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Big Ten Football Preview 2015: Ohio State's season outlook

J.T., Cardale, E.E., oh my! But beware Jim from Ann Arbor.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State has been the talk of college football since January, but not for winning the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The defending national champions had a high-profile quarterback battle brewing this offseason between J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller, who moved to receiver.

With 15 starters returning plus Miller, Ohio State is loaded as ever and gearing up to repeat as national champions in 2015. Can the Buckeyes, the first team to unanimously earn the No. 1 spot in AP preseason poll history, do it? Or will Jim from Ann Arbor crush title dreams?

This week we examine Ohio State in our final Big Ten Football Preview season outlook series.

My, how things have changed

With all the attention its getting, if you haven't heard about Ohio State's quarterback competition until now, that's incredible. Or in the words of Ron Burgundy, "I'm not even mad, that's amazing."

Barrett took over as Ohio State's starting quarterback last August after Miller had been ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury. In Miller, the Buckeyes lost a player that was expected to be in the Heisman race.

There went the team's hopes for a national title, right? It sure seemed like that; Barrett and Jones were unknowns at the time while Miller was a game-changer.

Take this snippet from ESPN's story when it was announced Miller was out for the season.

"Miller is one of the Big Ten's most decorated quarterbacks, and the falloff in experience to Barrett and Jones is huge,"the Worldwide Leader wrote at the time.

Barrett took the reins, had a nice debut against Navy but struggled in his first true test at the position: Ohio State's home opener vs. Virginia Tech.

The Hokies gave Barrett fits. He completed 9-of-29 passes and threw three interceptions in what turned out to be the Buckeyes' lone loss in 2014.

Barrett bounced back nicely in week three against Kent State and quickly established himself as a Heisman contender. He was in the thick of the race until he broke his leg in the second half of Ohio State's regular-season finale vs. rival Michigan.

With the Big Ten Championship one week away, the Buckeyes had in Jones a quarterback who had never started a game in his collegiate career. None of that mattered.

Jones and Ohio State torched Wisconsin, sneaked into the College Football Playoff and embarrassed both Alabama and Oregon en route to its eighth national title. And after the season, the quarterback entertained the thought of leaving for the NFL, where he was expected to be a high pick.

Barrett and Jones will duke it out at quarterback. Both are expected to be Heisman-level talents, but only one can start under center. Barrett offers a dual-threat attack while Jones has a cannon arm. The storyline will rage even after a starter is named, but the two are phenomenal complements to Ezekiel Elliott.

Double E

A quarterback and running back that should be Heisman contenders? Urban Meyer has it good in Columbus.

Entering his junior year, Elliott is an extremely talented running back who appears poised to be a top selection in the NFL draft.

He wreaked havoc on defenses last year, rushing 273 times for 1878 yards and 18 touchdowns. One-third of those yards came against in monumental games against top talent (Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon).

Elliott is one of the top backs in the nation and it'll show this season. Watch out, Big Ten teams.

Key returnees

We've already covered Elliott, Barrett and Jones, so lets start with the new-look Miller.

Miller could be Meyer's secret weapon on offense, his next Percy Harvin. That's who Miller has been compared to in his transition to receiver. And with Devin Smith in the NFL now, he could have a huge impact on the Buckeyes.

Michael Thomas, Ohio State's second-leading receiver in 2014, returns for his junior season. He led the team in receptions with 54 and totaled 799 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.

The Buckeyes return four offensive line starters — Pat Elfein, Taylor Decker, Jacob Boren and Billy Price — which bodes well for whomever quarterbacks the team and Elliott.

Future NFL talent Joey Bosa lurks on Ohio State's defense. He totaled 55 tackles — 21 tackles for loss — and 13.5 sacks as a sophomore last season. Bosa is suspended for the season opener and his play could be missed.

Redshirt sophomore Darron Lee was phenomenal at linebacker last season, totaling 81 tackles — 16.5 for loss — five interceptions and 7.5 sacks.

Ohio State has two impressive safeties in Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell.

Bell, a junior, is one of the Big Ten's top safeties. He totaled six interceptions and 92 tackles to pace its passing defense.

Michigan fans know four-year junior Powell well; he intercepted Devin Gardner on a two-point conversion in the final minute of 2013's edition of The Game.

To-do list

First and foremost, Ohio State needs to stay healthy. Even on a deep team, injuries have a chance at derailing a season. Not every injury will have the Miller-Barrett-Jones luck.

And the Buckeyes need to remain out of trouble. Four players, headlined by Bosa, are suspended for the team's season opener. Bosa is reported to have a recent run-in with trouble.

The schedule

Sept. 7 at Virginia Tech
Sept. 12 vs. Hawaii
Sept. 19 vs. Northern Illinois
Sept. 26 vs. Western Michigan
Oct. 3 at Indiana
Oct. 10 vs. Maryland (Homecoming)
Oct. 17 vs. Penn State
Oct. 24 at Rutgers
Nov. 7 vs. Minnesota
Nov. 14 at Illinois
Nov. 21 vs. Michigan State
Nov. 28 at Michigan

Ohio State starts its season at Virginia Tech, the team who handed the Buckeyes their only loss last season. The Monday night game in Blacksburg, Va. should be a tough test for Meyer's 2015 squad, especially with the four suspensions.

Ohio State doesn't have a legitimate test after the Hokies until Oct. 17 when Penn State travels to Columbus. The Nittany Lions had the Buckeyes on the edge of their seats last season in Happy Valley, and Christian Hackenberg should be much better in 2015.

Jim from Ann Arbor

There's a good chance the Buckeyes cruise to a 10-0 record until the final two weeks of the regular season. First, they host Michigan State, a team who, much like the Buckeyes, has College Football Playoff dreams.

Then there's Michigan, the first meeting between Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. It's already been hyped to be like the old days with Bo and Woody at the helms.

Virginia Tech and Michigan State could give Ohio State a run for its money, but the Michigan game is the biggest on its schedule. For both teams. No doubt; it always is.

Although it hasn't defeated him while with Ohio State, Michigan has been a thorn in Meyer's side.

In the past three meetings, beating the Wolverines hasn't been easy an easy task for the Buckeyes.

In 2012, they won by five points.

In 2013, the Buckeyes were a 17-point favorite and widely expected to demolish Michigan by media and fans (for the record, I thought otherwise). The Buckeyes needed to defend a two-point conversion in the final minute to top the Wolverines.

Last season, the teams were locked in a battle before Ohio State pulled away for a 12-point win.

And those three results were with Brady Hoke leading the Wolverines. Imagine what Harbaugh could do.

I think Ohio State claims its second-consecutive Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff appearance in 2015. Right now, the Buckeyes are just too good, too deep, for one to think it won't happen again.

But the season opener and those last two games in the regular season, the finale especially, will be deadlocks.