USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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Like a crafty magician, the greatest trick Braxton Miller ever pulled was making the impossible seem probable. The rabbit was always in the hat, just tucked away; the card you were looking for was up your sleeve the whole time; Miller only made things look effortless, thanks to overall athleticism unmatched at the position in college football.

Miller was – is, rather, and will be again, hopefully – the sort of quarterback who could complete all of six passes against rival Michigan yet still account for 275 yards of total offense and four touchdowns. Or, against the Big Ten's second- and third-best pass defenses, complete 39-of-52 attempts for 450 yards and six touchdowns without an interception.

It hurts, it stings and it's totally unprecedented, and Ohio State has to understand that in the history of this sport, no would-be championship contender has lost a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback this close to the eve of the regular season.

Ohio State will instead have a redshirt freshman, J.T. Barrett, and history is again not on the Buckeyes' side: Only two freshman quarterbacks in history – Bernie Kosar and Jameis Winston – have started every game for a national champion.

Here's where it hurts: For the Buckeyes, the impossible is no longer probable – it's possible, always possible, but not probable. The Buckeyes no longer have a quarterback capable of pulling single-play victory from the jaws of defeat, for example; Miller made things happen when others would've ducked and covered, unwilling and unable.

And so the offense returns to square one at its most crucial position. Barrett has been described as a "field general," as his high school coach told The Columbus Dispatch. That helps explain a mindset shift: Barrett won't be asked to do the impossible but the mere possible, caretaking an offense with an excess of talent at the skill positions.

This won't hurt Ohio State against Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois and Minnesota, though one can make the simple case of Miller's dynamism holding the key to a win in East Lansing, for example. In short, the team-wide preseason standard has subtly changed: OSU is no longer the favorite in the Big Ten Conference.

At least Urban Meyer has been here before. It's Sept. 6, 2003, and Utah quarterback Brett Elliott breaks his wrist diving to complete a two-point conversion late in a loss to Texas A&M. Gone, done, out for the year – year over. Then comes Elliott's replacement, a lanky and unimposing sophomore named Alex Smith, and the Utes would lose only once for the remainder of Meyer's tenure.

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

OSU will roll from the start, facing little noticeable challenge in non-conference play before turning its gaze to the Big Ten, where Wisconsin, Northwestern and Michigan seen the only teams on the slate capable of knocking the Buckeyes down a peg. Do I think the Buckeyes go undefeated? They should.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: The way last season ended raised eyebrows, obviously, with losses to Michigan State and Clemson ending OSU's title chances and hopes for entering the offseason on a high note, respectively. Meyer's response was to stay the course: He didn't feel the need to reach out to any of his coaching peers and mentors, Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days, because the Buckeyes' mentality – or sense of purpose, or whatever buzzword exemplifies the program's mental fortitude – remained intact. That's a positive, as is the idea that OSU, as a program, needed to taste a little bitter adversity before leaping to the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision. That step takes a hit in 2014, clearly, but the Buckeyes' long-term blueprint will be better off for last year's fall from grace.

High point: Beating Michigan. For a single play, at least, the Buckeyes' defense was all-world.

Low point: Michigan State. And so a rivalry was born.

Tidbit: Last November's win against Michigan marked the Buckeyes' first one-point victory in the history of the rivalry. In only 13 other meetings – 1944, 1958, 1963, 1972, 1974-75, 1979, 1981, 1987, 2001-2, 2005 and 2012 – was OSU's margin of victory less than a touchdown.

Tidbit (consistency edition): Ohio State leads the country with 88 seasons in a row without posting back-to-back losing records. Since the streak began in 1925, OSU has had just six losing seasons altogether: 1943, 1947, 1959, 1966, 1988 and 2011.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

19th century papal bulls

1. Apostolicae Curae
2. Ineffabilis Deus
3. Pastor aeternus
4. Apostolicæ Sedis Moderationi
5. Reversurus

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: It will be J.T. Barrett against Navy and for every game from that point forward, hinging on production, and the Buckeyes will tweak this entire offense to better suit his skill set. Translated: Run, run, run. For now, it's easy to see Tom Herman trade explosiveness from the position for simple consistency, particularly in the read-option running game. Gone are the Miller-led running plays, replaced by the backfield-led action – basically, a running game that begins with a stable of gifted running backs and then moves to the quarterback rather than vice versa, as was the case throughout Miller's turn in this system. That's not to say Barrett isn't athletic enough to make things happen; he showed some solid burst in the spring game, for example, and will allow the offense to maintain a similar flavor. It'll just be less explosive – but you knew that already.

