The Big Ten's reputation as a football conference has taken quite a hit in the last decade. I don't need to tell you this, you know. However, if the Big Ten has a chance of getting some of its "street cred" back on the national scene this year, there's really only one team in the conference capable of doing it.
And it's Ohio State.
The Buckeyes went 12-0 last year in Urban Meyer's this season and they'll be looking to do the same this year when they're actually eligible to play for a national title. Let's get to know this year's team.
Name: Ohio State Buckeyes
From: Columbus, Ohio
2013 Record: 12-0 (8-0)
Returning starters: Nine offense, four defense, one specialist
Is it possible you don't know who Urban Meyer is or what he's done? Well, just in case, I'll remind you. Meyer came to Ohio State after leaving Florida and taking a year off for health reasons. In his six seasons at Florida Meyer went 65-15 and won two national titles. Of course, his success didn't begin at Florida.
Urban is basically the reason Utah was good enough to get an invite from the Pac-12. He was there for only two seasons but went 22-2 in those two years, including a win over Pitt in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.
This will be Meyer's 12th season as a head coach, as he's gone from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida and now to Ohio State. And everywhere he's gone he's won (the two national titles along with four conference titles and four BCS bowl wins), compiling a career record of 116-23. Holy shit I knew that number and I'm still blown away by it. He's won 83% of his games and his worst season ever was 8-5.
I know he has his detractors, particularly for the way he handled off-season discipline while at Florida, but holy shit the man knows how to coach football.
History With Illinois
This year will be the 100th time Ohio State and Illinois have met, and Ohio State has enjoyed the previous 99 meetings a lot more than the Illini have. I know there have been a couple of big Illini wins over the Buckeyes in recent memory -- WHAT UP, 2007? -- but the reason we remember those is that they are so rare.
Ohio State leads the series 65-30-4.
Also, since the Illini beat Ohio State to kill their national title hopes in 2007 the Buckeyes have won the last five meetings by an average score of 31-12. Since the Big Ten originally expanded to 11 teams in 1993 Ohio State has won 14 of 18.
What is somewhat strange in this series though is that the last five times the Illini have beaten Ohio State (1992, 1994, 1999, 2001, 2007) the game was played in Columbus and the Illini have actually beaten Ohio State in Columbus (18 wins) more times than they have in Champaign (12).
What Do We Know About The Offense?
This isn't Jim Tressel's Ohio State offense, and the Illini got a first hand look at what Urban Meyer's team can do last season. The Buckeyes offense went off for 52 points and 567 yards, including 330 rushing yards. And while the 52-22 final score wasn't flattering, it looks even worse when you remember Ohio State led 38-6 before the Illini rallied for a few meaningless touchdowns in the second half.
It's a better running offense than a passing offense, though that doesn't mean this team can't kill you through the air too. A lot of that will depend on the development of Braxton Miller as he enters his junior season. Still, the bread and butter of this offense is the run game and with both Miller and Carlos Hyde still in the backfield, odds are that won't change much this year.
Another thing this offense does well get into the end zone. Overall it averaged 6.08 yards per play last season but the Buckeyes offense was lethal once it got into the red zone. While it's overall red zone scoring percentage was second in the Big Ten at an impressive 88.24%, what was better was it's touchdown rate inside the 20.
The Buckeyes scored a touchdown 76.47% of the time it reached the red zone, the best mark in the Big Ten by 10%. The only team in the country who had a better number was Oregon's 80.82%. So pretty much any time this team crosses the 20 you've already allowed six points.
How About The Defense?
When you watched Ohio State last season you kind of felt like the defense was the team's weakness, but it was only because you were comparing it to the offense. The fact was the Buckeyes defense was pretty good, allowing only 5.08 yards per play. Also, much like the offense, it was pretty good in the red zone, though not at the same elite level.
Now, only four starters return from last season -- and we really don't know what's going to happen to All-American corner Bradley Roby, though I believe he'll be playing -- and that includes only one player in the front seven. Though I'm not really sure that will actually matter.
First of all, that one returning starter in the front seven is Ryan Shazier, and he's pretty damn good. Second of all, I'm of the opinion that the new starters might actually be better than most of the guys they're replacing. Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence could be monsters coming off the edge, and I'm a big fan of Tommy Schutt from suburban Chicago. I think that even though all four starters are new, this Ohio State defensive line has a chance to be special. Not just good, but the kind of defensive line people are talking about 15 years from now.
Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?
Just about everybody, really, because they're all pretty damn good. Still, the obvious answer here is Braxton Miller as he'll likely be making his way to New York this winter for the Heisman presentation and he's got a good chance to go home with the trophy as well.
While Miller gets more credit for what he can do with his legs -- he did rush for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns last season -- it somewhat overshadows the fact that the kid can throw the football too. Miller's passing efficiency mark of 140.48 last season was the second-best mark in the Big Ten behind Nebraska's Taylor Martinez. He also takes care of the football as he threw only six interceptions compared to his 15 touchdown passes last season.
And I think he'll actually improve as a passer this season, and when that happens, well, good luck, everybody.
Where Will The Finish In The Big Ten?
This team is going to win the Leaders Division, I have absolutely no doubt about that. I'm also 95% confident it's going to win the Big Ten. I just feel like this is a team that's a good deal better than everybody else in the conference.
The question with the Buckeyes is whether or not they can get to the BCS title game.
Most people will tell you that the Buckeyes have an easy schedule, and while it's not incredibly difficult it does include a trip to Cal in September. Ohio State has had trouble when heading west in the past. The other significant road block would be on the road against Michigan to end the regular season, but other than that, this is a team that should be favored in every game and will just have to avoid messing up somewhere along the way.
Can The Illini Win This Game?
No, I don't think so. I mean, I suppose there's a chance that the Buckeyes look past Illinois or don't take the game too seriously, but I don't think that would last an entire sixty minutes.
Plus, maybe the most important factor here, this game is being played in Champaign, not Columbus. The Illini haven't beaten Ohio State in Champaign since 1991. However, it should be pointed out that even though the Illini have lost nine straight at home against Ohio State, the games have generally been close. The average margin of victory has been 16.11 points per game. However, take out the 1996 and 1998 games (Ohio State won both by a combined 89-0....yep) and that margin comes down to eight points per game. So even though I don't think the Illini have a real shot at winning this game, odds are they'll keep it closer than most will expect them too.