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Miller injury upends entire Big Ten

8/19/2014

Winning championships in college football no longer requires having an experienced quarterback.

Last year's BCS national title game featured a pair of teams who started a redshirt freshman (Florida State's Jameis Winston) and a junior-college transfer (Auburn's Nick Marshall) under center. Notre Dame made it to the title game the year before with a redshirt freshman quarterback (Everett Golson). Michigan State won the Big Ten and the Rose Bowl last season with a first-year starting quarterback (though Connor Cook did get some valuable experience in the bowl game the previous season). Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman, just as Winston did.

That's a long-winded way of saying that Ohio State's 2014 season is not over simply because Braxton Miller is out for the year after re-injuring his throwing shoulder.

Who knows? Maybe J.T. Barrett, Ohio State's new starting quarterback, will surprise us all.

Yet that unknown is also why the entire 2014 Big Ten race has been flipped on its head after Miller's unfortunate injury. All the Las Vegas sports books and virtually every preseason prognostication hailed the Buckeyes as the league favorite based primarily on two reasons: 1) the vast potential of Ohio State's young, blue-chip talent, and 2) the presence of Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year.

Now, virtually Urban Meyer's entire team, outside of its star-studded defensive line, is made up of question marks. Remember that Ohio State was already replacing four-fifths of its starting offensive line this season, a situation seemingly made less worrisome because of Miller's ability to improvise out of the pocket. We think Ezekiel Elliott and several of the young skill players will be terrific, but there is no proven safety net along the lines of Carlos Hyde and Philly Brown. Questions also exist in the defensive back seven.

Because of all those young players in key spots, I was never quite as high on the Buckeyes as some national experts were. I thought Michigan State was just as deserving of the favorite's role, given that the Spartans beat Ohio State in last season's league title game and get to host the Buckeyes in East Lansing on Nov. 8. Now, Michigan State becomes the clear preseason favorite, in my view.

Other teams, including Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska in the West and even Michigan and Maryland in the East, have to feel slightly better today about their chances of winning the conference championship.

Still, there's no doubt that a weakened Ohio State could hurt the entire Big Ten. Fairly or not, the Buckeyes have often been viewed as the standard-bearer for the league, and they were considered prime College Football Playoff contenders for 2014. The league already faces an uphill fight against its national perception problems, and Miller's injury raises the specter of critics dismissing the Big Ten champ as a team that merely took advantage of Ohio State's problems. If the Buckeyes are not a strong, top 10 type of team, then that could take away credibility for Michigan State even if the Spartans do beat Meyer's team in East Lansing.

It's not quite as bad as 2012, when Ohio State went 12-0 on probation and a 7-5 Wisconsin team claimed the Big Ten title. But Miller's injury clearly creates an impact beyond Columbus.

Don't expect the Buckeyes to collapse -- at least by their lofty standards -- as they did in 2011, when the tattoo scandal prompted the firing of coach Jim Tressel and the departure of quarterback Terrelle Pryor in the offseason. This team remains supremely talented, blessed with arguably more speed and athleticism than Meyer had in his first two years (when he went a mere 24-2). If Barrett can work through his growing pains in some early-season tests, including Navy in the opener and Virginia Tech in Week 2, Ohio State could still roll through the first half of its schedule. Presumably, a battle-tested Barrett would then be far more ready to take on second-half challenges at Penn State, at Michigan State and against Michigan.

But the key is that these are all hypothetical propositions, and Ohio State has no sure things any longer at its most important position. Because of that, the entire Big Ten looks a lot different than it did 24 hours ago.