COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State coach Urban Meyer isn't ruling out that it may eventually take two quarterbacks to fill one spot.
But as the Buckeyes start digging into the game plan for their opener now that Braxton Miller officially will miss the coming season, they are planning on redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett stepping into the considerable shoes of the two-time defending Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at the start.
"J.T. has had about 300 competitive throws -- not snaps, throws -- this fall," Meyer said after practice Wednesday. "Where when [former backup] Kenny Guiton went into the game a couple years ago, I think he had six. He's had a bunch, and he's a meticulous guy, and Cardale [Jones] has come a long way, as well.
"Quarterback is an important cog, but that's exactly what is -- a cog. It's not the team."
Miller was undoubtedly the centerpiece of a team that was projected as a playoff contender, and replacing his prolific production is no small task. Barrett, though, has been widely praised for his accuracy, his attention to detail off the field and enough athleticism to continue to give the Buckeyes a rushing threat at quarterback even without Miller in the fold.
This year the Big Ten welcomes Maryland and Rutgers and says goodbye to the Legends and Leaders divisions in favor of the more traditional East and West. On paper, the East looks much, much stronger, but many longtime followers of the conference (including myself) are happy that the Big Ten put both Ohio State and Michigan in the same division, avoiding a possible back-to-back rematch in the Big Ten title game.
Due to some advantageous conference scheduling, which sees many of the top teams avoiding one another in cross-division play, the Big Ten has six or seven teams capable of finishing in the Top 25, with two (Michigan State and Wisconsin) having legitimate shots at getting to the first College Football Playoff. While I still think the Buckeyes will be competitive, I just don't see them contending for a national title without quarterback Braxton Miller.
Here are my 2014 projected Big Ten standings:
Big Ten East
Projected record: 11-1
Early lines on toughest games: at Oregon (plus-14), Ohio State (minus-4)
Michigan State returns seven starters on offense, led by QB Connor Cook and RB Jeremy Langford, while the defense must replace six starters, including three All-Americans. But defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who's on my preseason All-America list, returns and, most importantly, so does defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi.
While I do have the Spartans listed as a two-TD underdog at Oregon in Week 2, Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska all have to travel to East Lansing. I have MSU favored in every Big Ten game, as the Spartans are now the clear league favorites with Miller out for the Buckeyes.
News of Braxton Miller's season-ending injury at Ohio State is dominating the headlines. But the Buckeyes won't be the last Big Ten team this year to go in search of an alternate plan at QB. Last year, 10 of the current 14 teams in the league used at least two starters at the position.
Here's a ranking of Big Ten teams most equipped to handle an injury to their top quarterback:
- Wisconsin: Junior Joel Stave and senior Tanner McEvoy remain locked in a race for the job, and both are likely to play. Stave, who has started 19 games, remains the favorite, though McEvoy, a safety last year, adds a running threat for the Badgers.
- Maryland: Junior Caleb Rowe, the backup to sixth-year senior C.J. Brown, has a strong arm and four games of starting experience from last October. Rowe improved during that month and regularly gets time in practice with the first-team offense.
- Iowa: Sophomore C.J. Beathard played meaningful snaps alongside Jake Rudock a year ago. Beathard will get opportunities again. And if the Hawkeyes need him full time, it's far from a disaster.
- Illinois: Transfer Wes Lunt appears in control of the race, with the Illini set to name a starter on Wednesday. Senior Reilly O'Toole has shown a capable arm, and sophomore Aaron Bailey has good size and running ability.
- Michigan: Devin Gardner missed the bowl game last year, giving the Wolverines a glimpse of Shane Morris. That experience in a 31-14 loss to Kansas State aided Morris in getting prepared for his sophomore season.
- Purdue: Returning starter Danny Etling won a legitimate competition this week over fellow sophomore Austin Appleby, who expects to keep pushing. If the Boilermakers need to use their depth, another to watch is touted freshman David Blough, on track now to redshirt.
- Ohio State: It's time to find out. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is known for his steady hand, accuracy and decent athleticism. Sophomore Cardale Jones, next in line, is a big body who could be used more than Barrett as a running threat.
