Boasting a No. 2 preseason ranking, Ohio State's 2017 season opener is finally here as the Buckeyes get set to do battle in Horseshoe West against Indiana tonight.
A sellout crowd will be on hand to witness Urban Meyer put his 15-0 mark in season openers on the line while the Buckeyes look to record their 23rd win in the last 24 road games.
Indiana head coach Tom Allen would love to pull the upset in his second game at the helm but to do so he'll have to slow down former IU head coach and current Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson's uptempo attack.
Can the Hoosiers stay close? How will J.T. Barrett fare in game one of his farewell season? What about the right side of the offensive line and that crowded group of starting receivers?
It's all yours, boys..
What’s the biggest question mark you hope to see answered on some level tomorrow night against Indiana?
Dustin: Similar to last season, the one question involves which receiver(s) is going to step up and become a breakout player whether it’s down the field or an all-out, every down receiver. The lack of a big play threat on the outside really hurt this team in key moments against Penn State and Clemson both last season and someone will need to step up despite a lack of major experience with Mack, McLaurin and Victor. One or two of those guys needs to prove themselves as a go-to receiver in this offense.
DJ: The offensive line, specifically in pass protection. If they can operate cohesively, it will make everything easier for J.T. Barrett and the receivers. If they can’t, then buckle up. It’s going to be another season of one-dimensional slogging.
Dan: There's always a bunch of question marks entering a season opener, but there might not be a bigger question mark for Ohio State entering this game than the wide receivers. No wide receiver on the roster has more than 18 career catches as a Buckeye, so multiple players at that position need to step up. While there are six receivers listed as "starters" on the preseason depth chart, it remains unclear which of those receivers – if any – are ready to become regular playmakers in the Buckeyes offense. It would be good for the Buckeyes to have some clarity on who those receivers could be before their marquee Week 2 matchup against Oklahoma.
Kevin: Well, I'll give the obvious answer first: I would very much like to know who will be playing safety for the Ohio State Buckeyes this year, as that's really the only position that hasn't been locked down yet (cornerback, too, but they're going to rotate so much it doesn't really matter who runs out there first).
Now I will give an answer that is only slightly less predictable: I would very much like to know if Ohio State can effectively move the ball through the air. More specifically, I want to see how the wide receivers play. That unit lost its three top performers following last season and there was a steep, steep drop-off in production after really the top two, Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown.
It's kind of funny, the Buckeyes are rolling with six receivers who've never had any meaningful production in their careers and everyone seems to be expecting the passing game to all of the sudden light the world on fire again, myself included. I guess I have a lot of faith in Ryan Day, Kevin Wilson and an uptempo offense, but I'll be looking to see if that actually materializes.
Which freshman or redshirt freshman are you most interested in seeing perform versus Indiana and why?
Dan: Drue Chrisman enters his first game as a redshirt freshman playing a very important role as the Buckeyes' new starting punter. With as much emphasis as Ohio State places on winning the kicking game and the field position battle, the Buckeyes need Chrisman to be consistently effective. He has huge shoes to fill; Cameron Johnston was one of the best punters in the country for the past four years, so it's been a while since Buckeyes fans have actually had to worry about their punter. Chrisman was ranked as the No. 1 punter in the recruiting class of 2016, so he has the potential to be Ohio State's next four-year great at the position, but tonight will be our first chance to see what he can do in a college game (yes, I am suggesting that the Buckeyes will have to punt at least once in tonight's game).
Dustin: One position that Urban Meyer continues to recruit at a high level above maybe any coach in the country is the running back/H-back position in his offense. With Mike Weber getting the bulk of the carries, I’m intrigued by J.K. Dobbins, whose name I’ve heard come up nearly every time I’ve heard folks talk about early-impact players. One thing is for sure, Meyer will find a role for him if he’s as good as advertised.
Kevin: I'll give you two: J.K. Dobbins and Chase Young.
Dobbins has probably been the most talked-up freshman since his arrival on campus and has already earned the backup running back spot. He's arguably the most athletic member of the entire 2017 class (he was the Nike+ Ratings Champion at Nike's The Opening Camp last summer) and is expected to be the next great Buckeye running back before he's even taken a college snap. If Ohio State wasn't returning a solid starting running back in Mike Weber, I cannot even begin to imagine what the hype around Dobbins would look like. It would be Maurice Clarett-esque.
The exciting thing is, I think Buckeye fans will get to see a lot of Dobbins during the opener. Weber is coming off a hamstring injury and really hasn't practiced all fall. On Monday, Meyer was optimistic he'd be ready to go by Thursday, but even if he is healthy, Dobbins will likely see meaningful snaps. He was listed as a co-starter, after all.
