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Ohio State can't rest on its laurels after winning College Football Playoff national championship

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and Cardale

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and Cardale Jones celebrate after the College Football Playoff Championship Game against Oregon Monday, Jan. 12, 2015, in Arlington, Texas. Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

At first glance, Ohio State seems to have a fairly easy road back to the College Football Playoff. The defending national champs, who open their season Monday night at Virginia Tech, only play one team ranked in the AP preseason top 25 and are tied for the 42nd-toughest strength of schedule in 2015.

But college football analysts are pointing to one opponent the Buckeyes will have to overcome, even if that foe doesn't appear on their schedule.

"To me, their biggest opponent is looking in the mirror and not losing their edge, not losing their motivation," ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit said last week during a call to promote Allstate's It's Good sweepstakes.

It seemed last year that people had counted the Buckeyes out early after then-quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending torn labrum in the preseason. Their other two QB options -- J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones -- were both unproven at the time.

"Everybody kept saying, 'They can't win this game,' or 'They can't win that game,'" Herbstreit said.

A year (and a national championship) later, the Buckeyes have an embarrassment of riches under center -- and that's even after Miller switched to an H-back role. Barrett put up single-season school records and was a serious Heisman contender before a fractured ankle in the regular-season finale, and Jones led the team the rest of the way to the title.

"They won a championship basically a year ahead of schedule," Rece Davis, ESPN College GameDay host, said during a call to promote the CapitalOne Cup. "I think they thought they would be perfectly positioned in 2015 to reach the finals. Instead, they won in 2014."

The Buckeyes return 15 starters from last season but will be without four players -- All-American DE Joey Bosa, H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson, and receiver Corey Smith -- for the opener while they all serve one-game suspensions for violations of athletic department policy.

In the meantime, Barrett and Jones have been battling all spring and summer for the starting quarterback job. That leads to the question that has flooded the college football airwaves: who will start Monday night's season-opener?

Not even ESPN's analysts can agree on the answer.

Davis thinks Barrett will get the start but thinks that "both will play, and probably both will play a significant number of snaps."

Herbstreit, himself a former Buckeyes quarterback, agreed with Davis that Barrett would start, but he believes they should stick with one guy for the foreseeable future because their skill sets are so similar.

"In 2006, Urban Meyer had Chris Leak, who was kind of the every-down quarterback, and then he'd bring in a true freshman named Tim Tebow, and he'd come in as kind of the 'Robocop' big bruiser in short yardage and goal line," he said. "So that made some sense. But in this case, the offense is almost exactly the same when both of these guys are in there."

Jesse Palmer had a different view.

While he thinks that "you can't go wrong with either one, " the former Florida quarterback predicted that Jones would get the start, noting that "he gives them a decided advantage on third down, in short yardage, in the red zone."

But he, like Herbstreit, thinks Ohio State should stick to its choice.

"You don't want either guy looking over his shoulder," Palmer said during an interview to promote the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team. "If you name a starter, you can't go out against Virginia Tech on Week 1 on a Monday night, then start struggling for a couple of series and bench him. You have to have full confidence that he's the guy."

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