- Michigan State: Sophomore Tyler O'Connor and redshirt freshman Damion Terry have conducted a spirited battle this month, with O'Connor remaining ahead in the race to back up Connor Cook. If a replacement is needed, both options would likely receive consideration.
- Nebraska: Behind Tommy Armstrong Jr., who started seven games as a replacement a year ago, the Huskers have no experience. Sophomore walk-on Ryker Fyfe owns the edge over redshirt freshman Johnny Stanton, a former elite recruit.
- Penn State: Newcomers Michael O'Connor and Trace McSorley have adjusted well to life behind Christian Hackenberg. O'Connor is bigger and practiced with the Nittany Lions in the spring, so he's probably the first option if a backup is needed.
- Northwestern: Unlike a year ago, Trevor Siemian is the clear starter. Behind him, junior Zack Oliver and redshirt freshman Matt Alviti have waged a competition. Alviti brings a dual-theat similar in the mold of ex-Wildcat Kain Colter.
- Minnesota: Redshirt freshman Chris Streveler has emerged as the top backup to Mitch Leidner. The Gophers tinkered with Streveler at receiver last year before the transfer of Philip Nelson, so athleticism is a plus. But Streveler's inexperience is a concern.
- Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights need Gary Nova and his vast experience in this transition to the Big Ten. Backups Mike Bimonte, a junior, and freshman Chris Laviano possess good size, but neither QB has played a down in college.
- Indiana: The Hoosiers have no experience behind incumbent Nate Sudfeld. Walk-on sophomore Nate Boudreau has taken most of the snaps at No. 2, though true freshmen Zander Diamont or Danny Cameron might be given a closer look if Sudfeld misses time.
- Barrett, Ohio State's new top quarterback, will answer the call, according to his high school coach. Meanwhile, Miller's potential return in 2015 could help the Buckeyes with a top QB prospect. And the injury serves as a blow to the entire Big Ten.
- Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was in midseason form for a scrimmage this week.
- Michigan looks set to start true freshman Mason Cole at left tackle, a sure sign of the urgency to upgrade the offensive line.
- What Miller's injury means to Penn State.
- Indiana's 3-4 defense features a versatile group of linebackers.
- Maryland is one of the first schools to announce that it will honor all scholarships until graduation.
- Helmet cameras offer a new perspective at Rutgers.
- Maxx Williams might be the next great Gopher tight end.
- Northwestern looks for contributions from four freshmen.
- Answering questions about Illinois.
- Purdue's Appleby remains confident in role as backup.
- Tackle Rob Havenstein is the unchallenged leader of the Wisconsin offense.
- Dreaming of what might be at stake as Iowa hosts Nebraska on the day after Thanksgiving.
- Nebraska's Fyfe makes a strong move to earn a scholarship.
- A Penn State tradition is gone.
To that, I say let's all slow down for just a bit. Some key counterpoints to consider:
2. Ohio State isn't suddenly going to turn into a 6-6 pumpkin. There is still a ton of talent on this team. I watched an entire practice this spring in which Miller did not participate. I was still blown away by the speed and athleticism on the roster. Are the Buckeyes a top 10 team now? Maybe not. But they will still be, at the very least, a top 20 club. They're probably not a playoff team, but beating Ohio State won't be a meaningless win for other Big Ten teams, either.
3. There is more than one team in the Big Ten. Sure, the Buckeyes have been the league's flag-bearer for most of this century and have more national credibility than any other conference program. But don't forget the Buckeyes haven't won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009. There is no guarantee they would have claimed one this year, either, as Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska are all legit title contenders.
4. Let's go back to Michigan State here. The Spartans proved themselves as elite the past year, as they finished No. 3 in the final polls and beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Mark Dantonio's team goes to Oregon in Week 2 in a game that could define their season. If the Spartans win there, assuming Oregon goes on to have a very strong season, they will be formidable playoff contenders no matter what else is going on in the Big Ten. Even if, say, they lost to the Ducks by a field goal, going undefeated the rest of the way should be enough to get Michigan State into the field of four.