And then there's Young, who is one of the most terrifying humans I've ever seen with my eyes. His nickname is The Predator and my god is that an accurate nickname. I don't think we'll see a ton of him in meaningful moments this season, but only because of the talent in front of him. However, we will almost certainly see him in garbage time, when the opposing offensive line is either gassed or full of bench players. The result is going to be NSFW.
DJ: J.K. Dobbins. At this point, the hype has built him up to be a young Barry Sanders. With Mike Weber still dinged up with a hamstring, I expect the Texan to get more usage than we would’ve guessed before camp started. When Weber returns, those two should compliment each other well. Dobbins should be the backfield’s home-run hitter, though.
Much was made of right tackle Isaiah Prince’s struggles in pass pro last season and now OSU must also solidify right guard. How confident are you the right side of the OL can be at least serviceable, if not a strength this year?
DJ: On a scale from 1 to 10, I am a 7. Isaiah Prince had a nightmare at Penn State, but he never hit that nadir again. Another season of development should mean he’ll at least improve on last season. I’m intrigued by Branden Bowen at right guard, too. Urban Meyer said he ran away with the competition. That either means Bowen is a beast or a giant red flag for concern, given some of the names also in the battle.
Kevin: As a 5-9, 140 lb. human who struggles to stay upright in a heavy breeze, I think I can speak with authority on this matter. Isaiah Prince and Branden Bowen are physical monsters who should really have no problem imposing their will on anybody. They're both 6-7, 310 lbs. – there are no problems physically. I think it's all mental. The key for them is to play confident. There were times last year when Prince let his mistakes get to him and seemed to play tight, afraid of messing up. He talked a little about it this offseason. If they're going to be successful, the need to have confidence that they are built for people-moving (because they are), and play loose.
Dustin: Inexperience can be the most difficult thing to deal with on an offensive line. Chemistry is important and playing together for a season or two is the biggest advantage in those situations. The good news is that outside of the Oklahoma game in Week 2, which will be a big test going against a proven, aggressive defense, the Buckeyes offense will have the better part of a month to try and gel before two big games against Nebraska on the road and Penn State, with a bye week separating the two. This staff has proven to have the ability to develop offensive lineman so I’m confident in the fact that last year’s struggles were due to nothing other than a lack of experience and refining technique and chemistry along the offensive front.
Dan: I think the right side of the offensive line has the potential to be a strength. Prince was a major weakness in pass protection last year, but he should be more confident and technically sound with a year of experience under his belt. Branden Bowen seemingly impressed everyone as he ran away with the starting right guard job in fall camp, so there's reason to be excited about him too. Both Bowen and Prince stand at 6-foot-7 and at least 310 pounds with good athleticism for their size, so they have the potential to physically overwhelm their opponents. With that being said, I think it would be foolish not to still have some concern about the offensive line entering the season. Prince needs to be significantly better than he was last year, while Bowen is an unproven player replacing an All-American (Billy Price, who now plays center).
J.T. Barrett took a lot of flak this offseason – some justified and some not so much. What are you looking for from Barrett to make you feel warm and fuzzy? What kind of night can we expect from him, stats-wise?
Kevin: Guys, J.T. Barrett is going to go down as the best overall quarterback in Ohio State history and if you don't realize that soon, you're going to miss it as it happens before your eyes.
Last season, Barrett had the highest adjusted completion percentage in the Big Ten last season (a stat which essentially takes out all of the incompletions that were not his fault, i.e. dropped passes, balls thrown away, etc.), led an offense that was statistically the best in the conference, and won the 2016 Silver Football as the best player in the Big Ten, along with Saquon Barkley. And it was the worst season of his career by far.
With a new coordinator, a new quarterbacks coach and what will likely be an improved offensive line, I think we'll see a pretty significant improvement in Barrett's numbers, specifically his passing stats. If all goes according to plan, we'll see a much more pass-first Barrett this season. All in all, I think Barrett has a better season than last season, but if you didn't think what he did last season was acceptable, I think your expectations might be just a bit too high. I know the offense wasn't perfect, but come on.
Dan: Everyone wants to see Barrett complete more deep passes. He'll need to be able to do that at some point this season if the Buckeyes are to make a championship run. I'm not sure how much we'll see that in Week 1, though, unless the Indiana defense proves stouter than expected. I think the key for his first game of the season is to be efficient in both the passing and the running game, avoiding turnovers while showing he can make downfield completions when needed, particularly in 3rd-down situations. If Barrett can complete 65+ percent of his passes for 200+ yards while adding another 60+ yards on the ground, leading the Buckeyes on 5+ touchdown drives while avoiding throwing an interception, that would be a great start.
