Our Pledge To You

News

Ohio State faces incredible expectations as first unanimous preseason No. 1 in history

When they lined up for the opening kickoff of the 2014 Big Ten title game, the Ohio State Buckeyes weren’t even in the College Football Playoff picture. A 59-0 obliteration of Wisconsin changed that.

When the playoff arrived, the Buckeyes — who would have to go through Alabama first, then Oregon or Florida State — were perceived as the longest shot, by far, to win it all. Physically dominant performances against the Crimson Tide and Ducks dropped jaws and opened minds everywhere.

Now? It’s Ohio State’s world, and everyone else is just living in it. And playing for second place.

The Buckeyes’ talent level is off the charts, with their offensive and defensive backfields, both lines and linebacker all rating among the very best units in the country. The Big Ten never has seen a more bountiful roster than the one Urban Meyer has put together in less than four years in Columbus.

“Almost any guy on our roster could play anywhere in the country,” said senior left tackle Taylor Decker.

If you think he’s impressed, get a load of the legion of voters in the Associated Press’ preseason Top 25. All 61 of them cast their first-place votes for OSU, making the Buckeyes the first unanimous preseason No. 1 team ever. And that means — sheesh, talk about a high bar — anything less than a championship repeat will be falling short of expectations.

“We’ve created a monster,” Meyer said.

No matter how J.T. Barrett-vs.-Cardale Jones plays out at quarterback, and no matter how former star QB Braxton Miller fares after a switch to receiver, the Buckeyes still have Ezekiel Elliott, Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Darron Lee, Decker — all among the best and brightest players in the country. And they still have Meyer, as brilliant and driven a coach as there is in the sport.

In short: They still have all they need.

On the other hand

Three reasons all these Ohio State picks could be off the mark:

1. AP voters haven’t nailed their collective preseason No. 1 pick since 2004, when USC won the national title (though it was later vacated by the BCS). That’s a mighty dry run, isn’t it? Not only are preseason polls essentially irrelevant, they’re inaccurate as all get-out.

2. Five of the last six national champions were, as noted by Grantland.com, led by first-year starters at quarterback. Barrett, who seems a tad likelier than not to be Option 1 at Ohio State, was the starter last season until a late-November injury. Second-ranked TCU has a longtime starter in Trevone Boykin. Michigan State and USC bring back their guys, too, but the rest of the teams in the AP top 10 — not to mention No. 11 Notre Dame — do not.

3. A team that entered the new week still trying to identify its new starter, Alabama, stood alone as the top program in the country before OSU blew the roof off the joint. News flash: We’re still talking about Nick Saban and Ala-flippin’-bama here, folks.

The third-ranked Crimson Tide are the New England Patriots of college football, an annual championship threat no matter how sick and tired anyone gets of them. Just imagine how motivated Saban and the Tide are after getting knocked around last January in New Orleans and getting little love from pollsters heading into 2015. The last time Alabama received no preseason first-place votes, in 2009, it won Saban’s first of three BCS titles at the school.

Ranking the power 5 conferences

1. SEC: Knocked from the top of the mountain, yet it still has the best top-to-bottom quality and the West division — Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Texas A&M — remains obscenely strong.

2. Pac-12: This league is soaring, with the South — home to USC, UCLA and the Arizona schools — now every bit as good as, and probably better than, the Oregon-led North.

3. Big Ten: Sorry, Wisconsin. No offense, Nebraska. We see you, Minnesota, Penn State and Jim Harbaugh Nation. But there’s a serious drop-off after Ohio State and Michigan State.

4. Big 12: If TCU and Baylor contend again for the playoff, this league will be an Oklahoma-Texas joint resurgence away from making a mockery of this list.

5. ACC: There remains growing hope after Florida State, with Clemson flourishing, Duke thriving, Georgia Tech coming on strong and other positive developments. Put it this way: There’s very little space between Nos. 3 and 5.

Early must-sees

Alabama vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 5): Season-shifting upset, anyone? Probably not, though the Badgers did knock off SEC powerhouse Auburn last New Year’s Day.

Texas at Notre Dame (Sept. 5): A thrilling tone-setter between iconic programs that haven’t met on the field in nearly two decades.

Ohio State at Virginia Tech (Sept. 7): Any chance you remember which was the only team to beat the Buckeyes last season?

Oregon at Michigan State (Sept. 12): Yes, please. Can’t they do this every year?

Heisman hype

Co-leaders: TCU’s Boykin and Ohio State’s Elliott. The latter is a running back, a disadvantage considering the Heisman has became almost a quarterback award.

Other established QB contenders: Cody Kessler, USC; Barrett/Jones, Ohio State; Deshaun Watson, Clemson; Dak Prescott, Mississippi State; Connor Cook, Michigan State.

Non-QBs: Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia; Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU; Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma.

Names to remember: Vernon Adams Jr., QB, Oregon Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn; Seth Russell, QB, Baylor; Everett Golson (seriously?), QB, Florida State; Malik Zaire (seriously), QB, Notre Dame.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com