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July 17, 2014

THE Game takes a backseat in 2014 for OSU

State of the Program

Almost any major program nationally would trade places with Ohio State. The Buckeyes went 24-2 the past two years, but those two losses stung the OSU faithful, who want more than undefeated regular seasons.

"There are some upset that Urban Meyer was brought in with all of the big promise that he would win championships, and they really have nothing to show for the last two years besides a pair of Leaders Division trophies," BuckeyGrove.com publisher Kevin Noon said.

Sure, Meyer is 2-0 against Michigan. And sure, the Buckeyes were a top-10 team each season, but they lost in the Big Ten Championship Game in 2013 - they were not eligible for the 2012 postseason stemming from NCAA sanctions - and then lost in the Orange Bowl to Clemson in January.

The loss to Michigan State in Indianapolis, especially, incensed the Scarlet and Gray, as they watched their high-octane offense - OSU led the Big Ten in both scoring (45.5 points per game) and total yards (511.9 per game) - go largely limp in a 34-24 loss to MSU.

"When Ohio State fans look at Michigan State they see a team that Ohio State used to look like under Jim Tressel - great defense, just enough offense to get it done - and Ohio State has taken over the role of so many of the other teams of a powerful offense and a question mark on defense," Noon said.

"This season they are looking at it the year being a one-game season, right or wrong, with the trip to East Lansing in November, and that Ohio State is the underdog, and that is a different position than most Ohio State fans are used to."

The Michigan Game

The Michigan game matters, obviously. It always will, but with the Scarlet and Gray 9-1 against U-M in the last 10 years, and 6-0 in their last six in Columbus, THE Game is taking a backseat, at least temporarily, to the one in East Lansing Nov. 8.

"At this time of the year, Ohio State fans definitely look at Michigan as maybe the second- or third-most important game on the schedule, where it used to always be the No. 1 game," Noon said. "Once Ohio State gets past the Michigan State game, regardless of the outcome, all of the hate will come out for Michigan, and it will reclaim its place in where it needs to be in the hierarchy of the rivalry.

"But Ohio State fans have definitely enjoyed a lot of success against Michigan, and that is probably fueling the reasons why Ohio State fans may not view it as important of a game at this point as Michigan State because of what happened in Indianapolis last year, going to the Rose Bowl - all these things that Ohio State expected to have happen last year."

Best and Worst-Case Scenarios

OSU welcomes Virginia Tech (Sept. 6) and Cincinnati (Sept. 27) to Columbus for its top-two non-conference contests, will play at Penn State (Oct. 25) and Michigan State, and has Michigan at home the final weekend. The Buckeyes do not play any of the top three teams in the West Division of Nebraska, Wisconsin or Iowa, instead seeing Illinois and Minnesota.

"Best-case scenario is an undefeated record, and winning the Big Ten championship and getting into the four-team playoff and seeing where things go from there," Noon said.

"Ohio State's schedule is a little bit better in terms of strength than in years past, but it's still pretty nice. Virginia tech is not loaded and is coming into Columbus. The toughest non-conference game will actually be against Cincinnati.

"The biggest challenge is East Lansing. You have to be weary of going into Penn State, but the right teams are coming to Columbus, and it is a situation where the team feels like losing any game would be a great disappointment.

"Worst-case is losing one in the non-conference. Then they lose to Michigan State, and they bottom out, lose their edge and lay an egg against Michigan. So probably going like 9-3."

Offensive Players to Watch

RB Ezekiel Elliott - The 6-0, 225-pounder is almost a carbon copy of what Carlos Hyde looked like at that age. Elliott ran for 262 yards and averaged 8.7 yards per carry as a freshman last season, though he did most of his damage - 162 yards - in a single game against Florida A&M.

"While no one is expecting him to come right in and be Carlos Hyde, people are expecting him to be the feature back for Ohio State," Noon said. "They will have a running back by committee in 2014, but it always feels better when you have a guy that can get you the tough yards and the belief is that Elliott will be that guy."

OL Taylor Decker - The 6-7, 315-pounder started 14 games for the Buckeyes last season and is the only full-time returning starter along the offensive line.

"He's been there, been in the blocking schemes, and he's going to have to become the de facto leader of the line as they transition into a new line," Noon said. "He looked really good last year and at times he had his struggles, but it all starts up front and OSU needs a good effort from the line and it will start with Taylor Decker."

Defensive Players to Watch

DL Joey Bosa - A freshman All-American in 2013, Bosa had 7.5 sacks and 13.5 total tackles for loss in 14 games. The 6-5, 285-pounder finished his rookie campaign with a sack in each of OSU's last five games.

"He's an all-conference player already and he's only a true sophomore," Noon said. "Ohio State under new line Larry Johnson will return to more of a roll eight defenders to keep guys fresh but Bosa is too good to take off the field all that much."

DB Doran Grant - A 14-game starter, his first season in the starting lineup, Grant had 10 pass breakups and three interceptions, and added 43 tackles. He is expected to anchor the secondary as a senior.

"He'll have some new safeties and a new corner, and he has to be the guy to step up and try to take away opponents' No. 1 receiver," Noon said. "Last year, he had great moments and he had moments too where he didn't look like he was playing good football. It's really important for Doran Grant to make big plays this season and be consistent."

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