Even after an early home loss to Oklahoma, all of the Buckeyes’ goals were still within reach. Win out, win the Big Ten, make it the playoff and make a better showing than last season when they were trounced by Clemson in the semifinal.
Then came a bad, bad November afternoon in Iowa City. The week after an exhilarating 39-38 home win over Penn State, unranked Iowa forced Ohio State’s prolific offense into mistakes and hung 55 points on its vaunted defense. The loss was such a shock that coach Urban Meyer and his players still struggle to explain what happened.
The Buckeyes rebounded and won out, with heroic quarterback J.T. Barrett leading them to a 27-21 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship six days after having knee surgery.
But the stumble was fatal as far as College Football Playoff committee members were concerned. Dragging the 31-point Iowa loss on their backs, the Buckeyes finished just out of the final four, completing the season with a feel-good 24-7 win over USC in the Cotton Bowl game on Friday. It will be another offseason of “what-ifs” as many players on one of the most talented teams of Meyer’s era at Ohio State go their separate ways.
“This will go down as one of the best teams I’ve ever coached and one of the greatest groups of young people I’ve ever been around,” Meyer said as the confetti fell in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Considering the potential, the season was not what they hoped it would be. Starting a savvy, record-breaking senior quarterback surrounded by future NFL prospects, Meyer had told his team anything less than a national championship would be “a swing and a miss.”
The mighty Buckeyes struck out.
Meyer will be forced into a major retooling in 2018.
He’ll need to break in a new starting quarterback to replace Barrett, who statistically is the best signal-caller to play at the school. This year’s backup, redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins, is the odds-on favorite. But junior Joe Burrow and redshirt freshman Tate Martell will give him a spirited challenge. One of them could transfer for more playing time.
Ohio State’s heralded defensive line will lose many of its stars, including defensive end Sam Hubbard, who tweeted Saturday that he’ll skip his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. But second-team All-American Nick Bosa will return to anchor the unit.
At least two of the three starting linebackers could be gone, leaving Tuf Borland and Malik Harrison to lead the way. The defensive secondary will lose All-American cornerback Denzel Ward early to the draft, and safeties Erick Smith and Damon Webb are out of eligibility.
All-American center Billy Price and left tackle Jamarco Jones will be gone, leaving two huge holes on the offensive line, a unit whose depth already was suspect.
Ohio State’s top three receivers — K.J. Hill, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin — are all NFL draft eligible and could decide to make the jump.
But there will be good, entertaining football in Columbus.
The development of freshman running back J.K. Dobbins will be fun to watch. The preseason quarterback derby will get national attention. Bosa will be a sack monster and a candidate for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s best defensive player. Chase Young will be a sophomore and join Bosa on another fine defensive line, albeit without the depth of this season’s squad.
“We’ll reload,” Bosa said. “Be just as good, if not better.”
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