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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: Ohio State (6-7, 3-5)

Not that Luke Fickell didn’t have his hands full. And not that this wasn’t one of the youngest Ohio State teams in recent memory. And not that the team, planning on having Terrelle Pryor and company in the fold in time for the heart of Big Ten play, wasn’t thrown a loop when the old guard — DeVier Posey, for example — didn’t ride into town and save the day in October. But there’s one fact that can’t be ignored: Not counting the forfeited season of 2010, Ohio State finished with a losing record for the first time since 1988 and for only the second time since 1967. The slide was inevitable, perhaps, and so was the glee with which it was greeted by the rest of the Big Ten. Here’s guessing that Ohio State will have the last laugh.

Let’s backtrack. It’s possible to make the case, with time, energy and optimism, that Fickell made the best of a terrible situation. Seven freshmen started at least one game. Another 14 played in at least one game. In the Big Ten opener against Michigan State, the Buckeyes trotted out a two-deep with nearly twice as many freshmen, 15, as seniors, 8.

This wasn’t vintage. But neither was the coaching. The Buckeyes were rarely explosive under Jim Tressel, but they were always… even. Consistency eluded the Buckeyes last fall. At best, Fickell wasn’t ready to walk in Jim Tressel’s shoes; at worst, he was the most unprepared head coach in college football.

The truth lies somewhere in between: Fickell wasn’t ready, but neither was he the most overmatched coach in the Big Ten. That title goes to Indiana’s Kevin Wilson, he of the one-win debut. Compared to Wilson, Fickell was Woody Hayes in 1973. But Fickell wasn’t ready.

Then again, he inherited a stacked deck. Pryor never played a down. Offensive tackle Mike Adams didn’t return until the fifth game of the season. Running back Dan Herron didn’t return until Oct. 15, when he rushed for 114 years in Ohio State’s win over Illinois.

Posey didn’t return until the second-to-last game of the regular season; don’t try to understand it, because the N.C.A.A. ruling in Posey’s case still doesn’t make sense. Despite playing in only three games, Posey ranked third on the team in receptions — he had 12.

It was a lost season. That’s how Ohio State should view both last season and 2010: lost. Sponged from memory, if not from the record books. Fickell and his staff might have made the best of an awful situation. More realistically, however, Ohio State simply hunkered down and did its best to survive.

The Buckeyes survived, and should come out all the stronger for it. Those freshmen who earned their stripes last fall are more battle-tested and Big Ten-ready as a result. Braxton Miller is a keeper at quarterback. Defensive linemen John Simon and Johnathan Hankins have all-American potential.

The talent level hasn’t dipped, in short. It wasn’t a lack of talent that caused the Buckeyes to stumble so painfully last fall: Ohio State stumbled thanks to the meeting of inexperience on the roster and inexperience along the sidelines, which is a dreadful combination.

Enter Urban Meyer — and you can hear the collective giggles over Ohio State’s slide catch in the collective throat of the Big Ten. It’s a brand-new ballgame, on the field and on the recruiting trail. From a coaching standpoint, Meyer will give Ohio State everything it was missing a year ago: acumen, experience and credibility. As a recruiter, he’s already shaken the league to its core.

And he inherits a core of players whose worst days are already behind them. Looking for a silver lining for last season? Well, it’s over. And from last year’s disaster comes the potential for bigger and better things: Meyer, a young but tested roster and, perhaps above all else, enough motivation to move Ohio State back to its perch atop the Big Ten.

Season grade: C- An ugly season. There were four wins against B.C.S. conference competition, led by a glorious last-minute victory over Wisconsin. But the three remaining wins came over Colorado, Illinois and Indiana — in other words, nothing to write home about. A fifth win came over Akron, the worst team in college football. The sixth came by the skin of Ohio State’s teeth: Toledo came with 20 yards of notching an historic upset in the Horseshoe on Sept. 10. On the other hand, six of the seven losses, all those outside of Miami (Fla.), could have gone Ohio State’s way. But one of the seven included a loss to Michigan.

High point The 33-29 win over the Badgers on Oct. 29. Miller threw for 89 yards on the evening, 40 of which came on his touchdown pass to Devin Smith with 20 seconds left.

Low point The loss to Michigan. It had been 2,926 days since Michigan last beat… and so on.

Offensive M.V.P. Let’s share the award between Miller and Herron, with the former earning credit as the Big Ten’s best freshman and the latter deserving recognition for the way he propelled the Buckeyes to three straight Big Ten wins in October. While Miller has that work to do as a passer, he’s already there with his legs. He rushed for a team-best 715 yards, cracking the 100-yard mark three times, and scored at least one touchdown on the ground in each of the last five games of the regular season. Miller went toe-to-toe with Denard Robinson in Ann Arbor, throwing for 235 yards and rushing for another 100 in the 40-34 defeat.

Defensive M.V.P. Simon and Hankins play off each other well. Both are big boys: Simon comes in around 270 at end, while Hankins is kindly listed at 335 pounds at tackle. While Simon uses his blend of speed and power to break into the backfield — 16 tackles for loss and 7 sacks, both team highs — Hankins is simply too difficult for most interior offensive linemen to handle, let alone move. Not to say that Hankins is simply a space-filler: like Simon, his size belies some grace. Some grace, mind you. This pair will be the building blocks for the Ohio State defense in 2012.

Stock watch Thanks to another mistaken tack taken by the Ohio State administration, Urban Meyer’s first team will be ineligible for postseason play. As in the case of U.S.C. last fall, this means that the Buckeyes will not be allowed to participate in a bowl or the Big Ten title game, should they reach that point. Can they reach that point? Absolutely. Illinois, Indiana and Purdue aren’t realistic threats in the Leaders division. In some ways, Penn State’s changes are even more drastic than those being undertaken in Columbus. Wisconsin has quarterback issues, not to mention a nearly brand-new staff. Who’s to say that Meyer can’t lead this talented team to the top of the division in 2012? This will hinge on the Buckeyes’ ability to hit the ground running in his new system. That task — teaching his team the ropes — will be one of Meyer’s two biggest steps. The other will be motivating a team with no hardware to play for. Maybe he can call Lane Kiffin for tips?

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