COLUMBUS -- With dreams of reaching the top of the College Football Playoff mountain, Ohio State was buried before it left basecamp.
The Buckeyes' Fiesta Bowl trip last season, ostensibly the first step in the CFP, ended in ignominy. Ohio State's 31-0 evisceration at the hands of Clemson was so complete, the Buckeyes rendered so punchless, that changes were the only possible answer in Columbus.
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"It was awful," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said of the shutout, his first and only in 16 seasons as a head coach. "I could sugarcoat it and tell you something, but it was awful. It forces you to reevaluate everything you do to make sure it doesn't happen again."
The question that will define the Buckeyes' 2017 directly stems from their worst moment of 2016: Has the offense been fixed?
For a program that expects to contend for national championships each and every season and consistently places players in the NFL, Ohio State's offense has left something to be desired since winning the national championship in 2014.Last season, padded by a handful of blowouts, the Buckeyes still ranked 13th in the country in scoring offense, but context told the story. Against its best opponents, Ohio State's offense struggled.
Ohio State was second-worst in the Big Ten and 115th nationally in yards per completion, a reflection of a deep passing game Meyer dubbed "high risk and not much reward."
Enter two coaching staff changes, almost nine months of tweaks, and the most veteran quarterback in the history of Ohio State, and the Buckeyes think they have a renovation that can reinvigorate its offense.
Four starters return to the offensive line, as does fifth-year senior quarterback J.T. Barrett, who holds 23 different Ohio State records and started every regular-season game during the Buckeyes' run to the '14 title.
Ohio State hired Kevin Wilson, the former head coach at Indiana, as its offensive coordinator, and Ryan Day to coach quarterbacks. Both have raved about Barrett and his improved accuracy during this offseason.
"Quarterbacks get a lot of credit. a lot of notoriety, and he probably gets as much as any player in the country," Wilson said. "J.T. is one of the best practice players I've ever seen."
The Buckeyes used the time between the Fiesta Bowl and now to emphasize its deep passing game while also protecting its run-first identity.
When Ohio State is at its best, it moves quickly, and Barrett said the Buckeyes lost some of that ability, especially in 2016.
"I think one of the main things is our tempo," Barrett said. "I think, at times, we got away from that, and that's part of who we are."
On defense, the Buckeyes should again be among of the country's best. Ohio State's defensive linemen have a whopping 22 letters won among them, its linebackers are all proven players, and no program has been more successful at placing defensive backs in the NFL.
If it can break free from its struggles on the other end of the field, Ohio State thinks it can return to its 2014 self.
"I think any team that runs the ball well, you have to complete the deep pass because people are going to load it up on you. We run the ball," Meyer said. "You saw in '14, when they put extra defenders in there to stop the run, you have to execute -- and we haven't done as well since then.
"That has been a huge priority."
Indeed, Ohio State spent the majority of its offseason mental capital attempting to correct the issues that were so public in its loss to Clemson. It self-evaluated and made changes.
Now, with millions of eyes watching and another title bid waiting, the Buckeyes will find out if they're ready for another chance at the mountaintop.
This article is written by Nicholas Piotrowicz from The Blade and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.