After last season’s nearly improbable run to the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship, the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes opened camp on Monday with the goal of repeating as national champions — something that was last accomplished by the 2011 and 2012 Alabama squads.
The last OSU team that tried to meet this achievement fell short with an 11-2 record and a win in the Fiesta Bowl. Like the 2003 squad, this year’s Buckeye team is loaded with potential NFL talent and is considered by many to be the early favorite to win the national championship.
How does this year’s unit compare to those ’03 defending-champion Buckeyes as they entered camp?
To give some perspective, when the 2002 Buckeyes defeated a Miami (Fla.) team chock-full of future NFL stars in the national championship game, OSU, virtually, was not given much of a chance. That ’02 team seemed to overcome adversity and doubt time and time again, much like the 2014 national title-winning Buckeyes.
Going into camp in 2003, OSU fans had much excitement for the upcoming season. Starting quarterback Craig Krenzel was returning for his senior season alongside his go-to, playmaking wide receiver, and future NFL first-round pick, Michael Jenkins. In total, OSU was returning 13 starters: seven on offense and six on defense. Two of the new starters in 2003, linebacker A.J. Hawk and offensive lineman Nick Mangold, became all-Americans quickly; and are still competing in the NFL.
Fourteen players were drafted the following spring, and 19 total starters were drafted from the 2003 team. To look at some of the losses from the 2002 national championship team, Mike Doss and Matt Wilhelm played huge parts on the defensive side, but there was no greater loss than running back Maurice Clarett. The running back from Youngstown, Ohio, proved he was one of the best backs in the nation in 2002 as a freshman and scored the game-winning touchdown in the national championship game.
However, the potential Heisman Trophy winner and first-round pick was reported to have stolen $10,000 out of a borrowed car from a dealership. In September 2003, Clarett was suspended for the season and never returned to play for the Scarlet and Gray. With a massive quandary at running back, and most of the offensive production from the previous year gone, it is easy to see why the Buckeyes finished 93rd in the country in total offense. The 2003 Buckeyes started at No. 2 in the polls but lost on the road to Wisconsin and Michigan.
Fast forward to 2015, where the Buckeyes knew Monday entering the Woody Hayes Athletic Center for camp they would open the season at No. 1 in the polls and travel to Virginia Tech to face a Hokies team on Sept. 7 that handed the Buckeyes their lone loss last season. The biggest question mark on the team — and maybe in the country — is who will start at quarterback for the Scarlet and Gray come Sept. 7. Maybe a “question mark” is not the best way to describe the quarterback controversy, though, because if we know one thing, it’s that the Buckeyes are skilled at almost every position.
Competing quarterbacks Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett are Heisman candidates along with their teammate in the backfield, junior running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Buckeyes return 15 starters in 2015 — eight on offense and seven on defense — compared to 13 in 2003. Like the 2003 team that was 10th in the country in total defense, the 2015 edition of the Scarlet and Gray is stacked on that side of the ball as well, led by junior defensive end, and possible first-overall NFL selection, Joey Bosa. Linebackers Joshua Perry and Darron Lee are relentless run-stoppers who pace the defense known as the Silver Bullets. OSU also returns all of its quarterbacks and its leading rusher from a year ago. The team even added a major weapon in redshirt senior Braxton Miller at the H-back position, along with a healthy junior Dontre Wilson to give the Buckeyes the threat at wide receiver they needed to replace departed senior wide receivers Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.
The offseason gives us a chance to reflect on past teams including great ones like the 2003 Buckeyes at the helm of coach Jim Tressel. Now under the command of Urban Meyer, the defense is just as good as Tressel’s, but quicker. The offense is faster, as well, and more suited for Meyer’s spread offense rather than Tressel’s ground-and-pound style. Similarly to the 2003 team, this OSU team has several future NFL picks and first-rounders on the roster.
As Meyer’s team looks to climb the mountain once again and capture OSU’s first back-to-back championships, with three Heisman-hopeful players in Jones, Barrett and Elliott, the Buckeyes stand the best chance to repeat since the 2001-02 Miami Hurricanes — the exact team OSU beat to claim the 2002 national title. Coaches have changed and styles of play have changed, but if there is one constant from 2003 all the way to 2015, come Sept. 7 at Blacksburg, Va., the Buckeyes will be ready to play and contend for the school’s ninth national title.
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