COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ezekiel Elliott and the Ohio State offensive line could make most quarterbacks look good.
For all the headlines generated by the Buckeyes' ability to replace a star quarterback with another star quarterback last season, the development of the running game was every bit as important to Ohio State's national championship season.
No matter if J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones takes snaps for the Buckeyes this season, Elliott could be the focal point of Ohio State's offense. The junior ran for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns last year and enters this season on pretty much every list of Heisman Trophy hopefuls.
At the start of last season, Elliott and an offensive line breaking in four new starters struggled to get rolling. In a September home loss to Virginia Tech, Elliott ran eight times for 32 yards. But when Ohio State turned it on down the stretch, Elliott and the offensive line were dominant.
"Zeke was the exact same player all year, but then the people around him just needed to play better in order for him to really show what he was capable of," tackle Taylor Decker said.
Elliott had 153 yards and two scores at Michigan State, then had three 200-yard games in the postseason. Against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon, Elliott ran for 698 yards and eight touchdowns.
"The key with Zeke is if you can get him to the second level, his skill set at the second level is unbelievable," offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said.
The offensive line now returns four starters, including Decker, who considered entering the NFL draft early before deciding to return to Columbus, and guard Pat Elflein. There might not be a better group of blockers in the country.
"I think we're definitely farther along than we were last year at this point, especially from a chemistry standpoint and an experience standpoint," Decker said. "But I think it would be dangerous to sit there and believe that we're the best."
Elliott does not shy away from praising the guys who make his life easier.
"I think they're going to be the best group on the team because after last year and the experience they gained and how tough they are and how hard they work, I don't see anyone outworking them or anyone being better than them," Elliott said.
The Buckeyes are a safe bet to start the season No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25, which will be released Sunday. Here are some things to know about the team that will try to give coach Urban Meyer his fourth national championship:
ABOUT THOSE QBs
Barrett was the Big Ten player of the year last season, setting a conference record by accounting for 45 touchdowns.
Jones took over when Barrett broke his right ankle against Michigan, leading the Buckeyes to wins against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon. He passed for 742 yards and five touchdowns in that remarkable three-game run.
Meyer has said he won't reveal his starter until the Buckeyes take the field Labor Night at Virginia Tech, but it certainly seems as if he can't go wrong.
Meyer is the only coach in major college history to have three winning streaks of at least 20 games.
His Florida teams won 22 in one stretch. He won 20 straight from the end of his time in Utah to his first season at Florida. He added a 25-game streak that started his last season at Florida and ended during his second season at Ohio State. The Buckeyes enter this season on a 13-game winning streak.
Ohio State will play Virginia Tech without All-American end Joey Bosa and three receivers: Jalin Marshall, Corey Smith and Dontre Wilson. All were suspended for a game for an unspecified violation of team rules, making one of the toughest games on a schedule that is light on marquee matchups even more difficult for the Buckeyes.
MILLER ON THE MOVE
Former Big Ten player of the year Braxton Miller is moving from quarterback to receiver after two shoulder surgeries. Miller will be used as a an H-Back, a role that will have him lining up all over the field and getting the ball on all kinds of pitches, handoffs and passes.
"Just having fun out there," Miller said. "You catch the ball and you're already in the second or third level. All you got to do is make one guy miss and it's off to the races."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at http://www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP