Big Ten: Ohio State Buckeyes

The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.

The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.

There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.

A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.

Ohio State's Urban MeyerJoe Maiorana/USA TODAY SportsOhio State head coach Urban Meyer has compiled a 61-6 record with the Buckeyes.

Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.

Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.

Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.

Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.

That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?

The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.

The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.

In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.

What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.

It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.

Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.

Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.

The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.

Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.

“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The touchdowns were nice, especially since Johnnie Dixon hadn't caught one with a crowd watching since high school.

The frequent targets, his team-high yardage total in the spring game and a couple of jaw-dropping moves were positives as well, signs that he could be a major factor at wide receiver for an Ohio State team that could use a new weapon for the passing attack.

Johnnie DixonPhoto by Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireA healthy Johnnie Dixon could be a difference-maker for Ohio State's offense this fall.

But Dixon's measure of success for his work in camp over the past month was a bit simpler. And as soon as he stepped on the field at the Horseshoe on Saturday to give him a perfect participation grade over Ohio State's 15 workouts, Dixon was already a winner heading into the summer.

"Yeah, it's amazing -- I haven't missed a day of practice," Dixon said. "It's been a long time since I've done that. It was amazing to be out there every day, bringing energy to the group and all that. It was an amazing feeling.

"It's always fun to go out there and be able to compete and feel fully healthy. I mean, I haven't been able to catch a passing touchdown since my high school days."

The Buckeyes would have had a hard time envisioning the drought would last this long for Dixon, who arrived on campus early in 2014 with plenty of fanfare and no shortage of hype about his potential as a playmaker.

But knee injuries and tendinitis not only robbed the redshirt junior of chances to make a splash on game days for the Buckeyes, they largely made it difficult for him to even get through consecutive practices. And after a season in which he was limited to just seven appearances, including one with his only career rushing touchdown in a blowout win over Rutgers, there were legitimate questions about his ability and desire to even give another year a shot.

"Johnnie is an enigma," coach Urban Meyer said. "A very talented guy, nice person. But he got here, had this tendinitis and issues in his knees, and he would go two practices and have to miss two. ... He probably shouldn't have come back, if you had a career like he's had.

"But his teammates, his position coach, Zach Smith, and I talked to him, and he wanted one last swing. And he had the best spring -- he didn't miss a practice. I was so happy to see him have great success today, because we really need him."

Ohio State's receivers underwhelmed collectively last season and then lost their top three players in the offseason. There's perhaps no unit on the roster more in need of emerging talent. And while Dixon only has seven receptions on his résumé, his experience around the program could help set him apart from the new wave of touted recruits coming in looking to boost a sagging passing game.

On top of that, the former ESPN 300 pick also shown that he can handle adversity after working back from his injuries. And he hasn't backed down from the challenge when it would have been easy to just walk away from the game.

"After the year, he had to really see if he could get his body healthy and get it to where it is today," Smith said. "And he did, so we're excited to see a healthy Johnnie Dixon, you know? He's healthy right now, but he's still developing. He's played, but for three years he really has been kind of not practicing.

"At the same time, he's been mentally developed for three years. He understands football, he understands the position, he understands the offense, so he's ahead of where a young kid would be. But physically, the grind of being able to go through 15 practices and push through it and get better -- that's what he’s dealing with and having to push through."

In front of a sold-out crowd at Ohio Stadium on what eventually turned into a sunny afternoon, Dixon did more than just survive one final spring practice.

And while getting healthy was an important step, the 108 yards and two touchdowns hinted that it might almost be time to find a new way to measure his success.

"It's been some of the toughest times I've been through," Dixon said. "I wouldn't say there were doubts, because it was more like me not knowing if I wanted to continue to play or whatever.

"We all sat down and had the meeting, decided to take one more swing at it. I'm glad we did."

And if the Buckeyes can keep him swinging day after day in the fall, odds are Dixon will be in line to catch some touchdowns when it really counts.

Ohio State is well on the way to a ninth-straight top-10 class. The Buckeyes already had five ESPN Junior 300 commitments in the fold with the spring evaluation period right around the corner, but the staff received more good news on Friday when a sixth ESPN Jr300 entered the fold, Max Wray.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Any clarity on the future of the most important position at Ohio State was tossed aside just two plays into the second drive of its spring game.

As always, the actual results of a scrimmage in April don’t really mean anything. And, sure, there’s a danger into reading too much into the allotment of snaps for an exhibition at the Horseshoe.

But coach Urban Meyer has been clear over the years that he wants to see how the Buckeyes perform in front of crowds like the one of over 80,000 that packed Ohio Stadium this past Saturday afternoon. Which makes it telling that during the first opportunity for one of the backups to lead the offense, Meyer elected to use both of them and rotate Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins every two plays.

