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June 17, 2013

Beat writer knows best: OSU

MADISON - The Badgers won't get much credit from their strength of schedule this season, but their Sept. 28 game against Ohio State will likely make or break their goal of winning a fourth-straight Big Ten title. Whoever wins that game in Ohio Stadium should be in the driver's seat in the Leaders Division for the rest of the season. The game has already received top billing as one of the Big Ten's most important of the year, and it will air at 7 p.m. CST on either ABC or ESPN2.

As for the Buckeyes, they're coming off an undefeated season, but were unable to compete in the postseason thanks to a one-year bowl ban. Urban Meyer will have a hard time topping his first season in Columbus, but the Buckeyes seem to have enough talent to make another run at an undefeated season. To get the scoop on Ohio State BadgerBlitz.com asked BuckeyeGrove.com beat writer Ben Axelrod a few questions, and his answers are included below.

The Buckeyes went 12-0 last season, but were obviously barred from postseason play in that season. Now that the ban has been lifted, where does Ohio State go from here? How is Urban Meyer prepping his team for this season?

Ben Axelrod: You won't hear it from the coaches or anybody officially affiliated with Ohio State, but anything less than a national championship appearance would be viewed as a disappointment for this year's squad. The Buckeyes went 12-0 last year with a team that truthfully had a lot of holes, and when you couple this year's experienced roster with a less-than-threatening schedule, the stars appear to be aligned for Ohio State to be making the trip to Pasadena in January.

There's a big banner hanging in the Buckeyes' practice facility that reads "The Chase," a motto that Meyer has used with the team and said applies to various situations. But when asked what it is they're chasing, Braxton Miller and Christian Bryant have both made it clear that they're after a national title. Ohio State will likely be ranked in the 2-4 range in the opening polls, and anybody put in that put position expects to stay there through the season.

The Buckeyes were at the top of the Big Ten in scoring last season. How much of that offense is set to return, and what can we expect to see out of Braxton Miller? What does he need to improve on in 2013?

BA: The Buckeyes return nine starters on offense, and only lose right tackle Reid Fragel and tight end Jake Stoneburner. This is probably the most experience offense that Ohio State has possessed since Troy Smith's senior season in 2006, and Carlos Hyde, Corey Brown, and Devin Smith all figure to be key cogs on this year's squad.

As for Miller, he was a Heisman Trophy candidate last season (finished fifth) and he showed off improved mechanics throwing the ball through the spring. His legs will always be a weapon, and he's taking steps as a passer, but really, the one major thing that the Buckeyes need from him is for him to stay healthy throughout the entire season.

On paper, it seems like the Buckeyes have some things to figure out on defense- Phil Steele has the Buckeyes returning just from starters from last year's unit. Do they have the talent to replace all those starters? Or do you think there will be a few bumps in the road for the defense?

BA: The Buckeyes' defense is certainly a talented unit, but experience is not one of its strengths. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington will be counted on to anchor a defensive line replacing four starters, but they certainly seemed more than capable of doing so in the spring, as they combined for seven sacks in Ohio State's spring game.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier will be a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year candidate, as will cornerback Bradley Roby. The Buckeyes are counting on safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett to replace the leadership lost by the likes of John Simon and Zach Boren, but the success of the OSU defense will really hinge on how the front-four performs.

Looking at Ohio State's schedule, which stretch of games do you think will make or break the Buckeyes' season?

BA: Truthfully, the Big Ten is so down and unappealing right now that it's hard to find a true stretch of games that should present much problems for the Buckeyes, but looking at the schedule, facing Wisconsin and Northwestern in back-to-back weeks will likely be their greatest challenge. Both games will be night games and playing Northwestern has always presented problems for OSU, plus Wisconsin will really be the first quality opponent that the Buckeyes face. With a bye week looming after the Northwestern game, it is possible that the Buckeyes could overlook the Wildcats.

A lot of national outlets have picked Ohio State to run the table, or at the very least they're listed as the favorites to win the Big Ten. What needs to happen for Ohio State to run the table, and how likely do you think that is? Can the Buckeyes re-climb the mountain and win the conference title?

BA: The main thing that the Buckeyes need to win the Big Ten is for Braxton Miller to stay healthy. I think Ohio State has the most talent of any team in the conference, as well as the league's most successful head coach. Had they had been eligible to do so a year ago, it's hard to imagine that the Buckeyes wouldn't have won the Big Ten, seeing as how they won the Leaders Division and would have played Nebraska in the conference championship game.

The main question in Columbus isn't so much how the Buckeyes stack up with the rest of the Big Ten, but rather how they compare to the country's other national title contenders. Those asking that question may be getting ahead of themselves, but those are the expectations that 2012 brought.

Thanks again to Ben for giving us the scoop on the Buckeyes. You can read more of his work at BuckeyeGrove.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod.

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