Ohio State's Chris Worley (35) and Jerome Baker take down Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight last season. Both linebackers return this season for the Buckeyes. THE BLADE
COLUMBUS — A new ESPN study found Ohio State has the happiest football fan base in the land, but I’m not so certain.
Do we know the same people?
The Buckeyes supporters in my neighborhood are like the adoring but stern parents of a prodigy, ever worried anything short of straight As will force their child to settle for a safety school like ... MIT or Stanford.
Urban Meyer is 61-6 with a national title and an unstained record against Michigan in his five seasons in Columbus. Which is well and good. His .911 winning percentage in that span is the highest in college football.
But if you do the math, that’s a — gasp — A-minus. I was asked in a radio interview last week how the Buckeyes will rebound from their consecutive “disappointing campaigns” — the ruins of a combined three losses the past two years.
In that spirit, I suppose there is only one way for Ohio State to go from here. Or is there? Here are our best-case and worst-case scenarios for the 2017 Buckeyes.
Best case: 12-0, 8-0 Big Ten
Duh, Ohio State wins every game. It’s not that hard.
OK, it is that hard. Only three of the past 11 national champions ran the table: Alabama in 2009, Auburn in ’10, and Florida State in ’13.
But if anyone can do it this year, it is the Buckeyes.
Still haunted by its 31-0 playoff loss to Clemson, a veteran Ohio State team turns the rest of the country into its personal stress ball.
It all comes together. New coordinator Kevin Wilson breathes fresh life into a rubber-peeling offense, quarterback J.T. Barrett recaptures his 2014 mojo, and the defense is more stifling than a packed summer subway.
Remember how the biggest difference between the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference used to be the defensive lines? Not anymore. A deep Buckeyes front, led by future first-round ends Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis, proves the best dam east of the Hoover, their people-snacking wall validating the hosannas of defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, who called this line more gifted than any he coached in the NFL.
“We had a great player in Tampa in [All-Pro] Gerald McCoy,” the former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach told ESPN. “Tremendous player, but that was one guy. I go back to my days in Miami in ’99 and 2000, and this is clearly a better group.”
Toss in veteran linebackers Chris Worley and soon-to-be All-American Jerome Baker, and the Buckeyes field the best front seven in the country.
Ohio State mostly breezes through its 11th perfect regular season in program history, save for an overtime thriller at Nebraska in Week 7 — the requisite scare no one sees coming — and a back-and-forth classic at Michigan.
The Buckeyes then vanquish Iowa in the Big Ten title game to secure the top seed in the four-team playoff, along with their choice of semifinal destinations. As the No. 1 team, the Buckeyes get to decide between the (relative) proximity of the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans or the sublime grandeur of the Rose Bowl.
Ohio State opts for Pasadena, where it wages The Granddaddy of Them All with national title implications for the first time since 1979, when coach Earle Bruce’s unbeaten first team fell to Southern California. This time, it goes better. The Buckeyes take down Florida State, then nab their second championship in four years a week later against Alabama.
Meyer is granted knighthood, and a 27-foot shrine to Sir Urban — three times the size of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s statue in Tuscaloosa — is commissioned for Ohio Stadium.
Worst case: 10-2, 7-1 Big Ten
If Ohio State has one of the highest ceilings in the country, it also has the highest annual floor.
The Buckeyes under Meyer have yet to drop more than one regular-season game in a given autumn, which is what happens when you have the best Xs and Os and the best Jimmys and Joes in your league. Ohio State wins the get-off-the-bus contest every week, and rarely is it close. In the past five recruiting classes, it signed 40 players rated by Rivals.com among the nation’s top 100 prospects. The rest of the Big Ten combined signed 39.
The Buckeyes opened as at least an eight-point favorite in every game this year for good reason. Even when things go south, their talent allows a wide margin for error.
But Meyer and OSU are hardly indestructible, and this fall again proves it.
All of the offensive issues from last season — a scattershot Barrett, a permeable line, receivers failing to get open — reappear while a defense that must replace three first-round picks in the secondary is not quite the same.
Ohio State loses to seventh-ranked Oklahoma in Week 2 and drops its finale at Michigan, finishing second in the Big Ten East for the third consecutive season.
The Buckeyes then get a rematch against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. But without a title on the line, they go through the motions of a two-touchdown loss.
Before cooler heads prevail, some fans will wonder if this experiment with Meyer is working.