GLENDALE, Ariz. — A year ago, who would have imagined Ohio State’s football season ending with the Buckeyes in a College Football Playoff semifinal with 16 first-time starters?
A week ago, who would have imagined No. 3 Ohio State, judged by many people as the only team with a chance to beat Alabama in the playoff, being dominated by No. 2 Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday night?
Right there is the good and the bad of OSU’s trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
Over the last four months Ohio State was better than expected. For 60 minutes on Saturday night it wasn’t nearly as good as expected.
OSU fans always think their team should win every game. But the usual ultra-optimistic expectations for any season might have been toned down a bit for some fans when nine underclassmen declared for the 2016 NFL draft.
Everyone knew some of those players would leave early. But even Urban Meyer admitted he was surprised by how many made that decision.
At the time, he called it “over the top” and indicated he had expected around six players to leave last January.
But, looking back, maybe he knew he had a chance to be good with this year’s team.
“The door is open now,” he said. “You’ve got all these really good young players, and it’s their time to shine and time to go.
“It’s going to be back to a hungry, nasty, mean team like in 2014, I hope,” he said.
Or maybe he didn’t completely believe that. Meyer admitted at Fiesta Bowl media day he thought Ohio State was a year away going into this season, especially with road games at Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State on the schedule.
Saturday night against a very good Clemson team, the Buckeyes looked more like a team that was a year away than one that was ready to compete with Alabama.
Maybe the biggest question now is who will stay and how fast will the recruits of the last couple years develop.
Meyer’s current recruiting class is ranked second nationally behind Alabama. His previous five recruiting classes at OSU ranked fourth, seventh, third, second and fifth in the country.
So, earning a spot in the College Football Playoff, having several underclassmen leave early for the NFL and having the talent waiting to replace them could be something that could go on for a while.
There won’t be nine underclassmen leaving early this season. But there almost certainly will be some who will be in the NFL next season.
It would not be a surprise to see five underclassmen on the Buckeyes defense make themselves available in the draft.
Junior cornerback Gareon Conley was considered a future NFL player even before the season began.
Safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Marshon Lattimore were unknown quantities in August. Hooker was in that category because of a lack of playing time and Lattimore was there because of hamstring injuries which had limited him in his first two seasons at OSU.
But Hooker has turned into possibly the best safety in college football this season and Lattimore has been projected as a possible first-round pick by some NFL draft analysts.
Defensive end Tyquan Lewis, the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year, could be ready to go, as could linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who has accomplished nearly everything he set out to do at OSU except be named a first-team All-American.
Offensively, the best bet to leave early is probably H-back Curtis Samuel. Offensive lineman Billy Price might consider it.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett is rarely mentioned as a possible early-entry player, but he is an interesting case.
If he would be drafted, it would not be in a high round. Generally, the criticisms of his game are that he does not have great arm strength and some have questioned his accuracy.
But he is a quarterback who is asked to run the ball a lot who suffered a major knee injury in high school and then a broken leg at Ohio State in 2014. You wonder if that would be a factor when he weighs his options.
Whoever leaves, whoever stays, it is possible Ohio State could be one of the four College Football Playoff teams again in 2017.
But as Saturday night’s game showed, OSU has some shortcomings that need to be addressed in pretty much every area offensively if it is going to do that.