Luke Fickell will be looking for answers on the defensive line, where there are no returning starters. Again, it's not as if the Buckeyes are without talent, but it will be difficult to replace the production and general tenacity of players like John Simon and Johnathan Hankins. Starters Nathan Williams and Garret Goebel also need replacing.
On the second level, Storm Klein and Etienne Sabino are gone. The former is a negligible loss at best, and Sabino was seemingly a decent player who never quite lived up to his recruiting hype; of course, this is college football, and that happens all the time.
In the secondary, the Buckeyes have to replace Travis "Howard Island" Howard and safety Orhian Johnson (who played in all 12 games last season). However, the Buckeye secondary should be one of the best in the country, assuming star corner Bradley Roby, like Hyde, makes it back onto the field after recent legal issues.
In any case, this defense should once again be pretty good. Assuming Roby returns, figure in the presence of star OLB Ryan Shazier and assume that at least one of the young, talented linemen (Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington) has a big season, and you have the ingredients for another very good Buckeye defense. There may be some growing pains up front early in the season, but the nonconference schedule shouldn't be especially challenging. They line and new linebackers will have to grow up fast, however, as the Badgers roll into Columbus on Sept. 28.
Every team has question marks, including the Buckeyes, but Urban Meyer's squad is without a doubt the favorite to win the conference this season, with a good chance at getting a crack at Alabama (because obviously) in the national title game.
Games against Wisconsin, at Northwestern and at Michigan stand in the way of perfection. Throw in the trip out west against Cal (again, bad team, but strange things happen out there), a date with a Penn State team that should be much better on Oct. 26 than it will be at the start of the season and Purdue (see the Cal "strange things" explanation), and running through the schedule unbeaten is not quite a certainty.
The season should be another exciting one in Columbus; but, after 2012, anything less than perfection will probably be seen as a disappointment. Either way, the season will likely once again provide a number of memorable games, as a fan of college football in general.
As this is the last team we will be previewing here, this is a good time to say we are just 32 days away from Michigan football. More topically, we are 123 days away from The Most Important Game On That Schedule.
We're almost there.