Joe BurrowJason Mowry/Icon SportswireJoe Burrow surely impressed coach Urban Meyer in Ohio State's spring game, throwing for 262 yards and three scores.

Both played well enough to ensure the Buckeyes will clearly still be in good shape when J.T. Barrett’s career ends after this season. But right now, it’s tough to tell just who he will be passing off the torch to when Ohio State moves on without him.

“We haven't had that [conversation] yet,” Meyer said. “I know it is very close. But I'm not prepared to say who is No. 2, who is No. 3, et cetera, yet.”

The Buckeyes can skip over the top spot, where Barrett remains entrenched as the unquestioned starter heading into his senior season. And despite getting hit in the pocket once to disrupt a pass that was intercepted, the veteran looked sharp while completing 8 of his 12 throws with a touchdown in a short outing before spending the rest of the afternoon standing next to Meyer and watching the intriguing battle to back him up unfold.

Both Burrow and Haskins made compelling cases that they are more than capable of leading Ohio State’s power-spread attack. Burrow, who came in with the edge in experience and at least was given the first snaps on that second drive, delivered the ball accurately and efficiently in throwing for 262 yards and three scores to lead the Scarlet to the scrimmage victory. But Haskins matched him with three touchdowns of his own, hitting on 26 of his 37 attempts and finishing with 293 yards after eventually switching teams and taking over for Barrett on the Gray.

There is certainly no reason for Meyer to rush to a decision about his depth chart this early in the year, particularly since the Buckeyes still have a whole training camp looming in August. But even with a clear-cut starter returning for the fall, the eventual call figures to be significant since it will send a clear signal about who Ohio State believes will be next in line for 2018 -- even if that’s not the primary focus for a team already chasing a national title right now.

“I think it’s definitely close,” Haskins said. “It’s up to the coaches to decide who they want to be No. 2. But I think I’ve done everything that I possibly could do during the spring to show what I can do.

“They haven’t given me a timeline or set a time when they want to announce it. It’s a backup role, and the most important player is the starter. So right now, we’re just competing and getting each other better going into fall camp.”

Once it arrives, the attention on both of them and the urgency to sort out a pecking order will increase. And it might also even include true freshman Tate Martell after he flashed some athleticism during his late-scrimmage cameo, although he appears to have plenty of ground to make up based on how extensively the Buckeyes worked Haskins and Burrow on Saturday.

Nobody at Ohio State has to be reminded the importance of the backup roles, especially not with Barrett still around and Cardale Jones popping by the Horseshoe to flash his arm strength at halftime. Once upon a time, they were competing to take the reins for Braxton Miller -- and for both of them, that moment actually arrived before it was supposed to on the way to a championship.

The message for Haskins and Burrow: Get ready.

“I thought we played really well this spring,” Burrow said. “We got a lot better. Obviously the focus on deep balls this spring was high, and I think we got a lot better, lot more accurate this spring.

“I’m just going to keep getting better, do what I can do, control what I can control and it will all work out eventually.”

The Buckeyes can sort out the exact details later. For now, it looks like Ohio State will be in good hands either way.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The Ohio State Buckeyes' starting quarterback job is all locked up, and J.T. Barrett doesn’t have anything to prove in a scrimmage.

Odds are, the Ohio State senior is going to be in for a short afternoon of work at the Horseshoe as his final spring camp with the program comes to a close on Saturday.

That doesn’t mean Barrett can’t offer some glimpses of improved footwork, better timing with his receivers or add some fuel to the Heisman Trophy conversation by hitting some deep throws before Urban Meyer pulls him off the field. And considering that Barrett still is trying to silence some skeptics after a humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, he almost certainly will be looking forward to the chance to remind the world that Ohio State still is his team.

“I’m still trying to enhance myself and get better in order for us to be what we want to be,” Barrett said after an early spring practice. “That’s all I can do. It’s full throttle, pedal to the metal.

“School is taken care of [after graduating], and it’s really ball, that’s what I have left here at Ohio State. I’m taking a couple online classes, but right now, my life is football, literally. Just ball, and I’m trying to make sure that at the end of the day we can all be on the same page.”

Barrett’s script figures to be short when the Scarlet and Gray square off, but even without him, there is a huge amount to be learned about the Buckeyes any time the football is in the air this weekend. Here’s what Meyer will be watching closely.

Tommy Gilligan/USA Today SportsJoe Burrow hasn't really done anything wrong as the Buckeyes' backup QB, but he's still being pushed by Dwayne Haskins.

Backup battle: Barrett’s spot on the depth chart is secure, but there is plenty of intrigue behind him in the backup role. Joe Burrow hasn’t done anything to lose the spot he had last season, and his experience and command of the power spread offense continues to make him a viable option down the road.

