There are those that know a lot about college football, and then there's Phil Steele. For more than a decade, Steele has been the top prognosticator in the country and his annual college football preview is an offseason milestone trusted by fans and analysts alike.
There won’t be much for Ohio State fans to dislike when they read Steele’s 2013 picks. He has the Buckeyes lined up for a clash with Alabama in the BCS National Championship and thinks Braxton Miller might be in store for a huge December night in the Big Apple.
But in a recent chat with Eleven Warriors, Steele also elaborated on where Ohio State fits in against the SEC’s heavyweights, what programs are on the rise and decline in the Big Ten and which games present traps for the Buckeyes’ national championship hopes.
Eleven Warriors: Aside from Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller, why do you view Ohio State as a national title contender?
Phil Steele: On offense, the Buckeyes have eight other returning starters besides Miller from an offense that averaged 37.2 points per game last year. The running backs are deep led by Carlos Hyde, the wide receivers are much improved and have better depth, and I rate their offensive line as the seventh-best in the country.
On defense, naturally, the major question mark is on the defensive line. But I love the replacements, and by the end of the year, it could be one of the better D-lines in the country. They have a first team All-American at linebacker (Ryan Shazier) and a first team All-American at cornerback (Bradley Roby) in the back seven. The schedule sets up nicely, as they will be favored in all 12 of their games.
11W: What do you think about Braxton Miller’s chances of winning of the Heisman Trophy?
PS: He is my pick to win the Heisman Trophy this year, so I think they are very good. If he improves his passing numbers from last year’s 2,039 yards, 58 percent completion percentage and 15-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio to something like 2,500 yards, 60-plus percent and a 20-5 ratio while rushing for more than 1,000 yards again, the trophy should be his provided the Buckeyes are in the mix for the national title, which I think they will be.
11W: What games on Ohio State’s schedule could be potential slipups?
PS: Their three toughest games on the season are a home game against Wisconsin, a road trip to Northwestern the following week and, of course, the rivalry game on the road at Michigan in the finale. However, the Buckeyes will be favored and currently are favored in all three of those games by six points or more.
11W: How leery should Buckeye fans be of Ohio State’s September trip to Cal, where OSU faces the Sonny Dykes-coached Golden Bears? His offenses have garnered plenty of attention in recent seasons.
PS: It is a dangerous trip as evidenced by OSU’s close call with the Bears last year at home. Cal is only off a 3-9 season and only returns 11 starters and will be adjusting to new systems and schemes. They should get improved play at the QB spot and the offense will perform much better than last year’s team that averaged just 23 points per game and 391 yards per game. Defensively, they are also improved but have a ways to go to improve after allowing 33 points per game and 441 yards per game last year. Last year’s close game should mean the Bears will have the Buckeyes’ full attention.
11W: What under-the-radar team in the Big Ten do you think could surprise people this season?
PS: There are a couple of candidates, but I will go with Michigan State, who was just 3-5 in the Big Ten last year. Most analysts are picking them third or fourth in their division, but I have them tied for first with Nebraska. Their five conference losses were by a total of 13 points last year, and they avoid the Top 3 teams out of the Leaders Division this year in OSU, Wisconsin and Penn State. They again have the best defense in the Big Ten and should get better quarterback play.
11W: Is there a game on Ohio State’s schedule against a “lesser opponent” that piques your interest? It seems like even the best teams have shockingly close calls year-in and year-out.
PS: Tough call here as I have the Buckeyes winning most of their games comfortably. San Diego State has been to back-to-back bowl games and head coach Rocky Long usually fields a tough defense that could keep the game interesting. Iowa is much improved this year, but the Buckeyes have a bye to prepare. Indiana gave the Buckeyes fits last year, and I am calling for them to make a bowl this year for only the second time in 20 years. With the IU game coming right before Michigan, that could be another closer than expected game.
11W: You list Buffalo as one of the most improved teams for 2013. It would still take a Herculean effort for the Bulls to beat Ohio State in the season opener, but what kind of team will the Buckeyes get on Aug. 31?
PS: The Bulls have slowly improved under head coach Jeff Quinn from two wins, to three, to four last year, and this year return 17 starters. They have one of the best linebackers in the country in Khalil Mack and they get an outstanding running back to health in Branden Oliver. It is a team that last year lost to UConn by seven and Pitt by 14 and also gave Georgia fits before losing by 22. Overall, it is a team that will probably win six or seven games this year and are a mid-level MAC team that the Buckeyes should still beat by at least three touchdowns even with a flat performance.
“I actually think they will be better than most expect led by defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence, who both got some action last year and were monsters in the spring.”
11W: What unit on Ohio State do you think could have an exemplary season that people aren’t mentioning?
PS: For the first time in 28 years, OSU has to replace all four defensive line starters, but I actually think they will be better than most expect led by defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence, who both got some action last year and were monsters in the spring. They also have some nice young talent at defensive tackle and by the end of the year will be one of the better D-lines in the country.
11W: What is your impression of the Big Ten – is this the year the conference gets some respectability back?