DJ: I’ll be looking for precise footwork and decisiveness with the ball. He was too scared to make a mistake last year. That led to him holding the ball and a ridiculous numbers of sacks. I’m not one to predict stats —I failed Algebra II twice — but I expect a return to form and him to leave Ohio State as the consensus greatest quarterback in school history.
Dustin: J.T. has thrived in big games early in the season and his main issue has come against defenses later in the season that have the athletes to match up to the Buckeyes scheme and/or can take advantage of the elements from a weather perspective. I still stay committed to the thought that one of the biggest issues last season was the lack of a go-to guy on the outside. When you lose weapons like Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller with not much proven returning, that’s a bigger deal than a lot of people were admitting. The position still includes a lot of unproven talent, but they’ve had a full year to prepare themselves for this role. More than needing to see, I feel like we can totally expect J.T. to throw for 200+ and run for another 60-80 yards in this new and improved offense we keep hearing about from Urban and Kevin Wilson.
The receiving corps has rightfully been under the microscope after a 2016 season in which no true wideout had more than 402 yards. This year, we’re hearing all the right things but seeing is believing. Which two true wideouts are you must interested in seeing perform this season? Why?
Dustin: As I mentioned earlier, someone has to step up and prove they are an every-down go-to receiver. I think I’m most intrigued by Austin Mack since it seems like he’s more in the mold of a complete receiver. He’s got the size and athleticism to be a threat at all levels on the field. In saying that, I think Binjimen Victor’s few moments of flash as a freshman warrant some attention when it comes to a breakout candidate at the position. As a taller receiver, it’ll be interesting to see if the Buckeyes can use that to their advantage, especially in the red zone.
DJ: Ben Victor and Johnnie Dixon. Victor has all the tools to be unguardable. It’s just a matter of filling his body out and getting more precise in his route running. Dixon is an enigma. He made it through spring, but a possible 15-game season is a different beast. I’d love to see him break out, though. He is the wild card of the bunch.
Dan: The most overlooked wide receiver entering the season in my opinion is Austin Mack, who I ultimately expect to lead the Buckeyes in receiving yards this year. Mack's skill set has drawn comparisons to Michael Thomas, and he could be in line for a similar out-of-nowhere breakout season to that which Thomas had in 2014. I'm also interested to see what Terry McLaurin can do this year. McLaurin hasn't done much yet in his Ohio State career, so outside expectations aren't very high for him, but he's a fast receiver who was selected as a captain for a reason. I don't necessarily expect him to be one of Ohio State's top two receivers, but I think he will be significantly more productive than he has been in years past.
Kevin: Man, I'm riding with Johnnie Dixon because it's almost impossible not to root for him. The guy has been with the program for almost four years, working incredibly hard and has just had the worst luck with injuries. He had all the promise in the world coming out of high school – lightning fast, shifty, and with good hands – and it sucks that he's never really had a chance to showcase it. He's finally healthy now, really for the first time in his career, and I'm really excited to see him play. And more than that, he just seems like a good, funny, likable guy. I want him to be successful.
The next guy is Binjimen Victor. He saw the field sparingly last season, but it wasn't because he wasn't ready to play physically. From talking to him, it sounds like the reason he didn't play much last season was because he just had a hard time understanding the offense as a true freshman. He spoke with the media for about five minutes and he probably mentioned his struggle to grasp the offense seven times. A direct quote: "Last year, I didn't have any clue what was going on." He said everything clicked during bowl practices, hence why you saw him on the field a lot during the Fiesta Bowl. Zach Smith said he probably has a higher ceiling than any receiver he's ever coached, so if he's got the mental aspect of the game down, he could be headed for a breakout year.
With Gareon Conley, Malik Hooker and Marshon Lattimore off the the NFL, the Buckeyes must retool the secondary with only Damon Webb returning as a starter. I’m all-in on the Denzel Ward, like most folks, but what about the other guys? Do you think names like Kendall Sheffield, Damon Arnette and Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller, among others, will help keep the OSU pass defense among the nation’s elite? How will they fare tonight against a pretty strong Indiana receiving corps led by Simmie Cobbs and Nick Westbrook?