But even if Burrow hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s still getting a strong push from Dwayne Haskins that could ultimately shake up the pecking order. With another sellout crowd expected, Meyer will get a chance to see how the strong-armed redshirt freshman performs under some pressure. While an encouraging outing may not elevate Haskins right away, it may stick in the back of the minds at Ohio State when training camp rolls around. And whenever the decision is made about the No. 2 quarterback, it will have ramifications not just this season if Barrett is sidelined at some point, but also into the future when he’s gone.

Target practice: The top three wide receivers from last season all are gone. And by the players’ own admission, the unit didn’t exactly live up to expectations even with Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson catching passes a year ago.

The pressure has been squarely on the wideouts to take a step forward as part of Meyer’s mission to expand the passing attack after the offense largely became one dimensional against top-notch defenses last season. So guys such as Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon will be under the microscope one last time before heading into the offseason. Spring game results always come with a grain of salt, but with Meyer unlikely to hand the football off much in an exhibition, there will be no shortage of chances for the receivers to make an impression.

Secondary matters: It’s not just the offense that is going to be evaluated in the passing game, and how the group of young cornerbacks handles any throws that come their way could help determine who makes it into the rotation this fall -- or who might become the next first-round pick.

The Buckeyes consider Denzel Ward a returning starter, but the early losses of Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley to the NFL draft still leave a pair of enormous shoes to fill in the secondary. Ohio State has recruited perhaps better than any program in the country when it comes to defensive backs, and Kendall Sheffield, Jeffrey Okudah, Marcus Williamson and Shaun Wade all will get the same number of opportunities to show their stuff as their counterparts on the other side of the ball.

On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.

"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.

If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.

The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsOhio State's J.T. Barrett drew some criticism last year, but he's a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his resume.

The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.

J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.

Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.

"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."

Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.

Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.

"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."

Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.

"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.

Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."

That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:

Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.

Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.

Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.

Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.

"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."

Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.

videoCOLUMBUS, Ohio -- The feeling was nagging at Parris Campbell, long before Ohio State's 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals made what he already knew apparent to the rest of the world.

Ohio State had put up a ton of points in the 2016 season, the highlight reel was again relatively well-stocked, and a team that was in position to play for a national championship couldn’t have done so without getting any contributions from the wide receivers at all.

But game after game throughout the regular season, Campbell and the rest of his unit would look back at the film unsatisfied with efforts that didn’t match the expectations for a batch of touted recruits in a program with the Buckeyes' rich history at the position. And the postseason debacle, with an almost nonexistent passing attack, obviously didn’t do anything to change that.

“You know, it wasn’t what we wanted,” Campbell said. “You never want to go through a season not meeting your goals. It was hard, and then having the outcome that we did [in the Fiesta Bowl], it was hard to deal with.

Parris CampbellKevin French/Icon SportswireOhio State has been working to improve its passing attack that started to sputter well before recording just 127 yards in the playoff loss to Clemson.

“I mean, all you guys saw it. We weren’t making plays when plays were supposed to be made. Too many balls on the ground, too many opportunities left on the field. As a whole unit, I feel like we never left a game feeling complete, feeling like we did what we wanted to do. For me, that’s the summary.”

That brutal assessment is perhaps a bit too harsh, particularly given some of the positives from last season. There was the dynamic work of Curtis Samuel, who led the team in receptions. Noah Brown emerged as an acrobatic red zone threat and finished with seven touchdown grabs. Even when the football wasn’t in the air, the blocking the wideouts provided on the perimeter was invaluable for an attack that rushed for nearly 3,200 yards.

But it’s also true that the receivers came into spring camp as perhaps the position group most under pressure to deliver given coach Urban Meyer’s mandate to improve a passing attack that started to sputter well before posting just 127 yards in the loss to eventual national champ Clemson. And while the receivers aren’t solely responsible for the problems of last season and aren't the only solution needed in 2017, they also aren’t denying how much work there is to be done -- particularly with Samuel, Brown and Dontre Wilson all gone from the program.

“Coach [Meyer] uses this term: We’re not going to swing and miss,” redshirt junior Terry McLaurin said. “We have the talent, but talent isn’t anything if we can’t put it all together. We know what it was like years before, and then when we’re not meeting that expectation, it’s tough on all of us.

“You just have to keep pushing. I know it’s kind of cliché to say, but we’re just working really hard. The biggest difference I’ve seen, this is going into my fourth year, we’re meeting with the quarterbacks every single day on the deep ball alone. We’re not leaving any stone unturned this year.”

Considering the undeniable potential in a meeting room loaded with blue-chip prospects, that sort of commitment to improve figures to produce some results.

