On Saturday night Johnny Manziel could become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. However, with Braxton Miller and a fully-loaded Urban Meyer offense in Columbus it is Miller, not Manziel, who will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman in 2013.
An Offseason of Improvement
It is easy to forget Miller spent much of the past two seasons learning new offenses from coaching staffs that were working together for the first time.
In 2012 Miller and the offense showed vast improvement. But the offense was still learning a new system and the coaches were still learning about their players' strengths.
Likewise, Miller spent most of the season learning the offense and didn't spend enough time fine-tuning his mechanics and it showed in several games when throws got away from the 6'2'', 210-lb QB.
But this offseason, despite not having bowl practices, I expect a much improved passer mechanically. That will result not only in more big plays from receivers, but it will also keep opposing defenses from loading the box like Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan did effectively towards the end of the season.
Along with that Miller will also be able to spend more time perfecting his reads in the option game. The zone read with Miller and running back Carlos Hyde was one of Ohio State' best plays in 2012, and with improved efficiency in making the right reads, Miller's yards per carry could explode.
Supporting Cast on Offense
Ohio State's offense, which led the Big Ten in scoring, will only lose two key players to graduation in right tackle Reid Fragel and receiver Jake Stoneburner.
The most important unit to the success of any QB is the offensive line. The Buckeyes will return a veteran group featuring four seniors that started in 2012, two of which—Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell—started in 2011 as well. The fifth starter will likely be sophomore Taylor Decker, who competed with Fragel for the right tackle spot back in the spring.
Also benefiting from that solid offense line will be a stable of running backs. Early in 2012 Ohio State leaned heavily on Miller in the running game. However, the emergence of Hyde and Rod Smith helped alleviate that concern.
In 2013 I expect the Buckeyes' coaching staff to lean even more heavily on Hyde, Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and fifth-year senior Jordan Hall. While that may hurt Miller's chances of repeating as a 1,000-yard rusher it will likely get him in the open field more frequently and allow for more "Heisman Moments."
On the outside, Ohio State will return all but two players who had a reception in 2012. Stoneburner was third on the team in receptions (16) and receiving yards (269) while Zack Boren caught five passes for 42 yards before switching to defense.
The key returnees in the passing game are 2013 senior Corey Brown and 2013 junior Devin Smith. Brown led the Buckeyes with 60 receptions and 669 yards, while Smith averaged over 20 yards a reception and scored six TDs.
With the evolution I expect to see in Miller and the Buckeyes' passing game don't be surprised when Evan Spencer, Nick Vannett, Jeff Heuerman and Chris Fields become a bigger part of the offense.
Also don't forget that Meyer, who lamented his lack of offensive playmakers in 2012, will be bringing in highly-touted recruits like Jalin Marshall, Ezekiel Elliot, Taivon Jacobs and possibly more...paging Shelton Gibson and James Quick.
Talented, Yet Inconsistent Defense
The Buckeyes will suffer their biggest losses on defense. Up front they will lose Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon as well as several other key starters.
However, as programs like Ohio State normally do, the Buckeyes are ready to reload. But expect some growing pains. Ohio State's defense will not lack talent and should keep the team in games, but with inexperience comes inconsistency that could actually help Miller's Heisman candidacy.
I expect the defense to give up plenty of points against good offenses, which will in turn force Miller and the offense to keep scoring and keep putting up Heisman numbers.
Increased National Exposure
Despite getting some national attention in 2012, I expect Miller's exposure to go through the roof in 2013. The Buckeyes will no longer be under a bowl ban and will likely be ranked in the preseason top five. Both of those factors will lead to more air time and should build his case.
Also, in 2012 even Miller's head coach was timid about throwing Miller's hat into the Heisman ring. But by the end of the season Meyer had warmed up to the idea. Don't expect the out-spoken Meyer to hold back in 2013.
Best Player on a National Title Contender
It is unlikely Ohio State will be ranked No. 1 by any poll or publication heading into the 2013 season. But Ohio State will likely be one of the favorites to make it to the BCS National Championship Game.
One key reason is its schedule. If everything goes according to plan for the Buckeyes they will be favored in all 12 of their games in 2013. That along with a high ranking in 2012 (in the AP) will put the Buckeyes in a good position for one of the two spots in the title game.
As we have seen over and over, when in doubt, Heisman voters give preference to players that are giving their teams a shot at a national title.
Last but not least: Urban Meyer
Meyer has made a few things clear in his coaching career: He wins, he recruits hard, his QBs put up big numbers and he doesn't care what other coaches think about him.
All of those thing will work in favor of Miller's Heisman candidacy. The winning and recruiting have already been mentioned, but it's the last two that put Miller's candidacy over the top. With most of the team's games in 2013 coming against inferior opponents, Meyer won't be afraid to give Miller's candidacy the push it needs to win by letting him loose.
If you need proof just look at the stats Tebow put up in his Heisman season.
Manziel will certainly garner much of the national media's attention before the 2013 season and rightfully so, but Texas A&M will have a much tougher time surprising the SEC in Year 2, while Miller and the Buckeyes should continue their Big Ten dominance.