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By Rusty Miller | Associated Press
COLUMBUS -- Hang on. This could be a wild off-season at Ohio State.
Even if, as expected, quarterback Braxton Miller returns for his senior year, coach Urban Meyer will be busy rebuilding a team hit by two defeats to end the season.
"You sometimes have to go through things. I'd rather not, but that's part of (it)," Meyer said in the somber moments after losing 40-34 to Clemson on Friday night. "We played a good team in the Orange Bowl, and it was a high-scoring game with a lot of great plays. We didn't finish it."
That defeat, and a 34-24, streak-busting loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game, just affirmed what many thought: The Buckeyes feasted on inferior teams but would falter against anyone close to as good as them.
Now Meyer has to do some finishing of his own.
He and his staff -- whoever that might be, since many are expecting personnel changes -- will have a busy offseason.
After feeling invincible for two years, the Buckeyes head into a long, cold winter with a two-game losing skid and a pile of question marks.
Up in smoke is the school-record 24-game winning streak that covered the past two regular seasons. Now there is a lot of hard work to be done, to not only make the Buckeyes better but to restore some faith in the program.
Meyer & Co. must completely plug a leaky defense, replace most of the offensive line, find a new go-to tailback and wide-out and develop new leaders.
All signs point to Miller, a three-year starter, returning for his final season in scarlet and gray. With proven backup Kenny Guiton graduating, Miller's return buys some time for the coaches to develop redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett.
Asked earlier in the season what he would gain from sticking around Ohio State for another season, Miller said, "Just learning from (Meyer). Get better at my craft. And graduate, too."
Whoever is calling the signals, his job will be made substantially harder by the graduation of four-fifths of the line.
"I know people talk a lot about us leaving and the shape of the offensive line, but I'm not worried," said one of those four departing seniors, Jack Mewhort. "I know there's a lot of hard workers in there and a lot of guys who are going to be very good players in the future."
Ohio State also must find replacements for durable back Carlos Hyde, who gained 1,527 yards and scored 15 touchdowns this season, and wide-out Corey Brown, who led the way with 63 receptions for 771 yards and 10 scores.
Freshmen Ezekiel Elliott and Dontre Wilson are the top candidates to replace Hyde, while Devin Smith and Evan Spencer provide solid options at receiver.
But all of that is secondary to the 500-pound gorilla on the Buckeyes' list of problems.
The defense was obliterated in the final three games. In a 42-41 win at Michigan and the losses to No. 10 Michigan State and No. 12 Clemson, it gave up an average of 38 points, 26 first downs, 161 yards rushing, 378 yards passing and 539 yards of total offense per game.
Then subtract from that unit perhaps its three best players: All-American linebacker Ryan Shazier (leaving a year early), and senior safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant (who missed the second half of the year with a broken ankle).
The line will be led by Joey Bosa, a freshman who got better as the season progressed.
"There's some future NFL players in that group," Meyer said of the line, which also includes Joel Hale, Michael Bennett, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.
Joshua Perry and the enigmatic Curtis Grant return at linebacker. Don't be surprised if Raekwon McMillan, a renowned recruit out of Georgia, gets a shot at stepping in right away.
The secondary will be rebuilt around cornerback Doran Grant and a couple of guys who made big contributions in their first year, Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell.
After the Orange Bowl loss, Meyer was asked how the team was handling another setback.
"It's going to sting for a while, probably a long while," he said. "So we've just got to go out and recruit our tails off, got to develop players and work real hard with schemes -- and we'll get there."