Campbell has earned rave reviews as he’s transitioned into the H-back role Samuel made famous last season. McLaurin’s speed has helped him become a consistent big-play threat on the practice field leading up to the final week of spring camp. K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Johnnie Dixon and Austin Mack have been singled out for praise at various times and could give the Buckeyes at least six targets they can rotate even before another batch of talented freshmen jump in the mix.

The offensive line will still have to protect the passer better. Quarterback J.T. Barrett will still have to deliver the football accurately and confidently downfield. The playcalling will still need to be more creative under new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson.

But the receivers can’t control any of that, and they’re well-aware that they have to hold up their end of the bargain if the Buckeyes are going to get back to where they want to go.

“As a whole, it’s about being a complete receiver unit,” Campbell said. “Catching the ball, running great routes, being where we have to be on time, getting open. You have to get over [last season], get to the next page and go to work. I think we’re just taking a huge step.

“We came out here with a chip on our shoulder this spring, knowing we had to improve after the past years and not having the successful seasons that we wanted. We knew we had to take a big step, and I think this spring that’s what we’re doing.”

And if everything goes according to plan, by the fall, Campbell won’t have to worry about dealing with those incomplete feelings anymore.

videoCOLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State has more top-notch pass-rushers than it knows what to do with and an unwillingness to keep them on the sideline.

Even if it takes some creative thinking and a new formation, the Buckeyes might just play them all at the same time.

A position group that has liberally substituted thanks to its depth up front during the last couple of seasons and has a terrifying package of four defensive ends in the playbook already is now toying with the idea of putting five of them on the field at the same time. A surplus of talent is one of the best problems defensive line coach Larry Johnson could have, and now it’s just up to him to figure out the pieces for a new rotation and scheme with what could be the nation’s best unit -- and perhaps the busiest as well.

“I can’t give you all my secrets,” Johnson said with a smile. “We haven’t got to it yet. It’s still on the drawing board right now, but we’ve got a plan.

Jason Mowry/ICON SportswireSam Hubbard's speed and mobility that once made him a defensive back would allow him to stand up on the edge and potentially drop into coverage if needed.

“It’s something we’re not doing right now. We’re just trying to get fundamentally better, but that’s something that if we see fit to do it, we’ll do it. There’s a lot of things we can do with them because those guys are athletic enough to do it. Right now it’s just something on the table.”

If the Buckeyes use the five-man package, that would impact another position group, most likely taking a linebacker off the field. Whether the logistics are still being worked out or just being kept secret, there are already hints as to how the coaching staff plans to handle that formational math.

The versatility of junior Sam Hubbard would in all likelihood be the fulcrum, since the speed and mobility that once made him a defensive back would allow him to stand up on the edge and potentially drop into coverage if needed. He’s already been working on those skills in spring practice, and Jalyn Holmes could potentially fill a similar role as well to round out a group that would also include senior Tyquan Lewis and sophomores Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones.

The Buckeyes weren’t expecting to have this many options available to them this year with Lewis, Holmes and Hubbard all eligible to declare for the NFL draft. All three elected to stick around, giving Ohio State a top-five group of returning linemen that combined to pile up 37.5 tackles for loss last season.

“I think as of right now, it’s the strength of our team on defense,” Urban Meyer said. “They’re fast, they’re really good players. Defensive end, I challenge that we’ll be as good as anybody in America at defensive end.

“It’s kind of fun in spring, you can try all kinds of stuff and see how it works. ... We have five premier [defensive linemen], in my mind, and I would like to see all five on the field at one time. Coaches like to say, ‘How are the checkers?’ Those are five really good checkers right there: Play them all at once.”

Even if the Buckeyes figure out the best way to do it, they aren’t likely to be rolling out a five-man defensive line all that often during the game, particularly considering the amount of playmakers in the pipeline at linebacker and in the secondary.

Ohio State is clearly committed to getting all of its linemen involved. While that cuts down on the number of reps individually, the Buckeyes believe that’s a positive since it keeps them all fresh. Because Lewis only needed to average 45 snaps per game to become the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year last season, it’s hard to argue with the results.

“I think it’s just about getting the best guys out on the field to make plays,” Hubbard said. “That’s what they’re trying to do. If you can rush the passer, they want to get you out on the field. I don’t want to talk too much about it. They’re all putting their minds together, cooking something up and I’m just doing what they tell me to do. I’m liking it.

“It’s going to be fun to watch. ... Guys can rush the passer from all different sides and places, and that’s going to be scary.”

The Buckeyes figure to be frightening enough with four pass-rushers on the field.

Now they’re trying to find a way to add to the nightmare.