Barrett will keep this job if he stays healthy and productive. If not, OSU will turn the offense over to sophomore Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes' sole quarterback with any experience – all three games and two pass attempts of experience, if that means anything. What Jones has is stronger physical gifts, if only by a nose, but I don't think that's so vital to this staff: Herman would rather have a distributor than a scorer, if you'll excuse the mixed-sports metaphor, and Barrett seems to embody the sort of do-the-right-things mindset the Buckeyes' staff desires from the Miller-less position. The bottom line, painful as it may be: OSU isn't winning the national title with Barrett at quarterback. The Buckeyes can still win the Big Ten.

At some point very soon – though perhaps not until the second or third game of the season – OSU will hammer down a rock-solid backfield rotation. Injuries have slowed this process a bit as fall camp comes to a close, but the basic formation seems set: Ezekiel Elliott (262 yards), Rod Smith (117 yards), Dontre Wilson (250 yards), Warren Ball and Curtis Samuel will lead the charge, with Elliott and Smith the favorites to start but all five – with Ball perhaps the odd man out, to a degree – contributing in huge numbers for a reworked running game. Smith's spot is secure thanks to his experience, which can't be overlooked in a unit otherwise loaded with freshmen and sophomores. If used in tandem, Smith's size and Elliott's burst could be electric. The wildcards are Wilson and Samuel, with the former already among the Big Ten's most dangerous backfield-receiver hybrids and the latter, a true freshman, seemingly cut from the same cloth.

It's frustrating: Miller goes down just as Meyer and Herman seemed to corral the right mixture of talent at receiver – the weak link in the offensive chain in each of the staff's first two seasons. Though Barrett might struggle getting this group involved, you have to like its overall makeup. Senior Devin Smith (44 receptions for 660 yards) leads the charge, taking on the mantle of go-to target, while Wilson seems more and more likely to spend the majority of his time in the slot. There'll always be a role for senior Evan Spencer (22 for 216), if only thanks to reliability. At tight end, OSU has a clear all-conference pick in senior Jeff Heuerman (26 for 466) and a solid backup in junior Nick Vannett. It's a bit more uncertain from there, though not for a lack of options: Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Greene or sophomore Michael Thomas could start at flanker, for example, giving OSU some major size, and the Buckeyes need to find a way to get speedy underclassmen such as James Clark and Johnnie Dixon involved in multiple-receiver sets. In total, this is the strongest receiver corps of Meyer's tenure.

Defense: So this defense, one that played at a miserable level for much of last season, must take on the challenge on winning games for the Buckeyes. Helping matters are three enormous factors: one, a ridiculously good front four; two, the sense that the entire defense is just scratching the surface of its potential; and three, a very nice offseason hire in new co-coordinator Chris Ash, who should have a positive impact on an underachieving secondary. The pass defense, last year's teeth-gnashing pain, will benefit from one of the nation's best defensive fronts. But the secondary is raw, if blessed with talent, and expecting a wholesale shift from the bottom to the top might be too much to ask. It's safer to ask for the following: improvement.

Only one full-time starter, senior cornerback Doran Grant (58 tackles, 3 interceptions), returns from a season ago – and he'll need to play like a stopper, as he should. The defensive hero of last year's victory against Michigan, sophomore Tyvis Powell (48 tackles), will assume the vacant spot at strong safety; he's a really nice player, one I think will acclimate well to the starting role after spending last season as the Buckeyes' primary nickel back. That leaves OSU will six or seven bodies jostling for two spots, with little separation even as the defense ramps up its preparation for Navy. If push came to shove, I'd put sophomore Vonn Bell at free safety – though he could also set up shop at nickel back – and the combination of junior Armani Reeves and redshirt freshman Eli Apple at cornerback. But it looks very much like a fluid situation. Question how quickly Ash can reach this group, but don't sleep on the overall talent.

Let's attempt to make the case, however fruitless, that OSU's linebacker corps will thrive even without Ryan Shazier. I'll buy it, in fact, and here's why: Shazier was otherworldly, true, but perhaps the motivation to fill his All-American shoes brings the most out of the five or six linebackers set to top the rotation. Maybe motivation will send senior Curtis Grant off on a high note after three years of frustration; if he's ready, Grant's the guy in the middle – and if not, OSU won't hesitate to hand the job to five-star freshman Raekwon McMillan. There's a little competition underway on the strong side between sophomore Darron Lee and redshirt freshman Chris Worley, which I think will very beneficial for overall depth. And then there's the leader of the group, junior Joshua Perry (64 tackles), and I have a suspicion he's due for an all-conference season on the weak side. Also, keep in mind Ash's simplified scheme when considering OSU's potential on the second level.

