COLUMBUS — Perfect one year, better the next.
The Ohio State football team calls the mission, "The Chase," and today it begins for real.
Strength coach Mickey Marotti — the de facto boss during summer workouts when no coaching is allowed — has presented the team back to coach Urban Meyer. From now through what OSU hopes will be the second week of January, it is all football.
The Buckeyes begin the first of 19 preseason practices leading into one of the more anticipated years in program history — and the most since 2006. They are ranked No. 2 in the first coaches poll, have the Year 2 Meyer mojo going for them, and just might be more talented than the team that gave OSU its sixth unbeaten season last year.
Can the Buckeyes deliver on the hype? If there is one takeaway from last season — a year marked by unforeseen contributions and six wins by a touchdown or less — a lot of things will have to go right.
Here are five key storylines leading up to the Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo.
MANAGING DISTRACTIONS: Recent headlines have featured variations of two questions: "What the heck is wrong at OSU?" and "How awesome are these Buckeyes?"
Meyer has time and again seen promising seasons detoured by the twin evils of off-the-field issues and inflated pride, not to mention injuries.
Take Southern California, which tumbled last year from a preseason perch atop the polls to unranked at 7-6. Or, closer to home, the 1987 Buckeyes. Meyer was a graduate assistant under Earle Bruce when Ohio State began the season ranked fourth nationally, only to have its hopes dashed after star receiver Cris Carter was ruled ineligible for accepting money from an agent. OSU went 6-4-1 and Bruce was fired.
“The complexity of this machine that we’re expected to coach, with 18 to 22-year-old males, in an extremely competitive environment that’s overhyped, it can be a slippery slope,” he said. “If you really think about it, there’s hundreds of examples throughout the last decade. ... I have been around teams where you thought you were pretty darn good and all of a sudden …”
Meyer, though, is encouraged by his team’s developing leadership and plans to keep players from gazing ahead by "making training camp so focused and really difficult that the focus is on getting to the next day."
The Buckeyes are also moving past their recent weekend of turmoil. Starting tailback Carlos Hyde was cleared of charges stemming from an alleged recent assault and is expected to return after a three-game suspension while OSU should soon gain clarity on the status of star cornerback Bradley Roby.
Roby, charged with misdemeanor assault after scrapping with a bar bouncer in Bloomington, Ind., last month, is scheduled for a pretrial conference on Aug. 26. Meyer said he expects "there will be a suspension involved," though he is confident Roby is not moving in the wrong direction.
"I know Roby pretty well," Meyer said. "I know his mom very well. I know deeply what's in his heart very well. So, am I worried about it? I am worried about it. Do I think that will happen? I don’t."
BATTLE AT RIGHT TACKLE: The offensive line remains Ohio State’s bulwark.
Their four returning starters — left tackle Jack Mewhort, center Corey Linsley, and guards Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall — played together on 827 of the Buckeyes’ 837 snaps last season, and are expected to form one of the nation’s top units this season.
Yet for all the stability, a giant question mark remains at right tackle. Taylor Decker, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound sophomore prototype, and redshirt sophomore Chase Farris, a former defensive lineman, will wage perhaps the camp’s top battle to replace the departed Reid Fragel.
Decker looks to have the edge, though Meyer has expressed disappointment neither has created much separation.
DEPTH CONCERNS: Meyer is mostly confident in his starters, including the seven new ones on defense, and expects OSU will be fine without Hyde early in the season. The Buckeyes’ returning backs include junior Rod Smith and sophomore Bri’onte Dunn while senior Jordan Hall can shift back from his new slot role if necessary.
Meyer, though, worries when he scans the depth chart elsewhere. Can the Buckeyes withstand, say, an injury on the offensive line? Or at linebacker, where even starters Curtis Grant and Josh Perry remain unproven alongside standout junior Ryan Shazier?
"I have magnets in my staff room that I stare at and move them around," Meyer said. "It’s like a checkerboard. I can see what we have, and as long as I can see some depth at those positions, I’m good. I’m really concerned about our offensive line. If a speed bump hits, I don’t have confidence in the magnets below [the starters] yet.
"Same with our linebacker spots. I really like our first group of magnets. The second group? I don’t know."
THE NEW GUYS: Concerns about depth is where a second straight national top-five recruiting class could help, with blue-chip linebacker recruits Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson likely competing for immediate backup roles.
Look too for early contributions from their first-year offensive skill players. The latest wave includes five-star wideout Jalin Marshall and breakneck former Oregon commit Dontre Wilson, who has generated the most buzz in summer workouts. Quarterback Braxton Miller went as far as to say Wilson, a 5-foot-10, 174-pound hybrid who combined for 2,645 yards of total offense and 46 touchdowns during his senior season at DeSoto High in Texas, is ready to start.
"He brings a different type of game," Miller said. "He just wants to make plays. He says, ‘You throw it low, I’m going to get it. You throw it high, I’m definitely going to get it.’ He says every chance he gets, he’s going to take it to the end zone.”
Miller added: "He can run any route, he can come in the backfield and take a handoff. … He can catch it, and he bolts like a fish running from the sharks."
MILLER TIME: Speaking of Miller, how will he evolve in his second year running the spread?
Last season, Meyer said Miller was "not prepared to manage the whole game." This year, Miller said, "It’s like I know what I’m actually doing."
Miller, on the short list of preseason Heisman Trophy candidates, will still rely on his legs. Just not as much, if coordinator Tom Herman’s offense works as designed. A year after averaging 21.2 passes per game, Miller said he hopes to heave it about 30 times this season.
"I feel so much more comfortable now," said Miller, who passed for 2,039 yards and rushed for 1,271 last season. "There’s one year under my belt in the same offense. I feel like everybody knows what they’re doing."