When No. 4-ranked 2018 prospect Jackson Carman tweeted that Clemson was his new leader, it was a surprise to most everyone but Carman. The Ohio prospect previously had Ohio State as his top school, and it very rarely happens that a top Ohio recruit gets away from Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. That doesn’t mean Ohio State is out of it, however, as Carman explained that a visit to Clemson is what pushed the Tigers up to the front. “Just experiencing [Clemson's] whole environment, facilities, meeting with the coaches and players, it was better than any other place I’ve visited so far,” he said. “I would probably say it’s 1a and 1b with Clemson and Ohio State. Seeing everything was eye-opening and awesome.”

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A complete escape from his predecessor might not be possible.

The lobby at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center prominently features an Ezekiel Elliott jersey. Elliott's image adorns a banner honoring recent Ohio State running backs that hangs over an end zone at the practice field. And Elliott still remains the prime example his position coach uses to make a point.

But posting just the third 1,000-yard season by a freshman tailback in school history has a way of somewhat minimizing the shadow that loomed over Mike Weber even during his breakout, debut campaign. The mentions of how Elliott used to do the job come less frequently, the praise for Weber’s own work ethic are on the rise -- and he can go almost a full 10 minutes of a news conference without hearing a single comparison to his former teammate.

“Until that kind of brought it back up, I actually haven’t heard his name in a minute,” Weber said with a laugh. “So, yeah, I mean, it’s pretty cool. But there’s a lot more that I have to do.

“I’m just still working hard at it because I feel like I haven’t showed everything that I’m supposed to show.”

Nobody knows better than Weber just how much goes into filling the role Urban Meyer calls one of the “Cadillac positions” of college football, both because of his year as an understudy to the do-it-all Elliott and now a full season as the starter at running back for Ohio State.

Mike WeberKevin Abele/Icon SportswireDuring a breakout freshman campaign, Mike Weber was frequently compared to his predecessor at Ohio State: Ezekiel Elliott.

But rather than point to the 1,096 rushing yards and nine touchdowns he posted a year ago as evidence that he has already made his own name for the Buckeyes, instead he points to improvements that must be made as a blocker, improving his hands as a receiver out of the backfield and enhancing his knowledge of the playbook. More than just accumulating eye-popping numbers, that’s how Elliott built his reputation inside the program at Ohio State -- although, statistically, Weber is off to a better start than his old mentor.

“Oh yeah, he was tired of all the comparisons,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “We’re beyond that point. Mike Weber is Mike Weber. Now, do we have a guy who showed how to grind and how to do it right? We sure do, and it’s Zeke. But do we want him to be Zeke? No, don’t be Zeke. Do things like Zeke? Absolutely.

“Man, here’s the deal. If you don’t want to hear about him anymore, I know a surefire way to stop it: Outdo him.”

That, of course, is a tall order for Weber. After some initial growing pains following his high-profile recruitment and a redshirt season, Weber was still in some ways learning on the fly last season. But he has turned heads during spring camp with his commitment in every phase of his development.

Alford ideally wants to sit in the back of the meeting room and let the soft-spoken Weber teach his teammates, and the young running back's expanding knowledge of the playbook is making that more realistic with each passing day. His work ethic on the field, leading the tailbacks through each individual drill, has solidified his spot even more on top of the depth chart despite increased competition from Demario McCall and early enrollee J.K. Dobbins. And even during practice on Tuesday morning, Meyer felt compelled to point out how far Weber has come with the Buckeyes.

"Mike Weber is separating himself," Meyer said. "He's having an exceptional spring, and it's about where he should be. Ironically, I was just talking to him about this. He’s 100 percent [better than] the player he was last year. I mean, in everything, he’s doing a very good job."

Without doing every job required at the position, earning a mention alongside Elliott would be a nonstarter in the first place.

But now, Weber appears to be getting to a level where it’s no longer even necessary at all.

“Great executing on blocking, hitting on the big runs, blocking well, catching the ball well, getting big numbers -- that’s when I feel like all that other stuff will come with it,” Weber said. “Like, being more on a national stage, being the top guy, being one of the top backs in the country and stuff like that.

“I feel like my name rang a little bit last year, and I want it to be out there this year.”

Ideally with no other famous names attached to Weber’s.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Replacing Curtis Samuel might not be a one-man job. But at Ohio State, that’s not exactly an issue when the line to slide into his role started forming the day the star H-back declared for the NFL draft.

Filling the void left by one of the most versatile, dynamic offensive weapons in the country isn’t supposed to be easy, and there also isn’t supposed to be so many seemingly perfect, ready-made candidates on hand to take over such a prominent role. The amount of options might actually provide some challenge for the Buckeyes as they try to identify the best way to move on without Samuel, but as far as problems go, that’s obviously a good one to have.

