Here is what I'm looking for this season as Ohio State officially enters into the Urban Meyer era, and the games begin.
ONE- Tressel to Meyer: On the field. Defensively, I do not see too many major changes going from Jim Heacock to Luke Fickell, and I believe the rock-solid defensive approach will continue as it has for the past decade. Of course, there will be subtle tweaks, but I do not think there will be radical change. Offensively, there WILL be radical change, as in replacing Lawrence Welk with Lil Wayne, and the volume is about to be turned up. I'm anxious to see the faster tempo and it will be a far more exciting brand of football. The jury will be out a while before we know if it will produce 106-22 over ten years, but it will be different to not fall asleep when the Buckeyes have the football. A hurry-up offense? Help us all.
TWO- Tressel to Meyer: Off the field. With all the good things Jim Tressel brought to Ohio State during his tenure, his most impressive trait gets the least credit. Under Tressel, through ten seasons, Ohio State only lost back-to-back games twice during his tenure, and it happened in three consecutive weeks in 2004. Even during the 8-4 season of 2004, Tressel righted the ship and won the last five of six games, including blowout wins over Michigan and Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Tressel's greatest strength was that in the face of trouble he never let his team get away from him. Other than the blip in 2004, there were no losing streaks and no downturns in fortune. When things start to go bad and a bad loss occurs, can Meyer restore order and get things back on track, or will losses spiral? That remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how Ohio State responds to on-field adversity under Meyer.
THREE- The Braxton Explosion. It's coming, I believe. Ohio State's sophomore quarterback will probably not resemble last year's freshman signal-caller, and Braxton Miller was pretty good in 2011. Assistant coach Tom Herman has the reputation as a quarterback guru and offensive genius, which should accelerate Miller's progress dramatically. The talent is there in droves, and the combination of Meyer and Herman should make Braxton Miller an All Big-Ten performer this season, and a Heisman Trophy candidate next year. I'm expecting THAT much improvement out of Miller. Herman coached up freshman Jared Barnett to beat Oklahoma State last year when the Cowboys were riding high. Barnett threw for 376 yards and ran for 87 more in the win. Jared Barnett is not Braxton Miller. Enough said.
FOUR- Hitting the Road. Last year, Ohio State won only once on the road, over hapless Illinois, while losing four, including Michigan. There was also an ugly bowl loss to Florida. Meyer's history suggests he is able to go into hostile environments and emerge victorious. He gets his first test in late September against Michigan State, the first crucial game in the Meyer era. Road contests with Indiana, Penn State and Wisconsin are also on the docket. A win over the Spartans will be the first sign that Ohio State is back to being Ohio State again, and also will signify that the Buckeyes under Meyer will not buckle on the road.
FIVE- Special teams being special? This area has been no better than average to downright awful the past few years. The last time Ohio State took the field, they handed a victory to Florida due to a pitiful special team performance. Does Meyer value this area of play? His six Florida teams blocked 32 kicks, and never had less than two punt blocks in any season. Oh yah, Florida was 16-0 when blocking a punt under Meyer. The team allowing the fewest punt return yards in college football from 2005-2010? Florida. And it wasn't even close. Will this area be far better? Count on it.
SIX- Look out for Devin. Meyer has consistently criticized his wide receivers from Day-One, but there has been a softening recently with one of them: Devin Smith. Despite playing in the wretched Covered Wagon offense last year as a true freshman, Smith showed off his receiving skills. I have a feeling this is going to be the go-to guy in Meyer's offense this season. Smith is one of the few playmakers on offense with the ability to put the ball in the end zone from long distance. Maybe the only one. Smith and Miller seemed to be right for each other last season on the rare occasions when the Buckeyes had success throwing the football. I think that connection becomes a reality this season, and Smith blows up at the wide receiver spot.
SEVEN- Bring the heat. Jim Heacock was undoubtedly one of the top defensive coordinators in football during the Tressel years, and it's hard to nitpick any of his concepts. But last year was a head-scratcher when it came to pressuring opposing quarterbacks. I totally understand not wanting to blitz when the defensive backs were suspect to being beat deep. But why play four defensive tackles in third-down, passing situations? No way they could have slid Johnny Simon and Johnathan Hankins inside, and replaced Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy on third-and-14? No way Steve Miller and Ryan Shazier couldn't have replaced those two in obvious passing situations and been sent from the edges? Please. Does Meyer like to pressure quarterbacks? Ask Kirk Barton or Troy Smith. I think Jarvis Moss and/or Derrick Harvey just sacked Smith again a few minutes ago. Suffice to say it won't be four trucks across the front this season on third down. Look for two cheetahs on the outside.
EIGHT- Offensive line play. One of the more discussed areas of the Tressel era was Jim Bollman's linemen, and the concepts he utilized. I'm not in the majority that blame Bollman for everything from soft players to a bad economy, but I am anxious to see how Ed Warriner impacts this group. I'm not sold on the supposed depth with this year's group, and only time will tell that answer. There has to be dramatic improvement in pass blocking, and it's hard to fathom how a team that refused to throw the football could give up so many sacks in 2011. If there are no injuries, I think this group will be fine, and I'm looking to see Warriner's stamp on these guys early on.
NINE- Linebacker U again? Tressel ran out some amazing linebacker trios in his days at Ohio State, but that certainly was not the case last season under Luke Fickell. Last year, things were average, and not up to Ohio State's lofty standards. Ryan Shazier made an impression as a true freshman, but needs to continue to improve to become the player many think he can be. Shazier has a chance to be the type of linebacker not seen at Ohio State in many years, and there's no doubting his talent. Will he be better? Etienne Sabino has never lived up to the hype he received as a high school senior, but became one of Ohio State's top defenders late in the year. His performance against Florida in the Gator Bowl was outstanding, and he will look to build upon that as a senior. A positive is that Sabino and Meyer have definitely made a connection, and the two are definitely clicking in that player/coach relationship. Being named captain should only further drive the senior, and his work ethic has never been in question. The key with this group is undoubtedly Curtis Grant, and being able to successfully man the middle allows Sabino to stay outside, where he is far more comfortable and effective. All signs point to Grant being ready to take on the challenge as a starter, and his play will determine how well this group progresses.
TEN- Play the kids. Meyer's philosophy on playing freshman is that nobody is a potential red-shirt, which is a change for Ohio State. Meyer wants to play a lot of players, and in his high-energy style he needs more players ready to go. Every single freshman has a chance to contribute this season, and several of the high-profile recruits will see action. I expect to see the likes of Brionte Dunn, Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Taylor Decker, David Perkins, Joshua Perry, Armani Reeves, Najee Murray, and others on the field early and often this season. A word of wisdom to the seniors: Don't count on seniority keeping you in your spot. An under-achiever will be sitting in this system, regardless of length of service time in the program. Meyer willingly played younger players at Florida, even during national championship seasons, and that will absolutely continue at Ohio State.