When this line plays together – and one starter will miss the first two games of the season – Ohio State's starting foursome will be the best in college football. Forget about the secondary, don't worry about the linebackers, don't lose sleep over the run defense; just focus on this group, which could alone carry OSU through the turmoil and to the top of the Big Ten. Here's one way to think about this quartet: Adolphus Washington (36 tackles, 4.0 for loss) is the weakest link – and he's an absolute specimen. Washington will spend this season inside, where his first step could be deadly, and join senior nose tackle Michael Bennett (42 tackles, 7.0 sacks), a very clear All-American with decidedly disruptive tendencies. It'll be sophomore Joey Bosa (44 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and junior Noah Spence (52 tackles, 8.0 sacks) on the outside, with Rashad Frazier and Steve Miller stepping into the lineup while Spence serves his two-game suspension. Washington, Spence, Bosa and Bennett: scary, scarier, scariest and my goodness, there's another.

Special teams: It's a simple, oft-repeated phrase that bears one more mention, since we may never get another opportunity: In kicking competitions, always bet on the option on scholarship. Take OSU, for instance, where true freshman Sean Nuernberger – he of the scholarship – should beat out senior Kyle Clinton to replace Drew Basil at kicker. Nuernberger would give the Buckeyes two young specialists, joining sophomore punter Cameron Johnson, who is already among the Big Ten's best at the position. If the true freshman delivers on field goals, OSU should have one of the league's top three units – though Maryland's return game is a bit more explosive.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Offensive line: It's all a little dicey, to be honest, but let's pay some respect to line coach Ed Warinner, who put together one of the program's finest groups in a decade-plus a season ago. He'll eventually get the line moving forward, it's safe to say, but I worry a touch about the unit's general cohesiveness heading into the opener. The anchor will be junior Taylor Decker, who makes the shift from right to left tackle as Jack Mewhort's replacement – and Mewhort was awesome as a senior. Beyond producing at an all-conference clip on the new quarterback's blind side, Decker needs to embrace the leadership mantle shared by three productive seniors a year ago.

Two other spots are settled, both on the strong side. Right guard belongs to Pat Elflein, an impressive third-year sophomore who fared well when given the opportunity a season ago. He'll line up alongside senior Darryl Baldwin, last year's understudy on the blind side; OSU is hopeful he'll be up to the task, even if Chase Farris and Kyle Dodson sit in reserve. That leaves a pair of very intriguing competitions, at center and left guard. It's not a bad situation in the middle: Jacoby Boren and Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay give OSU two nice options, with the potential for one to shift to guard in a pinch – though neither has the size to really excel away from center. But that's on the table, if only slightly, due to the Buckeyes' lack of proven production at left guard. Trust in Warinner and trust in the scheme, yeah, but OSU needs to get on the same page.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Michigan: Or Michigan State. One of the two. The Spartans play host, which is cruel, but the Wolverines come to Columbus. The last time Michigan beat OSU on the road: Nov. 18, 2000. Meyer spent that Saturday coaching Notre Dame's wide receivers during a 45-17 win against Rutgers.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: Ohio State had its issues even with Braxton Miller under center, running this offense to a hair shy of perfection and making a charge at the Heisman Trophy; all Miller's departure does is serve to illustrate these concerns, since he had that ability to offset the Buckeyes' weaknesses – on offense, at least. It's time for the next man up: Barrett inherits Miller's position and all of its expectations. Matching those pre-injury goals now seems like a long shot, but to ignore OSU's ability to nonetheless win the Big Ten, charge toward an undefeated season and earn a spot in the playoff would ignore all that this team can achieve despite an unprecedented setback.

But let's touch on where OSU comes up lacking in comparison to the rest of the nation's elite. The first issue is the offensive line, which breaks in four full-time starters – though a few have past starting experience – and has to settle two ongoing competitions along the interior. The unit has a terrific position coach, but the line will need time to develop in advance of the heart of conference play. The second issue is the secondary and this pass defense, which will improve under Ash's tutelage but needs to take two steps forward to merely move toward the national average. Then there's quarterback, obviously, and Barrett simply lacks Miller's ability to make something out of nothing – let alone carry the offense on his own two shoulders, so Meyer and Herman face the biggest test of their turns in Columbus.

OSU can still have a special season. Maybe not special, in the sense that the year ends in Dallas; it can still be special, with a young and underclassmen-heavy roster battling against the stumbling blocks to end the season bruised and beaten yet atop the Big Ten. Without any question, this team's wealth of skill talent, amazing defensive front, speed along the back seven and ever-increasing depth makes it one of the two best teams in the conference. It's not going to be easy; it's going to be hard, in fact, and it's going to take everything OSU has in the tank. It can be done: Ohio State can still do this. It'll just be exponentially harder today than it seemed earlier this week.

Dream season: Even without Miller, the Buckeyes cruise through the Big Ten, win the conference title game and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Nightmare season: Ohio State goes 8-4, losing to Virginia Tech, Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 10? This program is 136-39-3 since 1980 in the seasons after winning its bowl game.

RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014

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