What's better: knowing about the greatness before it happens, or a cloud of uncertainty before a huge breakthrough?
The answer, of course, is subjective and will be different from fan to fan. However, in looking at the last three seasons of Buckeye football, we have a good number of seasons to look at regarding this phenomenon.
Before the 2014 season, then-star quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a shoulder injury that put him out for the season and left Ohio State's quarterback room without a clear leader. To kick off the season, J.T. Barrett led the team against Navy and doubled up the Midshipmen 34-17.
The injury to Braxton Miller knocked Ohio State's point spread on the game from 17.5 points (which they didn't cover) to 13, so Ohio State bettors were probably happy with J.T. Barrett's performance, but fans may have found some concern in only beating their week one opponent by 17.
I know, I know, I'm kind of splitting hairs here, but scroll through the Buckeyes' recent seasons and you'll find that that game was Ohio State's slimmest margin of victory for a season opener since a 31-27 victory over the Midshipmen in 2009.
The very next week, disaster seemed to strike as the Buckeyes were taken down by Virginia Tech 35-21.
The rest, as you probably know, is history. The team went on an unbelievable tear for the rest of the season, then beat down Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship and took down Alabama and Oregon en route the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship.
It was the program's first national championship since 2002 and may have been the win that Urban Meyer needed as a coach to prove that he's one of the school's all-time great coaches. After the Virginia Tech loss, the season was one of euphoria (with some nail-biters) for Buckeye fans as little-known freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and school-player Cardale Jones led the team to the top of the NCAA.
J.T. Barrett wasn't the only new starter that ushered in a season of success for Buckeye football that season, though: Ezekiel Elliott, Raekwon McMillan, and five new offensive line starters accompanied and helped Barrett reach the pinnacle of college football that season.
But is that any better than the confidence that the Buckeyes took into the next season, knowing that there were two capable quarterback starters in Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, an otherworldly running back in Ezekiel Elliott and a force of nature on the defensive line in Joey Bosa? Not to mention the growth of the Slobs and linebackers, as well as the development of some very talented corners like Eli Apple?
Let's start by putting this out there objectively: the 2014 season ended in a national championship, the 2015 season did not. And for that reason, 2014 was probably better in most fan's minds, but what about 2016?
Going into 2016, the Bucks lost the aforementioned Elliott, Bosa, Apple, Jones, and a few others like Taylor Decker, Darron Lee and Michael Thomas, and once again the team seemed to have a cloud of mystery surrounding it. Was the 2016 season more enjoyable as more of a "surprise" success than the "known" success that the 2015 season was?
The 2015 season concluded with the Bucks being Big Ten East co-champs as Michigan State broke fan's hearts everywhere near the end of the season, and the Scarlet and Gray settled for a 44-28 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl as the Spartans went on to the College Football Playoff.
2016 ended similarly — the Bucks were Big Ten East co-champions due to a loss to Penn State but ultimately ended up making it into the College Football Playoff over the Nittany Lions, where the team suffered perhaps the worst loss in the Urban Meyer era 31-0 to Clemson.
Those two seasons ended very similarly. The Bucks won their bowl game in 2015, but the 2016 College Football Playoff was more meaningful and more prestigious to have played in, even if it ended the way it did. So during both those seasons, which was better? Watching the entire 2015 season, knowing that the team had a chance to beat anyone any week, or experiencing some of the new players and ups-and-downs of those players with a 2016 season that was just as successful?
Going into 2015, though, Ohio State fans could rule the land of the internet on forums, message boards, blogs and whatever other corners of the internet you can think of with some unprecedented confidence in the team. A season after winning the CFP national championship, nearly all the team's starters returned. Going into 2016, fans may have been a bit quieter as the team reloaded at running back, wide receiver, and some huge playmakers on defense.
But maybe, that's not where you find confidence in the team. Perhaps you think that year in and year out, Urban Meyer will field a team that will have no more than two losses during the season (and good thing, too. I'm not sure how long the athletic department would keep him around if he had a string of 9-3 seasons) no matter who takes the field. Or maybe you just enjoy trash talking, and that's a lot easier when you can name most of the players on the field and everyone else (see: UM fans, PSU fans, Alabama fans, etc.) know who you're talking about as well.
2017 will be a measure of this as well. After the disappointing loss to Clemson in last season's Fiesta Bowl, plenty of questions surround the team. Fans know that familiar faces will be taking snaps at quarterback, running back and along the lines, but what about the secondary, how will Meyer replace three first-round picks in just one season? Which wide receivers will separate themselves from the group and help the team on Saturdays? Will the kicking game fall apart at the end of the season again? How much can the offense improve with Kevin Wilson, and what specifically will improve? All these questions (and plenty more) float around the team as fall camp gets underway and we move closer and closer to the season's kickoff.
I don't think any Buckeye fans expect a meltdown on the team or more than a loss or two — and fans will assuredly be looking to return to the College Football Playoff, even with these questions marks on the team — but there are certainly more questions surrounding the squad than there were heading into 2015.
In recent memory, it seems the scale slides in favor of unexpected greatness, as Urban Meyer led a team of relative unknowns in 2014 to the highest point in his Ohio State coaching career, and he may be able to replicate that success again in the coming season.