To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. All this week, across every Power 5 league, we’re looking at what it takes to reach the top.
In the Big Ten, Michigan State stands at the pinnacle. The Spartans are 36-5 over the past three seasons with two conference titles, a trio of top-10 national finishes and a berth in the College Football Playoff to cap last season. Coach Mark Dantonio’s teams have won with grit and good fortune, with offense and defense and special teams, with continuity on the coaching staff and through development in the program.
Realistically, not every team in the Big Ten is ready to challenge for a spot at the top. For those in position to make the next move, we’re offering an evaluation. Up next is Ohio State.
How they can catch Michigan State: Let’s be clear, the Buckeyes lag behind no team in the Big Ten. They are the gold standard -- the program that has won 50 games over the past four seasons and a national title in 2014. But for the purpose of this exercise, focus on 2015, when Ohio State, as a heavy favorite to roll through the league unscathed, fell 17-14 at home in Week 12 to the Spartans. It was a gutsy performance from MSU, playing without injured QB Connor Cook, and Ohio State allowed it to happen. On that day, Michigan State was more determined and more focused. The Buckeyes, in their title defense, rarely played an inspiring brand of football in the weeks before the loss to Michigan State. After Nov. 21, Ohio State resembled the monster that the pundits envisioned in routing Michigan and Notre Dame. To remain as the Big Ten’s designated alpha dog, Ohio State must find new ways internally to stoke those fires.
What’s standing in their way? Nothing at all. This is the beauty of sitting in Ohio State’s seat. It enjoys every advantage, leading the way in resources, tradition, talent, coaching and whatever categories you’d like to devise. In 2015, only the Buckeyes stood in their way. Culminating with the loss to MSU, Ohio State struggled to play to its ceiling. The inefficiencies often involved the quarterbacks. Consider that Ohio State, before last season, featured three of the most talented QBs nationally. Yet until the final weeks of the season, it did not find the right mix of offensive personnel with J.T. Barrett in command. The Buckeyes finished 46th nationally and sixth in the Big Ten in opponent-adjusted QBR. In the end, Ohio State again relied on a dominant ground game, rushing for a season-best 369 yards against Michigan and 285 against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Finally, it maximized the talent on hand. For the Buckeyes, their position is enviable, but the challenges remain real.
X-factor: It’s Urban Meyer. He always wants it more. That’s no slight on Dantonio or any Big Ten coach. But Meyer’s record -- at Bowling Green, Utah, Florida and with the Buckeyes -- shows that he belongs in a category by himself. Or, at least, alongside Nick Saban. Meyer won’t win every game; he’s lost four times in four years at Ohio State, including twice to Michigan State. But you can bet that 17-14 decision in Columbus, which ultimately derailed the Buckeyes’ bid to repeat as Big Ten and national champion, eats at him during this offseason. When Chris Ash left in December for Rutgers, Meyer replaced his defensive coordinator with Greg Schiano. Meyer reassigned offensive assistant Tim Hinton to a non-coaching spot and put offensive coordinator Ed Warinner into more of an authoritative spot. Then Meyer hired Greg Studrawa, formerly at Maryland and LSU, to coach the offensive line. Meyer will not rest. And under his watch, the Buckeyes will likely never stop moving toward a position of greater strength.