One of the hardest things as a writer at BuckAround is maintaining objectivity about the Badgers. It's difficult to examine the team without our rooting interest clouding our judgment.
To get a more objective look at the 2013 Badgers, and a preview of the rest of the teams in the B1G, we are conducting a series of interviews with prominent bloggers from around the conference. We hope to get something done with the 11 other teams in the conference (and maybe even Maryland and Rutgers too!) over the course of the offseason.
Matt Brown from Land Grant Holy Land, SB Nation’s Ohio State blog, kicks off the series. Matt has an interesting take on Ohio State’s undefeated season, gives us a preview of what to expect from Urban Meyer's 2nd year, and spills the beans on how the Badgers are perceived in Buckeye Country. A big thanks to Matt for being so generous with his time!
BuckAround: Urban Meyer certainly lived up to the hype in year one with a 12-0 season. What are expectations for 2013? Meyer returns the bulk of a very productive offense while only four players return to a defense that improved over the season but was average at best. What will we see on each side of the ball this year?
Matt Brown: The trouble with going 12-0 with a really quite flawed team is that everybody expects to go to 12-0 the next season. Ohio State returns a boatload of talent, had two years of stellar recruiting classes, and has an embarrassingly easy schedule.
The Buckeyes skip Michigan State and Nebraska in the regular season, and probably won't play a top 50, let alone top 25 team, out of conference (Buffalo, SDSU, at a rebuilding Cal team, and against Florida A&M, who is horrid even for an FCS squad).
Ohio State will be stiffly tested by you guys, at Northwestern and at Michigan, but other than that, it's tough to find many losses. Barring injury, losing more than one game would be a big disappointment for OSU.
A big reason for that are the huge expectations for OSU's offense. I actually don't think this was really the strength of the team last year, as OSU had zero depth and little play-making ability at WR, an oft-injured running back, and while Braxton Miller was one of the most exciting athletes in the country (we affectionately refer to him as Xbrax360), he showed he had a ways to go as a pure passer.
Ohio State returns 4 solid linemen, and basically everybody else from that offense, including a near- 1,000 yard rusher in Carlos Hyde. Meyer *also* added a ton of highly touted wideouts, including at least one, JUCO Corey Smith, who is expected to start from day one.
If Miller continues to develop his ability at making reads and connecting on short/medium length throws, the sky really is the limit for Ohio State. Nobody else in the Big Ten, not even Michigan, can match their skill position talent right now.
The defense doesn't return as many people, but Buckeye fans aren't too nervous about it. Replacing basically the entire defensive line, especially when that means losing a first round pick and another likely draft pick, isn't easy, but OSU returns multiple linemen who saw game experience, and brought in another very solid class on the d-line this year.
Meyer, like most coaches out of the SEC, has made big, athletic defensive linemen his #1 priority. Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington should be ready to start and play at a high level, and if not, there are other horses in the stable.
The position we're probably most concerned about is linebacker. OSU had to play a converted fullback there (Zach Boren) thanks to injuries and poor play, and while he and Storm Klein have graduated, neither was exceptional at the position. The question will be whether some of the young players can flank the excellent Ryan Shazier to keep the front seven solid.
(BA): For someone who doesn't follow Ohio State football every day, what are the key position battles and storylines for spring practice and into the fall?
(MB): Who ends up at WR is going to be an interesting storyline. Devin Smith and Philly Brown, the top two receivers last season, both return. Smith was the closest thing OSU had to a big play threat downfield and showed excellent ability at getting behind coverage, but only has so-so hands.
Behind those two though, it's a crapshoot. Michael Thomas was a highly regarded freshman last season, especially after he went over 100 yards in the 2012 spring game, but had very limited playing time last year.
Junior 4 star JUCO wideout Corey Smith is probably the leader to pick up the 3rd wideout spot, but he'll be pushed by 5 star freshman Jalin Marshall and 4 star freshman James Clark.
There is a *ton* of speed and youth in the depth chart, and how it all shakes out will be very interesting. On paper, Miller has a *lot* more toys to play with.
(BA): Much has been made of the elite recruiting classes of Ohio State and Michigan this year. Does this foreshadow a future similar to what we saw in the 70's and a good portion of the 80's where it was Ohio State, Michigan, and everyone else? If not, what teams are critical in keeping a semblance of competitive balance?
