COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State has a new coach, new approach, new players and a fresh start.
But what does it all mean?
There's a lot going on in Buckeyeland, now under the guidance of former Bowling Green, Utah and Florida coach Urban Meyer.
After a forgettable 2011 — which included NCAA sanctions, suspensions, departures and a dismal 6-7 record — fans are embracing a rejuvenated program that opens its season Sept. 1 at home against Miami (Ohio).
Fifteen starters return from the team that weathered nothing but bad news under interim coach Luke Fickell. With the Buckeyes officially in looking-ahead mode instead of dealing with the trauma of Jim Tressel's resignation and all those NCAA nightmares, there are many questions as Meyer establishes his own imprint in the program's 123rd year.
1) How are things different under Meyer? Despite what you may have heard there are no meters yet invented which can accurately measure intensity. So it's hard to say, as have some over-caffeinated observers, that Meyer has run the toughest August camp ever at Ohio State, or that it's substantially more "competitive" or hard-hitting than last year's, the year before or when Paul Brown prowled the sidelines.
Still, Meyer displays a brutally frank form of public tough love. He called it "a clown show" as the Buckeyes tried to grasp his new, fast-tempo spread offense in the first week of spring drills. He has consistently called out the wide receivers for not working hard enough or not doing their jobs, and hasn't hidden the fact that since day one he's been searching for a hybrid runner/receiver around which to build.
Just this week, Meyer spoke of the passing game.
"The area where we're much improved is throwing and catching. Much improved," he said. Then he added, "We couldn't have gone much the other way."
In terms of approach, this is light years from the senatorial doublespeak of Tressel, deposed in the wake of the memorabilia-for-cash scandal of 2011.
Other than not suffering fools (or marginal effort) gladly, Meyer has instituted his version of speed dating called the spread offense. Every few seconds, the ball will be snapped; defenses had better be ready. This is beyond light years removed from the conservative "let's play field position and rely on our defense" offense of Tressel, which to be fair resulted in his teams winning almost 8 of every 10 games for a decade at Ohio State.
Meyer is demanding, intolerant of excuses and indifference, more than a little arrogant and assured that his way will work.
It'll be interesting to see how Meyer — who twice quit as Florida's head coach, the second time to sit out of coaching for a year due to health concerns — handles a return to the pressure cooker of coaching. It'll also be a lab experiment whether Ohio State fans, quick to love any coach who wins on a regular basis, accept his blunt perspective.
2) Will the new offense flourish? Offensive coordinator Tom Herman makes it clear that Meyer is canny enough to not try to fit players into his offense; it works the other way, with the offense adapting to fit the talent at hand.
That means that there will still be a lot of passing — perhaps more passes than Ohio State has ever thrown. And that means far more throws to backs out of the backfield and in the slot, to tight ends and to receivers in a multitude of sets.
The personnel on hand, at the skill positions in particular, is nowhere close to what Meyer had in his six seasons at Florida, and probably not up to what he had at Utah. But it's a fluid situation, with Carlos Hyde probably running the ball a lot in the first few games until Jordan Hall returns from a cut foot and the offense finds its mojo. It will likely take time before QB Braxton Miller finds a receiver with which he has an almost innate connection.
It's a qualified yes. The offense will flourish, but don't judge it based on the opener. There will still be moments where it's a clown show, but other times where it makes defenses look silly. Remember: Miller is still only a sophomore who had an up-and-down first season, most of the receivers have never actually done much receiving in a game, and the running game is a work in progress.
3) How good will the defense be? It should be very, very good, depending on one rather large, problematic area. The linebacking crew has received tepid praise from the coaches, which is understandable considering it was a weakness last year during that debacle of a season.
There's no question the front four will be sterling. John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and (when he returns from microfracture surgery) Nathan Williams make up a first-class, attack-mode line. If they get to the opposing quarterback, everyone including those linebackers will look a lot better.
The secondary appears to be deep and talented, with Bradley Roby and Travis Howard holding down the corners and Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett stalwarts at safety.
An interesting aspect to keep an eye on is how the defense works with the offense. The latter is designed to run through plays (and, by extension, series) quickly. The linemen say they've never been in better shape, but if the offense has a couple of quick possessions in a row, it can wear down a defense.
4) Who are some surprises who might have big seasons? Look for receivers Evan Spencer and Devin Smith — is it too soon to call them "Evan and Devin"? — to be at the heart of most long-distance plays from Miller. Corey Brown, one of two Corey Browns on the team but we're talking about the WR here, also comes close to being the hybrid uberplayer that Meyer had in Gatorland.
Freshman OL Taylor Decker is in a battle with converted TE Reid Fragel to start. He could be a mainstay for the next four years. Classmates Kyle Dodson and Jacoby Boren also figure to get their feet wet up front — and fast.
And they certainly won't be the only first-year player making an impact right away.
Count on LBs Jamal Marcus, David Perkins, Josh Perry and Camren Williams to shore up a thin position. Perhaps the best players in the incoming freshman class are all DLs: Tommy Schutt, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.
Michael Thomas, an early enrollee to play spring ball, was the star of the spring game and could steal playing time from his older teammates.
With a new coaching staff, don't be surprised to see a lot of youngsters dotting the lineup and laying the groundwork for next season when the Buckeyes can go to a bowl.
5) So should I be thinking 12-0 or happy with just improvement over last season? It shouldn't be too difficult to improve on last season's record. The schedule is such that the Buckeyes will most likely be favored in at least eight of their first nine games, the lone exception being at Michigan State in the Big Ten opener. None of the non-conference opponents (Miami, UCF, Cal, UAB) presents a tremendous challenge, particularly when they've got 105,000 rooting against them at Ohio Stadium.
But before betting the house payment on a 10-2 or better record, remember that the Buckeyes did lose seven games last season for the first time since 1897 and that they come into the 2012 season with a four-game losing skid. Meyer and the other new faces on his staff don't entirely erase the fact that the 2011 team gave up 21 points a game, at times could not complete a simple pass and were outscored by almost 2-to-1 in the first quarter of games (99-51).
With a 4-0 start in the independent games at home, and improvement over last year's 3-5 mark in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes shouldn't have any problem getting eight wins. Anything beyond that would be a solid start to a new era, wouldn't it?
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .