Urban Meyer knows how to pick his spots.
In 2005, he took over the Florida Gators after the infamous Ron Zook, who did not manage to match the expectations for the program established by Steve Spurrier. However, Zook did match the recruiting possibilities for a major university located within the state of Florida with Rivals' No. 20 class in 2002, No. 2 class in 2003, and No. 10 class in 2004.
After a lackluster 2010 campaign in year 1 AT (after Tebow), Meyer stepped down from Florida and became the favorite speculative hire of every failing college football program until the Ohio State job opened up for the 2012 season.
Ohio State faced a few minor sanctions after getting busted for having players selling Buckeye memorabilia for tattoos and other goods and services (btw, if those things don't happen at most major universities, I'm shocked), and for Jim Tressel evidently allowing those players to take the field despite being aware that they were ineligible.
When Meyer took over this program, he faced a single year banned from postseason play, but he also inherited Tressel classes ranked by rivals at No. 3 in 2009, No. 25 in 2010, and No. 11 in 2011. He immediately added a No. 3 class for the 2012 season. Ohio, like Florida, is a high school football recruiting hotbed, and Ohio State is a playground for a great recruiter with its big time resources, tradition, and nearby recruiting base.
In year one, Meyer converted the stockpiled talent into a 12-0 season against a weak Big 10 conference who's highest rated team in the S&P+ rankings was Michigan St at No. 16. Ohio State did not play the Spartans in 2012.
In the S&P+, Ohio State ranked as the No. 23 team with the 16th-ranked offense (119.5) and 25th-ranked defense (114.7). In contrast, Meyer's championship Florida squad in 2006 rated 128.8 on offense and 139.7 on defense while the 2008 champions put up a 149.9 on offense and 149.5 on defense.
In other words, Urban's first batch of Buckeyes were not elite contenders but were still a very strong outfit. Now that Ohio State is again eligible for postseason play, the question becomes whether his undefeated program has reached the elite levels of his Gator teams in the past.
As Meyer is an offensive coach, that's where it all begins in examining this squad.
An important starting point for all teams hoping to contend for titles is the offensive line. You'll be hard pressed to find national champions over the last several years that didn't rely on elite line play. Each of the five projected Buckeye starters are former four-star Rivals recruits, and four of them are returning starters from a solid 2012 unit. From left to right, they go 6'7 and 308 pounds, 6'6 and 319, 6'3 and 295, 6'6 and 315, and 6'7 and 315.
Their combo blocks, agility, and overall run blocking are upper-tier and help make the Ohio State run game arguably the best standalone (without the constraints and pass game considered) rushing attack in the nation. Aiding and abetting this process is tight end/halfback Jeff Heuerman, who is a great blocker and little else.
The skill positions for Ohio State are one area in which Meyer hasn't had the good fortune he had in Florida. The Gator spread attack was a ball control offense at heart, but it became explosive due to the tremendous ability of Percy Harvin. Tebow's brilliance in the system was in his wide range of competencies. He was able to master the quick reads of the system and deliver the ball in play-action, in the quick pass game, and in the option with consistency that resulted in an efficient offensive machine.
He also provided a short-yardage power run element that allowed the Gators to surround him with move explosive players at the other positions.
The emerging Buckeye attack doesn't work that way. Many of the same elements are present: The overall approach is to use spread spacing and option elements to create quick reads and low-risk/high-reward plays that allow for ball-control with the possibility for explosive plays if the skill players are really good.
On this zone read, Michigan was very concerned -- as they would be the entire game -- with keeping Braxton Miller at bay in the run game. More on that later.
In this clip, the massive but mobile Buckeye line screens a very solid Michigan front and clears a decent crease for Hyde. For his part, his fantastic balance and powerful legs (he's about 6'0, 240, and runs probably just under 4.6) make him difficult to handle in the Power-O and Inside Zone runs featured in the offense.
Hyde's balance and speed also made him a devil to handle on the edge, which Meyer's versatile option attack was easily able to feature. Much like other spread-option teams, the Buckeyes can switch up their assignments so that Hyde attacks the edge and Miller becomes the inside runner.
Michigan's hope of keying Miller and keeping him bottled up goes badly here. The line is blocking inside zone, but it's a "Zone Slice" run in which the stress points are all on the backside of the defense. Miller is looking for a crease inside the defensive end to dart through but the end steps down and forces the ball outside.
Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan had a very strong game against Ohio State, but here he gets trapped inside by Jeff Heuerman's block, setting up Hyde to reach the outside lane and then cut upfield with precision and power.
In 2012, Braxton Miller took on more responsibilities within the Buckeye gameplan than did Tebow on the 2008 Gators. He was responsible for providing both the decision-making and distribution of the QB position and the explosive element that makes the offense truly hum.
Beyond the normal option and QB draw features of the offense, Meyer also stole another idea utilized by Rich Rodriguez with Denard Robinson and recently by Oklahoma with Blake Bell or Kansas State with Collin Klein: the outside zone with the QB as the featured runner.