“I think we’ve got some guys who can do that -- a plethora of guys,” running backs coach Tony Alford said. “Listen, we don’t lack for playmakers. Can they get better? Absolutely. But they’re here, they’re running around this building somewhere. There’s a few of them.

“I think we can spread it out. You don’t just say, I’m going to take all this pie [from Curtis Samuel] and now he gets to eat all the pie. No, everybody has to help fill that role and play their role.”

Demario McCallKirk Irwin/Getty ImagesDemario McCall said he's eager to learn how to work in the slot in order to potentially grab the H-back role.

No matter how the Buckeyes slice it up, Samuel’s heavy plate last season leaves a sizable production void that will have to be filled to keep the power-spread attack humming. And after seeing what Samuel could do in Urban Meyer’s vaunted H-back position a year ago while turning his 97 rushing attempts and 74 receptions into more than 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns, Ohio State had a bunch of hungry receivers and running backs jockeying for a shot at his job.

Veteran wideout Parris Campbell has emerged as an early leader in that battle this spring, and he’s earned rave reviews as he’s flashed back to show some of the tailback skills that he hasn’t really used since high school. K.J. Hill and converted defensive back Eric Glover-Williams have also given the Buckeyes more options to consider, though running back Demario McCall might wind up being the best fit by the time the season kicks off in August.

Like Samuel a few years ago when he was trapped behind Ezekiel Elliott on the depth chart at running back, the incredible potential McCall flashed off the bench as a true freshman is likely still going to be blocked for now by Mike Weber at his current position. But his electrifying moves, blazing speed, versatility and a frame that has added 20 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus are also all reminiscent of Samuel.

The only thing missing now? Actually getting some reps at H-back.

“Yeah, I talked to Coach Alford about it,” McCall said. “In spring camp, he wanted me to get the running back stuff down first and then probably in summer they’re going to put me in the slot, catching those little swing passes and routes and then we’ll go from there.

“I actually haven’t got any reps at H-back this spring. But the tailback stuff that we do, it goes along with the H-back stuff. It’s like I’m learning them both, but I’m not actually in the slot yet.”

That move seems inevitable for the Buckeyes, who have already proven they can’t resist getting McCall involved early in his career.

In his limited opportunities last season, McCall posted some Samuel-like numbers by racking up 270 rushing yards on 49 carries, averaging 21 yards on his four receptions and scoring four touchdowns.

And while he’s still focused on a role primarily in Ohio State’s backfield, working to improve his pass blocking and maintaining that he feels most comfortable at tailback, McCall might soon find himself in a different line for reps. And whether he’s working as part of a group or jumps to the top of the depth chart, it’s already clear McCall isn’t intimidated by the challenge of becoming the next Samuel.

“No, not at all,” McCall said. “I mean, I’m a natural.

“Whenever they tell me to go out in the slot, I’m going to go out there and do what I do.”

With so many candidates for the job on hand, maybe there’s a chance that call won’t come for McCall. But whether replacing Samuel takes one man or several, it’s safer to expect to see his name on the list.

Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.

It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.

Rutgers

The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.

Purdue

Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.

Michigan State

Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.

Illinois

The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.

Maryland

You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.

Indiana

The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.

Northwestern

Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.

Minnesota

Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.

Nebraska

Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?

Iowa

There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.

Michigan

Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.

Ohio State

Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.

Wisconsin

The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.

Penn State

The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No matter how impressive the résumé is already, there are undoubtedly improvements to be made.

J.T. Barrett is the first to admit that he has areas of his game that need to be addressed during spring practice. But like the Ohio State offense as a whole, it's important to note that the veteran quarterback isn't broken.

The Buckeyes scored points in bunches -- with one notable exception, in the College Football Playoff. And Barrett has now accounted for 100 touchdowns in his career for a program that wouldn't have even been in contention for the national title without his presence at the most important spot on the field.

But what can he do to take another step forward and end his run with Ohio State with a championship? In the first in our series looking at the to-do list for the Big Ten's top individual returners and some of their key statistics, let's begin with a player who's already among the most decorated performers the Big Ten has ever seen.

JT BarrettJennifer Stewart/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett has been working on improving his accuracy on deep balls during spring practice.

What's J.T. Barrett working on this spring?

