Last season, Ohio State started the season with many unknowns. Braxton Miller's injury meant inexperienced J.T. Barrett was taking over the offense. The offensive line had yet to come together, as exhibited when Barrett was sacked seven times in the Buckeyes' Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech. And running back was a question mark, too, as Big Ten Running Back of the Year Carlos Hyde was off to the NFL and no longer wearing scarlet and gray.
But by season's end, Barrett was among the nation's best quarterbacks, the offensive line was among the country's best and Ezekiel Elliott was on his way to becoming the favorite for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
What a difference a few months can make.
Elliott enters this season as one of college football's top players after a terrific season that was capped by a sensational postseason. Elliott rushed for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season, but it was in the Buckeyes' three postseason games where he elevated his game to another level and broke out on a national stage. In the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, he rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns. In the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama, he rushed for 230 yards and two touchdowns. And in the national championship game against Oregon, he rushed for 246 yards and four touchdowns.
Those numbers are ridiculous.
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And they're the No. 1 reason why Elliott has the hype he does heading into 2015. With the mass exodus of running backs from the Big Ten to the NFL this offseason — Melvin Gordon, Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah, David Cobb and Jeremy Langford are all gone, otherwise known as 9,382 rushing yards — Elliott is the conference's top back. He's running behind that aforementioned offensive line, which might be the finest in all the land. And he's got a ton of other weapons around him on the offensive side of the ball, including whichever quarterback between Barrett and Cardale Jones becomes the starter, pass-catchers Mike Thomas and Nick Vannett and H-backs Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller.
You can't stop them all.
And Elliott might be the toughest to stop. Ask his teammates, and they'll tell you it's an arduous task.
"You have to get your hands on him first," defensive lineman Adolphus Washington said earlier this month during the team's media day. "And when you do, you've got to bring it because he's quick and a powerful runner. It's a tough job."
Wisconsin had one of the best defenses in the country last season, and the Badgers couldn't stop Elliott. Same for Alabama. Oregon's defense wasn't as good, statistically, but not to worry, they couldn't stop him either. Even Michigan State, which annually boasts a defense to be reckoned with, allowed Elliott to go for 154 yards and two touchdowns, a day made to seem downright small by his eye-popping postseason numbers.
So will Elliott win the Heisman this season? Obviously it's an impossible question to answer in August, but you have to think he's got great chances. The Heisman is, at times, a team award as much as it is an individual award, and winners typically come from the country's top teams. Ohio State's overall success should be a season-long boost to Elliott's candidacy. When it comes to running backs, there are few as good as Elliott. The SEC boasts a couple in LSU's Leonard Fournette and Georgia's Nick Chubb. But expect Elliott to be right with those guys all year long.
He's going up against history, too. A quarterback has won each of the last five Heismans, with Mark Ingram the last running back to do it in 2009. Since the turn of the century, the award has gone to a quarterback all but twice. And a Big Ten player hasn't won the Heisman since 2006, when Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith took home the award.
Though he has competition from the two quarterbacks on his own team, there are few peers for Elliott when it comes to being the Big Ten's best offensive player. With the running back ranks thinned by the NFL Draft, expect that to be another award Elliott will be at the top of the list to receive this season.
It's one heck of a luxury for the defending champs, one of the reasons they are the defending champs. If the Buckeyes get back to the College Football Playoff, as many expect, it will likely be thanks to Elliott's efforts.