PS: I do think this will be a great year for the Big Ten, and it starts with scheduling as many of the top teams from the opposite divisions avoid one another unlike past years. OSU, unlike last year, does not play Nebraska or Michigan State out of the Legends and Wisconsin also does not play Nebraska, Michigan State or Michigan. Overall, you could see the Big Ten with at least five teams win nine or more games this year.
11W: What player(s) not named Braxton Miller is the X-factor for the Buckeyes? Jordan Hall is mentioned quite frequently on offense, while the linebackers minus Ryan Shazier get attention on the defensive side.
PS: I think Devin Smith or Corey Brown, or even one of the incoming true frosh, could have a breakout season on the offensive side, and on the defense linebacker Curtis Grant along with Washington and Spence could be in store for All-Big Ten seasons.
11W: You predict an Alabama-Ohio State national title game with the Crimson Tide as the victor. Would that clash involve another SEC blowout, or do the Buckeyes have what it takes to hang with Alabama?
PS: I think the game would be closer than the last couple of title games due to the fact the Buckeyes have an X-Factor with Miller at quarterback and Meyer has national title game experience. However, Alabama has been so dominant in each of their last three bowl games (112-21 combined score) against three very good teams and clearly you give Saban extra time to prepare. He has become almost unbeatable. I am also not sure that the Buckeyes have enough weapons outside of Miller on offense or enough experience on the front seven on defense to have the game go down to the final possession in the fourth quarter.
11W: The SEC’s seven-year reign has centered on strong offensive and defensive line play. Urban Meyer has been part of that. Do you think Ohio State has reached a new level with the play of both lines?
PS: I think the offensive line will be among the elite this year with 81 career starts returning. Naturally, Meyer identified the D-line early in the recruiting process last year and I think it will really pay off come next year as they could easily have the best defensive line in the country in 2014.
11W: How vital is Bradley Roby’s play to Ohio State’s title hopes?
PS: Outside of Miller and possibly Shazier, I think Roby is the most important player on the team. Having a lockdown corner, especially when you have a young D-line will certainly help and it will allow OSU’s experienced safeties to get closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support.
11W: What are your thoughts on the future of college football, and in particular the looming playoff?
PS: I like the four-team playoff format as I had been calling for in my College Football Preview magazine for each of the past 13 years. I like the fact that they signed a deal to keep it at four teams for a long time, and I would prefer it always stay at four teams as I think expanding it to eight or 16 teams would devaluate the regular season which makes college football the best sport in the world.
“I think expanding it to eight or 16 teams would devaluate the regular season which makes college football the best sport in the world.”
11W: Who do you think is the unsung hero on the 2013 version of Ohio State?
PS: Tough call here, but I will go with the O-line unit as a whole, as they have to keep Miller healthy while also paving the way for a ground attack that could give their young D-line on the opposite side a break.
11W: Wisconsin is the Big Ten’s three-time defending champion. But a drop off is expected. Which direction do you see the Badgers' future trending?
PS: I don’t necessarily agree that a drop off is expected, at least not by me. First of all, this year they have 14 returning starters, will get better QB play and have a solid 1-2 punch at running back while fielding a typical strong Wisconsin offensive line. On the defensive line, they are switching schemes to a 3-4, but have an All-American in the middle with linebacker Chris Borland.
They have the best schedule in the Big Ten this year, avoiding Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska while also getting Penn State and Northwestern at home. I think they win 10 games this year. As far as the future goes, I like the Andersen hire. His Utah State team last year nearly went into Madison and beat the Badgers, and his Aggie teams were always very physical, which should match the style of play the Badgers have had for the last 20 years.
11W: Most thought Penn State’s downward spiral would begin a year ago, and it looked that way after an 0-2 start, but they rebounded with an outstanding season. Is 2013 the season when the effects from the bowl ban and scholarship reductions hit?
PS: I don’t think it will start until next year. This year’s team is much more experienced than last year’s team with 14 returning starters (only six last year), and as long as they get decent quarterback play, which should be a given after Bill O’Brien turned former walk-on Matt McGloin into an All-Conference player last year, the Lions will at minimum match last year’s eight wins and could even top it.
11W: It’s a new era at Michigan. Denard Robinson is gone after what seemed like a 30-year career. Will Devin Gardner continue the Wolverines’ rejuvenation under Brady Hoke? Will we see the first Ohio State-Michigan Big Ten championship game?
PS: I think the offense will be better with Gardner under center and you saw that at the end of last year. Al Borges now can implement the pro-style offense they wanted to run from the beginning. Gardner has some decent talent surrounding him and it really helped that left tackle Taylor Lewan returned for another year. On defense, the possible loss of linebacker Jake Ryan for the year really hurts as they were inexperienced to begin with.
While my talent ratings call Michigan the second best team in the Big Ten behind the Buckeyes, their schedule is brutal. Road games at Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern along with home games versus Nebraska and Ohio State will probably knock them out of playing the Buckeyes in a Big Ten championship game in a rematch.
Many thanks to Phil for his time.