The deep ball: The inconsistencies that hampered the Buckeyes at times -- and the collapse against Clemson -- were a collective effort, and Barrett was often low on the list of problems. The offensive line struggled to protect him, the receivers had issues with their routes and dropped a few too many passes, and even the coaching staff put Barrett in tight spots with the playcalling. Nevertheless, the spotlight always winds up on the quarterback, and it's no secret that Barrett is being asked every day in spring camp to help stretch the field better. Arm strength has never been one of his best attributes, but ranking just No. 76 in the nation with 29 completions of 20 yards or more isn't going to cut it for Urban Meyer. During open portions of practice, new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day has been emphasizing those deep throws and finding new ways to teach how they should be delivered. If the young receivers can get to the right spots this fall, expect Barrett to be able to find them.

Touch and accuracy: Barrett's completion percentage dropped for the second consecutive season, finishing last year at 61.5 percent. That was still good enough to finish in the top half of quarterbacks nationally, but it's well below the level Meyer would like from his passers. Ideally, Barrett would be around the 65 percent mark he posted as a freshman, if not even better than that, and that's where Day comes in with those new drills. The process starts with fine-tuning the footwork in the pocket, and Day has added some obstacles during drills that otherwise don't include defenders to stress where and how some passes need to be thrown. In one drill during open periods, Ohio State has rolled out a net in front of a downfield target that snags attempts that aren't thrown with the proper arc, just one example of Day trying to squeeze more accuracy out of Barrett.

Chemistry: Leadership isn't a problem for the program's first three-time captain, and his speeches are already the stuff of legend at Ohio State. So this might be the easy part for Barrett as he tries to get on the same page with his wideouts, start incorporating new pieces like versatile Demario McCall into the attack and help center Billy Price bring along an offensive line trying to cut down on the 28 sacks allowed last season. Ordinarily, Ohio State might be inclined to take it easy with a guy who has played and won as many games as Barrett has and take a closer look at the backup quarterback options with an eye on the future. But with new coordinator Kevin Wilson taking over to put his mark on the offense and Barrett trying to take strides after realizing there wasn't much NFL interest in him after last season, there's no time for him to relax.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- First he was the guy without a clearly defined position.

Then he was the guy trying to replace Darron Lee.

After thriving in that role for Ohio State, now he’s sliding over and being asked to become the next Raekwon McMillan.

At some point, maybe Chris Worley will finally get to stop answering questions about position changes and the shoes he’s trying to fill. But it won’t be this spring for Worley, who heads into his senior season and once again is essentially restarting what has become an annual process of making his own name with the Buckeyes.

So exactly who is Chris Worley? Whoever Ohio State needs him to be -- and himself.

“Nobody wants to be constantly sort of talked about by being compared with another guy,” Worley said. “Guys want to come in and make a name for themselves. But, you know, that’s not how the world works.

“My job is to go on the football field and perform at the highest level in college football. Whether that’s replacing Darron or replacing Raekwon, at the end of the day those two guys were considered at the top of college football at their positions. It’s up to me to live up to that name, and I have no problem with that at all.”

Chris WorleyMatthew Visinsky/Icon SportswireOhio State's Chris Worley will be moving to middle linebacker to fill the void left by Raekwon McMillan.

Worley has already done it once, filling in seamlessly for Lee after Lee was taken by the New York Jets in the first round of the NFL draft last year. And after racking up 70 tackles with an interception, a forced fumble and 4.5 tackles for loss as an outside linebacker, Worley now has a new standard to match with the Buckeyes moving him to the middle to replace another early entrant to the draft in McMillan.

Worley is still quick to point to a spirited competition with Lee in 2014 that stretched through training camp and into the first week of the season, before Lee pulled ahead and became one of the nation’s breakout defensive stars. And battling for so long with a future first-rounder only added to Worley’s overflowing confidence, even when he was coming off the bench. It offered him some evidence that he was already close to that level as a linebacker after starting his career at Ohio State as a hybrid who could have also played in the secondary.

The challenge this spring certainly isn’t identical, because he was playing alongside McMillan a year ago instead of serving as an understudy to him. But once again, Worley in some ways will be trying to escape the shadow of a predecessor.

“We lost what I think is a man’s man in Raekwon McMillan,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “Just a really fine football player and a smart football player. We needed to make sure that we could try to replace him with a guy who has that kind of presence about him.

“Chris Worley, he’s just a really, really smart football player. He’s a guy that I think understands the game at a very high level. ... I’m really impressed by him.”

That football knowledge will be particularly useful as Worley becomes the Ohio State defense's new quarterback. Schiano is trusting Worley to get everybody lined up, know each assignment in the playbook and provide leadership on the field. On top of that, Worley obviously still has to play at a high level in the heart of the defense.

Through three practices, the Buckeyes are expecting he’ll be able to do that without dramatically changing his body from its current 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame.

“When you think of Chris Worley, some say his weight may not be big enough to move over there,” new linebackers coach Billy Davis said. “I think with all the spread offenses you face, he has all the size to play in there at [middle linebacker], especially in the college game.

