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2015 MAC football non-conference previews: Ohio State Buckeyes

Can either Northern Illinois or Western Michigan knock off the defending national champions?

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After dismantling Kent State in 2014 on its way to its first national title since 2002, Ohio State will be hosting back-to-back weeks of #MACtion as Northern Illinois and Western Michigan come to town Weeks Three and Four, respectively. The Buckeyes open the season with a revenge game at Virginia Tech and a home opener against an overmatched Hawaii squad while NIU hosts UNLV and Murray State before their match-up as WMU hosts Michigan State, travels south to take on defending Sun Belt champion Georgia Southern, and returns home for Murray State before heading to the Horseshoe.

The big story of the offseason for the Bucks has been which quarterback will get to start on opening night: the incumbent J.T. Barrett, who is the more efficient passer with a passer rating of 169.83 while nearly passing for 3,000 yards and rushing for 1,000 prior to his injury against Michigan, or the upstart Cardale Jones with his tremendous arm. While it may be tempting to say that the QB that won a national title should get the starting job, Jones isn't the dynamic runner at quarterback that Barrett is (which is the crux of Urban Meyer's offense, despite the loss of offensive coordinator Tom Herman to the head coaching gig at Houston) as his 90 yards in three starts is dwarfed by the sophomore's 938 yards while Jones threw as many touchdowns as interceptions in his last two starts.

The Scarlet and Grey was third-best in the nation in total offense in 2014, which was enabled by its prolific rushing attack led by Ezekiel Elliot. Elliot was the workhorse of the country's fifth-best ground game with 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns and played his best in the team's biggest games, rushing for nearly 700 yards and eight scores against Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon. With 220 receiving yards as well last season, the fast and powerful Heisman contender presents a plethora of problems to a defense.

Replacing the leader in receiving yards and touchdowns is not an easy feat for any team, and Ohio State has to do exactly that as  Devin Smith left and took his 931 yards and 12 touchdowns with them. However, the team brings back some playmakers at the position as Michael Thomas led the team in receptions with 54 for 799 yards and nine scores while Jalin Marshall caught 38 passes for 499 yards and six touchdowns. The 6'6" Nick Vannett can create some match-up problems at tight end as he had 19 cathes for 220 yards and five TDs.

The strength of any good offense is the offensive line play and that's no different for the Buckeyes as Preseason All-Big Ten First Teamers Taylor Decker and Pat Elflein lead the charge for the unit. With 44 starts between the two of them, the offensive line looks to continue to make its mark on defenses with four of the five starters from 2014 returning.

With all the attention that the offense is getting, it's easy to overlook a defense that may be every bit as good. Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington both look to wreak havoc on offensive lines as Bosa was fifth in the nation in sacks last season while Washington was third on the team with 10.5 tackles for loss. The linebacking corps looks to be just as strong, with Freshman All-American Darron Lee leading the team with 16.5 TFLs while Joshua Perry led the squad with 124 total tackles. The secondary that was 17th in the country in passing yards allowed per game brings back some talent too, with Von Bell leading the way with six picks.

The special teams unit for the Bucks is inconsistent as it was 5/10 on 40+ field goal attempts in 2014 as Cameron Johnston averaged 45.1 yards per punt and pinned 26 punts inside the 20-yard line. Opponents started on the 23-yard line on average against the kickoff team while Marshall took one to the house on punt return and Dontre Wilson averaged 24 yards per kickoff return.

For either NIU or WMU to have a chance against Ohio State, they need to be able to create pressure like Virginia Tech (seven sacks and three interceptions) did to force the QBs of the Buckeyes to make mistakes. Offensively, they need to stay on the field against a third down defense that was one of the nation's best as it held offenses to a 34% conversion rate. The teams need to control the ball to shorten the game for the defense while trying to get an edge in the field position battle. If the Huskies or Broncos can do any of these things, they have a shot against a very talented OSU team that may very well win back-to-back national titles for the first time in school history.