(MB): You don't need to bring in elite recruiting classes to necessarily be successful in the Big Ten (see Wisconsin), but the gap that OSU and Michigan are opening is disconcerting, especially given the negative perception of the Big Ten around the country, which could hurt league teams come playoff selection time.
The recent news that Iowa isn't even going to try developing a talent pipeline in Florida is even more worrying. There simply aren't enough elite athletes in the Midwest alone to support 12 teams, so it is imperative for the Iowas, the Wisconsins, the Minnesotas, to find ways to get kids in the South, Atlantic coast, or West.
With Penn State under the sanction gun for several more years, it is critical that Wisconsin, Nebraska, etc continue to grow as programs to provide depth. Right now, Northwestern may actually be the strongest team on paper outside of OSU/UM next year. Think about that.
(BA): There is a lot of talk that Michigan and Ohio State will be in the same division once Maryland and Rutgers join the conference. Is this important to you? How does this help or hurt the rivalry?
(MB): Buckeye fans nearly universally want Michigan in their division. The idea of playing twice in back to back weeks, or moving THE GAME to sometime in October threatens to cheapen the sanctity of what we feel is the greatest rivalry in all of football.
If it ain't broke, why break it? Plus, the fact that an end of year matchup would likely help decide who goes to the B1G title game would make it even sweeter.
(BA): What does adding Maryland and Rutgers do for the conference in your mind short and long term?
(MB): I'm personally pretty 'meh' about Rutgers and Maryland. I understand what they bring to the conference financially, academically and demographically, and those are all positive.
Additional B1G network revenues, if nothing else, will allow the Purdues and Illinois' of the league to spend a little more on assistant retention or recruiting, which should improve the quality of football.
As athletic programs though, we're definitely buying their potential rather than something concrete now. Maryland is recruiting decently, but I wouldn't expect either of them to finish better than 5th in the near future.
(BA): Moving on to Wisconsin, what is the image of Wisconsin - both as a fan base and a football team - amongst Buckeye fans? Does the arrival of Gary Andersen change this at all?
(MB): I'll be honest, most Buckeye fans really don't like Wisconsin. A big reason for this is your coaches. Bo Ryan is certainly not going to win any B1G popularity contests, both for his boring-ass style and his famous "deal with it" comments last season, and I feel like the personality flaws of "Bert" are well documented.
Add in the fact that Wisconsin was pretty much the only league team that Tress struggled against, and add a loud and aggressive student section (I've been to State Street man, I've seen the shirts), and you get a budding rivalry. Whether that continues depends a lot on how things go with the Gary Andersen era. If nothing else, I think his personality will be less abrasive, so that will probably help.
If it makes you feel better though, *I* like Wisconsin!
(BA): Wisconsin - Ohio State games have definitely gotten a lot more chippy in recent years and the players definitely spoke of an animosity between the teams. Given the fact that new Badger coach Gary Andersen is part of the Urban Meyer coaching tree, do you see this rivalry continuing to grow, divisional realignment notwithstanding?
(MB): I think it depends 100% on on-the-field performance. The potential for continuing an already chippy rivalry is there, but if Wisconsin can't establish a QB next year, they struggle with a new system, and they go 7-5 for the next two years, OSU fans will move their targets to Nebraska or someone else. There is a fairly good chance that UW and OSU aren't in the same division during the next realignment, so that may hurt the rivalry as well.
(BA): What is your take on Bret Bielema's surprise departure to Arkansas? Is this part of the larger SEC-as-the-dominant-conference narrative or something else? Who is the coaching villain now that Bielema is gone? (Hint: There is no right answer here but Bo Pelini...OK maybe someone else but it will take some convincing)
(MB): I'm personally skeptical that Bert will be especially successful in Arkansas, given that he's never had a great reputation as a recruiter, and he could be absolutely buried by Florida, Texas A&M, Bama, etc. The guy wanted to get paid though, and you can't really fault him for that.
I think it is pretty obvious that Urban is the new coaching bad guy in the league. He's got the swagger, he'll poach your recruits, and he's going to win....a lot. Plus, he has that stain of the SEC that so many league guys detest so much.
(BA): This has been great. Thanks for your time, Matt!