OSU could have tough road ahead

COLUMBUS — The 2015 Ohio State football team will be remembered for its imperfect brilliance, for one exasperating loss and 50 wins over an unsurpassed four-year run.

Only time will tell if these Buckeyes also represented the last of an era.

Before the lemon-lime Gatorade dried from coach Urban Meyer’s drenched khaki pants Friday — the result of a sideline shower in the final seconds of a 44-28 Fiesta Bowl rout over Notre Dame — Ohio State and its fans could flip the page from what might have been to what will be.

“I hope the younger guys learn from our mistakes,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said, “and make it back to those playoffs next year.”

At first glance, that seems unlikely.

Ohio State (12-1) will lose much of the horsepower from what Meyer called “one of the best teams ever to play college football” — and one NFL evaluators deemed the best collection of talent in the country.

Beyond the graduation of seven senior starters, more than a half-dozen juniors could enter the draft. Already, defensive end Joey Bosa, quarterback Cardale Jones, and Elliott have said they are leaving school early, and stars like receiver Michael Thomas, safety Vonn Bell, and linebacker Darron Lee are widely expected to follow. Underclassmen have until Jan. 18 to declare their intentions.

Then add in a ramped-up 2016 schedule.

The Buckeyes play six teams who piled up double-digit wins this season, including Oklahoma, which lost to Clemson in the playoff semifinals. They travel to Norman on Sept. 17, then confront a far more compelling — and expanded — Big Ten slate. Ohio State’s nine-game conference schedule includes its six Big Ten East rivals as usual but swaps out Illinois and Minnesota for Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Northwestern for its interdivision games.

A whopping step backward seems logical.

Yet most figured the same after the 2013 season, when the Buckeyes lost 11 starters from a team that won a school-record 24 straight games before cracking in the postseason. All Ohio State did was win the national title in 2014, steadily climbing from No. 23 in the polls early in the season to the top of the sport.

The point is, no one knows.

At the least, the Buckeyes will begin next season perched high in the polls — a tribute to Meyer and his assembly line of blue-chip recruiting classes. Their 2016 haul is No. 1 in the nation, according to the composite rankings of 247Sports.

After Bosa was ejected for targeting in the first quarter Friday, the projected top-three draft pick tweeted from the locker room: “I'm sorry, I love you buckeye nation.“

His younger brother, Nick, also a five-star defensive end, promptly responded: "I will finish what you started.”

That’s the idea. A Bosa replaces a Bosa, a Curtis Samuel or Mike Weber replaces Elliott, and another batch of stars emerges.

Ohio State will also benefit from the return of quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will enter next season as the undisputed starter — and with a burst of momentum.

It was only the past two games that Barrett appeared fully comfortable after an awkward back-and-forth battle with Jones helped undermine the seasons of both quarterbacks.

Evoking his record-setting form from 2014, Barrett was named the Fiesta Bowl MVP. The redshirt sophomore completed 19 of 31 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown and ran for 96 yards on 23 carries.

“He’s more relaxed, I think he’s more comfortable, and I think he’s playing at a high level right now,” offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said. “Probably his best practice of the year was when we got here, so I feel real good about where he’s at. One of the things is you can’t play well looking over your shoulder. You can’t look in the rearview mirror and figure out what’s going on. You have to look forward.”

So will the Buckeyes.

Or so they will try. Like Ohio State’s best teams of the 1970s and 90s, this group will forever be haunted by the opportunity lost, the 16-13 defeat to Michigan State in the penultimate week of the regular season seared into memory.

The questions will live on.

What if the have-its-way offense from consecutive beatdowns of Michigan and Notre Dame showed up the first 11 weeks? What if Meyer had more deftly managed the quarterback dilemma? What if Elliott had received more than 12 carries against the Spartans? What if offensive coordinator Ed Warinner had moved up to the press box — the move that allowed OSU to speed up its tempo — before the Michigan game?

Would Ohio State have beaten the Spartans? Would they be defending their title in the playoffs instead of stranded in the desert?

"I'm not going to say," left tackle Taylor Decker said. "There's just so much variable to that."

One thing Ohio State can control: What happens next.

“We just live and we learn,” Barrett said.