Dan: I think it would be unrealistic to think there won't be some drop-off in Ohio State's secondary this year. While the Buckeyes were able to replace three NFL-caliber defensive backs last year and be even better in the secondary, it's hard to do that two years in a row. I don't think there's a safety on the roster with the same level of playmaking ability that Hooker had. With that being said, I think Ohio State could still have one of the top secondaries in the country. Ward, Arnette and Sheffield all have the potential to be future NFL first-round picks, so I don't think there will be a huge level of drop-off at cornerback. Tonight should be one of their toughest tests of the season, as Indiana might very well have the Big Ten's best receiving corps; Westbrook is the conference's leading returning receiver, and he's not even projected to start, as Donavan Hale has passed him on the depth chart in fall camp. Indiana coach Tom Allen has declined to confirm whether Cobbs will play tonight after an offseason arrest, but he has the potential to be a game-changer if he is on the field. I think the Buckeyes' inexperienced secondary will get beat for a couple big plays in the passing game tonight, but overall, I expect them to hold their own.
Dustin: Maybe more than any other position, I’ve learned to trust Urban Meyer with developing talent in the defensive backfield. The guys you just mentioned, among others, are proof enough that this staff knows how to develop top level play at the position. I’m intrigued by Ward and I think they’ll find another diamond in either Sheffield or Arnette (or both). The staff is showing again this season, with Jeffrey Okudah likely to see some playing time late in games, they’ll play the best players with age playing no factor. They throw these guys in the fire right away and it’s paid dividends to this point with so many guys getting to the next level. Similar to the last couple seasons, I’ll take this secondary against most receiving corps they’ll face, especially when they’ll be aided by a front seven as good as the Buckeyes’ defense could field this season.
Kevin: Yeah, the secondary is gonna be just fine. I'd probably bet my life savings on that. Denzel Ward is a future first round pick, Damon Webb and Denzel Arnette will be two of the most improved players on the team, Erick Smith and Jordan Fuller will be solid, and Kendall Sheffield, well we'll just quote Arnette: "Have you seen him? He looks like an action figure."
I don't think Indiana is going to have much success through the air against that group.
I'm more intrigued to see what kind of depth Ohio State shows at the cornerback position. I think if the Buckeyes are going to win a national title, they're going to need to have more than three cornerbacks ready to play. When a talented team can rotate wide receivers, Ohio State is going to have to rotate corners to match it, otherwise you're going to be playing a gassed corner on a fresh receiver – which is for sure bad.
The Buckeyes brought in probably its most talented group of freshman cornerbacks ever, including the nation's top two coming out of high school – Jeffrey Okudah and Shaun Wade. I think those younger guys are going to have to show they're ready to play, because there really isn't anyone else behind Ward, Arnette and Sheffield.
DJ: Damon Arnette is going to be a monster. Just wait on it. Sheffield will get his playing time, too. I was surprised neither Erick Smith or Jordan Fuller separated themselves. As for how they’ll fare as a unit, I expect some hiccups given it’s the first game of the season. The defensive line is going to make everything easier for them, though.
Ohio State is sitting as a 21-point favorite despite opening on the road against a B1G foe for the first time since 1975. Will the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP prediction.
DJ: I hate stats predictions. I also hate score predictions. I could see Ohio State winning by 60. I could also see the Hoosiers summoning some voodoo in their den of thaumaturgy and keeping it close until midway through the fourth quarter. Basically the only result that would shock me is a Hoosier win.
But I’m going to go with my heart: 38-20. The MVP will be a resurgent J.T. Barrett. BET THE RENT, Y’ALL.
Kevin: 21 points? Ohio State is absolutely going to cover. I think I might even be comfortable laying 30. I've got Ohio State thumping Indiana 49-10 with Kevin Wilson recreating the Doolittle Raid on his former team. Marcus Baugh is my game MVP with two touchdown catches and over 60 yards receiving.
Dustin: Although I think Ohio State will win comfortably by a score of 42-24, I do think the Hoosiers will score just enough to cover in this game, whether it be by another late score or just Ohio State using the clock to stay healthy going into Week 2. J.T. Barrett is going to do what he does, putting up big numbers and a few scores on his way to the “MVP” for this game.
Dan: I'm going to predict that the Buckeyes win by exactly 21 points, resulting in a push in Vegas. While many are expecting Kevin Wilson's offense to score 50+ points en route to a Buckeyes blowout, I think that's a bit much to expect in a season opener against a Big Ten opponent on the road. I do expect strong showings from both the Buckeyes offense and defense, but I think Indiana will make enough plays on both sides of the ball to keep it competitive into the second half. I've got the Buckeyes winning 41-20, with J.T. Barrett reminding everyone why he's the starting quarterback at Ohio State with an efficient performance as both a passer and runner that earns him Game MVP honors.