The Good News: Well, you can start with this: Ohio State, having lost quite possibly the greatest coach they've ever had (anybody remember Jim Tressel? Or the X Big Ten titles he won? Or that national title back in '02? Or the way he utterly dominated the Big Ten and made every other school in the conference look second-best?), have somehow managed to emerge with a guy who could prove himself to be even better. Yep, it's true. With the hiring of former Florida, Utah and Bowling Green coach Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have landed themselves a coaching superstar--possibly the only guy in the nation who could be said to be on the same level as Alabama's Nick Saban. Meyer, who has complied a 104-23 record during his remarkable coaching career, is an Ohio native (which means he understands the culture of the Buckeye State), a relentless recruiter (which means he will, like Tressel, be able to lock down all of the best talent in Ohio) and a ferocious competitor (which means it should be only a matter of time before he has this program playing once again at a very high level). But there's more to be optimistic about than just Meyer. Quarterback Braxton Miller emerged as a star in the making down the stretch in 2011, and one can safely assume that Miller, a run-pass threat in the mold of (wait for it ...) Tim Tebow, will thrive under Meyer's tutelage. I mean, how couldn't he?
The Bad News: The Buckeyes will soon be back. But they aren't back yet. This squad doesn't yet have the depth that Tressel's best teams had, and it will probably take Meyer another year or two to get to that level. There are also the inevitable issues to faced with the transition from Tressel to interim coach Luke Fickell to Meyer--that's a lot of change for a bunch of 18- to 22-year old kids. The players will have to get used to Meyer's way of doing things, and Meyer will have to adjust to life at a new program in a new conference. More specifically, the Buckeyes have to replace a lot of talent along the always-important (especially in the Big Ten) offensive line, where both Mike Brewster and Mike Adams depart. Again, the wins will be there eventually. But given all the Buckeyes have dealt with over the past year or so, they won't come in bunches this year (but suffice to say, there will be wins nonetheless).
Game to Watch: The Week 3 matchup against Cal is mildly interesting, if only because it should represent our first real chance to see the Meyer-era Buckeyes lined up against an (allegedly) top-level opponent. The back-to-back games against Michigan State (on the road) and Nebraska (at home) will be crucial, of course, as will the Nov. 17 trip to Madison, where Meyer will get his first taste of what it's like to be a visiting team at Camp-Randall (simply put, it's not fun). But for the Buckeyes, especially this season, there is but one game that really matters. The season-ending tilt against Michigan will be the first in what figures to be a series of great showdowns between Meyer and Michigan's Brady Hoke. While it's far too soon to even dream that this coaching rivalry could one day rival the great Woody vs. Bo battle during the Ten-Year War, it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. For the first time in a long time, it seems, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is back. That's good for the Big Ten. And it's good for college football.
What They'll Be Expecting: So the Buckeyes can't go to a bowl game in 2012. They can't win the Big Ten title game, either. The NCAA has made certain of that. But there is still plenty to play for in Big Ten country (honest, Buckeye fans, there is). Despite the off-the-field troubles, the good people of Ohio will still seek solace each and every Saturday in their Buckeyes, so even though there will be no payoff at year's end, those Buckeye fans will still want to see--and expect to see--a good deal of success, too. Though they understand the situation Meyer has inherited, they won't tolerate anything less than an eight-win season. Nor should they.
The Schedule (key games marked with an *):
Sat. Sept. 1: Miami of Ohio
Sat. Sept. 8: Central Florida
Sat. Sept. 15: California*
Sat. Sept. 22: UAB
Sat. Sept. 29: at Michigan State
Sat. Oct. 6: Nebraska *
Sat. Oct. 13: at Indiana
Sat. Oct. 20: Purdue
Sat. Oct. 27: at Penn State
Sat. Nov. 3: Illinois
Sat. Nov. 10 Bye
Sat. Nov. 17 at Wisconsin*
Sat. Nov. 24: Michigan*
Prediction: Ohio State has two big factors working in its favor: First, they have Meyer, a compulsive competitor who will not tolerate anything short of excellence. Second, they have a very favorable schedule, one that sees them host both Nebraska and Michigan as well as Cal, their lone legitimate non-conference opponent. Given that Penn State is down and Wisconsin is rebuilding, it's not impossible to see this team winning as many as 10 games. But let's play it conservative: Look for a 9-3 mark from the Buckeye--and plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the seasons yet to come.