5. Let's say another team from the West -- such as Iowa or Wisconsin, should the Badgers beat LSU in the opener -- runs the table. Don't you think a Big Ten championship game featuring the Spartans and an undefeated West team would get the attention of the selection committee? Iowa and Nebraska probably need a zero in the loss column, while Michigan State and Wisconsin could afford a setback, given their marquee nonconference opposition. And, hey, who's to say Ohio State doesn't go 12-0 again, even without Miller? Urban Meyer has yet to lose a regular season game in Columbus, after all.
The bottom line is there are far too many variables -- including what goes on in the other Power 5 conferences -- to count the Big Ten out at this early date. The path to Pasadena (or, less likely, New Orleans) certainly got a lot bumpier with the loss of the league's best player. But the road hasn't been closed yet.
Wait a minute, Michigan State Spartans fans.
Hang on a second, Virginia Tech Hokies.
Braxton Miller's season-ending injury wasn't good for anyone. Not the Ohio State Buckeyes. Not the Big Ten. And not the inaugural College Football Playoff -- or any of Ohio State's opponents trying to get there.
Put simply: Beating a ranked Ohio State team led by a Heisman contending, veteran quarterback would carry more weight in the eyes of the 13-member playoff committee than a win against a 9-3 team led by a rookie quarterback who hasn't played in two years. (This is all assuming, of course, that J.T. Barrett will play like the redshirt rookie he is.) If Ohio State is now weaker -- a logical assumption following the injury to one of the nation's best quarterbacks -- then its opponents' strength of schedule just got weaker, too.
And so did the Big Ten.
In spite of Michigan State's ascension (not to mention its 2013 win against the Buckeyes), the Big Ten has still been measured by Ohio State in the court of public opinion. The Buckeyes had two things going for them this season: Miller and arguably the best defensive line in the country. Even with having to replace four starters on the offensive line, there was enough confidence in Urban Meyer's recruiting to consider the Buckeyes a true contender for the playoff. Now, Michigan State clearly has more answers and should be the clear-cut favorite to win the East Division, but would a win against Oregon in Week 2 be enough to propel the Spartans into the playoff?
Not if the selection committee shares the public's perception of the Big Ten, which has lost 25 of its past 33 games against ranked, power conference competition and Notre Dame. The Big Ten hasn't played for a national title since Ohio State's last appearance in 2007. As a Power Five conference, the Big Ten has been playing catch-up to the SEC (like everyone else), the Pac-12 and even the ACC, which finally raised its profile with Florida State's national title.
Virginia Tech's schedule, though, looks like a cotton ball with the exception of their visit to Ohio State in Week 2. With North Carolina the only other ranked opponent on the schedule, and seven home games, the Hokies could be one of the country's most deceiving teams come November. A road win against a full-strength Ohio State team would have shocked the country and propelled the Hokies into the playoff conversation.
Now? Strength of schedule will be called into question, but Virginia Tech isn't alone.
Should Michigan State win the East and play in the Big Ten title game, it's debatable whether a win against the West Division winner would do much to further impress the committee. The East is the stronger and more compelling race, as three teams in the West had losing records last season (Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois), and Nebraska was the only team to win its bowl game.
Fair or not, Ohio State was entering this season carrying the banner for the entire conference once again. The Buckeyes certainly aren't doomed -- there are plenty of rookie quarterback success stories for a blueprint, and Barrett could easily join them. The big picture, though, has certainly changed. After what was easily the most impactful playoff news of the summer, the Buckeyes aren't the only ones who have lost.
Meyer On 'Devestating' Miller Injury
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
7:00 PM ET Eastern Illinois Minnesota 10:00 PM ET Rutgers Washington State
8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF 12:00 PM ET Youngstown State Illinois 12:00 PM ET Indiana State Indiana 12:00 PM ET Northern Iowa Iowa 12:00 PM ET Appalachian State Michigan 12:00 PM ET 5 Ohio State Navy 12:00 PM ET Western Michigan Purdue 3:30 PM ET James Madison Maryland 3:30 PM ET Florida Atlantic 22 Nebraska 3:30 PM ET California Northwestern 9:00 PM ET 14 Wisconsin 13 LSU