The Ohio State offensive line again show its athletic chops, executing reach blocks. Heuerman helps secure the edge before cutting down a pursuing linebacker, and Hyde acts as a lead blocker who finds a safety to clear out of the way. Meanwhile, Miller uses his 4.4 speed and quicks to make magic happen in the open field. Credit to Jake Ryan for finally tracking him down from the opposite end of the field but not before another big gain.
So Ohio State has an excellent run game, much like the 2004 Texas Longhorns with Vince Young and Cedric Benson. Is that enough to win a title? Not quite.
Unlike in the Big 12, where defenses no longer attempt to field normal linebacker personnel in space, the Big 10 has not quite conceded its great advantages in fielding NFL-caliber linebackers.
Normally the "SAM" linebacker in a 4-3 Under has the responsibility for playing the edge to the field, and Michigan's SAM linebacker was Jake Ryan. Although he's 6'3, 230 pounds, Michigan did not hesitate to play him on the edge against the Buckeye spread attack in order to achieve results such as these:
The way that Big 12 spread offenses punish defenses for attempting to employ such athletes in space is to make them backpedal. As Will Muschamp said before moving Sergio Kindle to a DE/LB hybrid position, "thoroughbreds don't go backwards."
That means the passing game:
The problems for the Buckeye passing game in 2012 was that they had good but not great receivers, and the 2012 unit did not have the repetitions and experience to heavily feature the pass game without risking mistakes such as this:
Part of the way in which Meyer fully victimizes defenses is with five-receiver formations that feature simple throws, easy yardage, and potentially big gains. Mastering the quick game involves the linemen mastering their protections and blitz pickups, Miller doing the same, and Miller quickly determining where to put the ball.
It's common for dual-threat quarterbacks to rely on scrambling and buying time rather than making quick decisions in the pocket. This becomes a death trap against a good blitzing team that overloads the protections available to an empty formation.
Success also means finding receivers that require extensive defensive attention and deep support to contain. It was a tremendous credit to the phenomenal run game of the Buckeyes that they were able to run the ball effectively against defensive responses such as this:
Penn State had its own SAM linebacker, Gerald Hodges, on the edge to handle the perimeter elements of the Buckeye run game. The Nittany Lions also dropped a safety down from the boundary to bring seven defenders into the box. That's an intense defensive front to run against and stress on the perimeter without a passing game to punish the loaded box.
It wasn't enough for the Nittany Lions, but against SEC defensive personnel that they might potentially face in the BCS title game, the Buckeyes will need a passing game to generate offense.
Then there's that other underrated element to the Florida championship teams: the defenses that ranked in the top three in each of the championship seasons. The key to Meyer's overall team building philosophy is very simple: "Recruit the fastest team in America."
Tressel gave Meyer a tremendous head start, and the Buckeye starting defense will feature three five-star recruits, seven four-star recruits, and only one former three-star player. That three-star player is Thorpe Award watchlist corner Bradley Roby, possibly the best defensive player in the conference.
Perhaps most essential asset to the Buckeye's Cover-2/Cover-1 defensive schemes is athleticism and speed in the back seven. They have that in spades. They also have returning experience on the back end in Roby, both safeties, and Will linebacker Ryan Shazier.
The line features all new starters, including five-star talents at both defensive end positions in Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence. For a unit that depends on physical dominance in the trenches, that could be problematic; but for the Buckeyes it may not hold them back as much.
The key is in getting big plays and turnovers from the back end such as these:
Here Ryan Shazier, a linebacker with 4.4 speed, simply runs around the line blocks and blows up a play in the backfield.
On this play Roby demonstrates his ball skills with a pick-six playing in Cover-1.
Finally here they intercept T-Magic playing 2-deep coverage.
Turnovers were essential in Ohio State's victory over Nebraska, and negative plays inflicted through the sheer athleticism of the Ohio State defense will be key to featuring a top-10 defense of the kind it takes to win a championship.
Luke Fickell's schemes are primarily oriented around forcing the offense to beat sound defense played by exceptional athletes. The defense took some time to master the concepts in 2012, which could be troublesome for a unit bringing back only four starters. But if they can maintain a simple enough philosophy, it's possible that the talent on the 2013 squad will come out more quickly on the schedule.
Prognosis: Fully weaponized?
The Ohio State run game will be strong enough in 2013 to propel Ohio State to the top 10 in the nation. Meanwhile, the Big 10 slate may not present a strong enough challenge to prevent the Buckeyes from another zero- or one-loss season and potential title game berth.
However, the needed growth in the passing game, and the potential stalling out of the defense before all of the stockpiled athletes are able to play together as a single unit makes a jump from top-25 offense/defense to top-five offense/defense a difficult wall to climb.
Keep an eye on Columbus for signs of uranium enrichment in the passing game and defensive pass rush. The college football world can rest easy -- current intelligence says the Buckeyes haven't arrived just yet.