“He’s a great leader in there, he’s very vocal, everybody follows him, he knows what he’s doing, so he’s a great quarterback for us. ... Not everybody can do that. Chris is outstanding at that.”

There is still a long way to go in spring practice to know exactly how much Worley might thrive in that role. Even after the Buckeyes wrap up camp next month and head into the offseason, Worley is well aware that he’ll continue to be asked about the guy who played in the middle before him.

That, of course, will be nothing new for Worley. And it hasn’t slowed him down any in the past.

“When you play at a place like Ohio State, that’s going to happen,” Worley said. “You might hear guys say, ‘Well, I’m not trying to be Darron or J.T. [Barrett] or Cardale [Jones] or Braxton [Miller].’ But at the end of the day, you better try to be that. Those guys have ripped college football apart. Why wouldn’t you want to be that?

“You have to know the expectation and try to live up to it or surpass it, but you also can’t count another man’s blessings and miss your own. That was my whole take on last year, and it will be even this year. Of course I’m trying to play better than Darron, or play better than how Raekwon did last year, but I’ve been blessed with a certain skill set as well.”

Those skills have already proved invaluable for the Buckeyes.

At some point down the road, they’ve raised the bar for whoever has to try to be the next Chris Worley.

Spring practice has barely started in some cases, and in a couple of Big Ten spots, the pads haven’t been put on at all yet.

But it’s never too early to forecast what should be another fascinating, competitive conference race this season. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.

Up first: The league’s representative in the College Football Playoff last year, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

J.T. BarrettJamie Squire/Getty ImagesJ.T. Barrett is more than capable of taking Ohio State back to the College Football Playoff.

1. The talent level: No coach in the Big Ten has recruited as well during as many years as Urban Meyer. And now entering his sixth season with the Buckeyes, his machine is fully operational, keeping the pipeline flowing with elite talent at every position. But what could make Ohio State even more dangerous this season is that Meyer won’t be trying to plug in so many first-time starters the way he did a year ago, with no shortage of experienced veterans returning from a team that exceeded many expectations by growing up quickly last season on the way to the College Football Playoff.

2. J.T. Barrett is back: Among all those battle-tested, proven winners returning to the starting lineup is the most productive quarterback in Ohio State history. Any records that Barrett hasn’t broken yet will likely fall soon, and those that he already has might be put out of reach for any future successors at the most important position on the field. The redshirt senior had issues at times last season with his accuracy and footwork, but he was relatively low on the list of offensive problems for a team that struggled to protect the passer, didn’t reach its potential at wide receiver and was overly conservative calling plays. Quite simply, the Buckeyes wouldn’t have been in the College Football Playoff without him -- and he’s more than capable of taking them back there again.

3. Kevin Wilson has arrived: The Buckeyes are quick to point out that their offense isn’t broken after putting up more than 39 points per game last year. But the humbling shutout loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl exposed some significant problems with the passing attack that could no longer wait to be addressed. That inconsistency had shown up previously, and while there’s plenty of blame to go around, Meyer’s major move to upgrade the attack was to bring in former Indiana coach Kevin Wilson after he resigned from his post there last year. Wilson worked wonders with the Hoosiers and had the league’s highest-scoring offense two seasons ago -- edging the Buckeyes despite a clear difference in personnel. Giving him a full complement of weapons could be deadly for opposing defenses.

4. The defensive front seven is loaded: For all the conversations about Ohio State’s offense this offseason, there’s a good chance it won’t take that many points to win games thanks to the stingy Silver Bullets on the other side of the ball. Despite the loss of middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, the Buckeyes will have returning starters at every other spot in the front seven -- including a ridiculous surplus on the line. With Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes all deciding to stick around for another season, plus Nick Bosa heading into his sophomore campaign, Ohio State’s biggest problem might be finding playing time for all of its ferocious pass-rushers. And the Buckeyes may have found a ready-made solution for replacing McMillan, sliding Chris Worley inside and then filling his spot by sliding in another former starter in Dante Booker as he returns from injury.

5. Urban Meyer: When it comes down to it, the Buckeyes figure to always be in contention every year as long as Meyer remains in Columbus. The team he inherited lost seven games in 2011 -- and he has lost only six times during the last five seasons combined. Meyer has shown he isn’t afraid to shake things up to get results, and changes are coming for the second time in his tenure thanks to Clemson revealing a flaw in his system. The last time was after the 2013 season when the Tigers picked apart a crumbling defense. Meyer responded by hiring Chris Ash to revamp the pass defense, and the Buckeyes won a national title the next year. This time, it’s the offense that must improve after the goose egg in the semifinal, and Meyer will be expecting a very successful season again this fall.

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