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Big Ten season preview: Ohio State Buckeyes

The nicknames have seemingly been rolled out one after the other for Ohio State.

This has been labeled the “Year of Development.” The practice facility has become the “Land of the Wolves.” The mantra has become tied to finding “The Edge.”

Just about the only thing that hasn’t been worked into a title, though, is what Urban Meyer keeps hinting his young Buckeyes are capable of providing: The Sequel to 2014.

“I see that potential,” Meyer said. “I see it, and I think 2014 was the template that everybody wants. J.T. Barrett was buried in the depth chart, Darron Lee, Eli Apple, [Ezekiel] Elliott, [Michael] Thomas -- those guys were no-names.

“They became very good throughout the course of 2014.”

The Buckeyes certainly have their work cut out for them this season after the graduations of a group of seniors that won 50 games and the early departures of nine underclassmen to the NFL draft, leaving Meyer with 16 starters to replace.

But there are plenty of similarities to Ohio State’s situation now and what Meyer and his staff were facing two years ago. And particularly with Barrett back in charge of the offense, the expectations for the Buckeyes remain as high as ever.

Can they live up to the standard? The Buckeyes take their turn under the microscope as the Big Ten preview series rolls along.

2015 record: 12-1 (7-1 Big Ten)

Key losses: DE Joey Bosa, RB Ezekiel Elliott, DB Vonn Bell, CB Eli Apple, WR Michael Thomas, LT Taylor Decker, WR Braxton Miller, WR Jalin Marshall, QB Cardale Jones, DT Adolphus Washington, LB Darron Lee, LB Joshua Perry, C Jacoby Boren, TE Nick Vannett, DB Tyvis Powell

Key returners: QB J.T. Barrett, C Pat Elflein, LB Raekwon McMillan, OL Billy Price, DE Tyquan Lewis, DE Sam Hubbard, CB Gareon Conley, H-B Curtis Samuel, P Cameron Johnston

Instant impact freshman: The Buckeyes probably are going to count on a handful of members from their most recent decorated recruiting class, but nobody figures to be as important for the team’s title chances than Michael Jordan. After enrolling early and taking part in spring practice, the offensive linemen left that camp as the favorite to win a starting job at guard and hasn’t relinquished that spot heading into the season opener. Considering how imperative it will be to protect Barrett and how much the power-spread attack relies on stellar blocking to get the rushing game rolling, Jordan’s development could help determine Ohio State’s ceiling this season.

Most important game: The biggest hurdle for Ohio State to clear if it plans on getting back to the College Football Playoff isn’t handling inexperience, it’s dealing with the schedule. And while the trip to Oklahoma in September and the rivalry throwdown with Michigan to close the regular season stand out as headliners, the most pivotal game for the Buckeyes and their title chances may actually be the visit to Michigan State on Nov. 19. The Spartans, after all, are the defending Big Ten champs and knocked off Ohio State’s repeat bid with a stunning upset at the Horseshoe last year, so motivation shouldn’t be a problem in what could again be a matchup with national implications.

Upset alert: In terms of betting favorites, the overall strength of Ohio State’s roster should be enough to compensate for the hostile venues at both Wisconsin and Penn State when the lines are revealed. But visiting both of those noisy, intimidating stadiums over consecutive weeks will certainly provide a stiff test for those youthful Buckeyes. Those matchups with the Badgers and Nittany Lions on paper don’t look that dangerous for Urban Meyer’s team, but both of those proud programs are more than capable of derailing the Buckeyes if they aren’t completely prepared for the environments.

Best-case scenario: Remember those references to 2014? Those Buckeyes were thought to be too young and a season away from reaching their potential, only to develop ahead of schedule and claim the title in the first College Football Playoff. With the way Meyer has loaded up on the recruiting trail, a veteran quarterback and a playmaking defense, Ohio State’s potential is the same this season. Even if the Buckeyes trip up early against the Sooners, they’re still more than capable of running the table from there and becoming the team nobody wants to face by the time the playoff field is set.

Worst-case scenario: If the so-called “Year of Development” instead becomes a true rebuilding season, the Buckeyes are still likely going to be pretty dangerous for most teams on the schedule. However, the improved strength of that slate -- starting with Oklahoma and those road trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State -- could put a dent in Meyer’s 50-4 record with the program coming into this season. The hosting duties at the Horseshoe should all be manageable, and there’s absolutely no threat whatsoever of the Buckeyes failing to reach a bowl game. But realizing a true worst-case outcome for Ohio State would have to include losing at home to Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, particularly if it sends the rivals to the Big Ten title game.