NCF Nation: Ohio State Buckeyes
“[Competition] is great,” Meyer said on Monday. “If you have bad players, then it’s a problem. If you have really good players and they’re just battling, battling, battling, that’s kind of normal at this time of year.”
Those battles started in March, and now they’re on the brink of spilling over into September with neither Billy Price nor Joel Hale pulling ahead at left guard or Jacoby Boren or Alabama transfer Chad Lindsay solidifying themselves as the anchor in the middle.
The Buckeyes only have one full-time starter returning on the line in the first place, and even with Taylor Decker back at tackle, he’ll be playing in a different spot after lining up on the right side last year. But there continues to be no panic from within the Ohio State camp heading into the opener despite trotting out so many new faces who will be entrusted with keeping a redshirt freshman quarterback protected as well as opening holes for a new starting running back.
“I’m not at all concerned with it because I’ve seen how everybody who has been in there has performed through practice,” Decker said. “When coach knows, he’ll know and he’ll put forth who is going to be the starters. I have no concern at all, because I know whoever is going to be in there is going to get it done.
“There’s one thing, we’re going to have to develop some cohesiveness once we know who is where. But there’s just been high energy [in practice] because there are guys competing for spots. High energy, up tempo, everybody is going hard. That’s going to help prepare us well for games.”
The first of them is finally here, but it’s still hard to tell exactly who is going to be where in front of Barrett. But no matter who winds up on the field for the Buckeyes, there’s no uncertainty about the top responsibility for staying there.
“Braxton made a lot of bad plays right with his athleticism,” Meyer said. “J.T. certainly has the ability to do that as well, maybe not as dynamic as Braxton, but everybody just has to go a little bit harder, be that much more sound and step up and protect our guy.
“They’ve stepped up very well. It’s a very good group of players, very good group of people.”
The issue for Ohio State continues to be figuring out the best way to arrange them.
Obviously the quarterback was no slouch on the field, and his individual numbers and piles of wins while leading Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, were what really drew the spotlight on him as he emerged into a recruit worth chasing for Ohio State.
“It was always the pregame speech,” said Jim Garfield, Barrett's coach at Rider. “We would always come in before warmups and J.T. would have free rein. Really I can’t focus on just one that stands out, because it was throughout his career, and he was doing that for us since his sophomore year.
“Everything he says was like gold.”
The Buckeyes will likely need more than just a golden voice to replace two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller. But as far as first impressions go, Barrett may have a head start thanks to his confidence as a speaker and a knack for motivating his teammates.
While the Buckeyes haven’t yet heard him in a game or seen what he can do on the field for a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, they’ve had the better part of a year to get used to him in Miller’s place on the practice field and also had plenty of time during his redshirt season to learn how Barrett carries himself. And to a man, the entire program has come away raving about his leadership skills, maturity -- and when it’s time to stop talking, his physical tools.
“He’s got a great voice in the huddle,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “He’ll pick guys up and he just displays confidence in himself, which is good to see.
“He’s become the face of our program, basically overnight. He’s definitely coming along with that voice, that leadership role, which is good to see. But other than that, he’s always gone about his business and handled himself well. I’m not worried about that at all. ... There’s just something about him.”
That realization may not come for everybody around Barrett at exactly the same time, but the opinion might as well be universally shared ahead of his first start on Saturday against Navy.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has long praised Barrett’s work ethic, but his interest on the recruiting trail was really piqued by the consistent feedback he received about his desire to compete against the best competition. That’s been reinforced by the way he dove into what was initially a battle to back up Miller, which he won over Cardale Jones just two days before a season-ending injury earned him a promotion to the top gig.
Wide receiver Evan Spencer pointed to Barrett’s ability to motivate, stressing that Ohio State would be “way more than all right” after hearing him boost up the offense with his encouragement during rough patches in training camp.
And while Garfield was sold early on, his belief was truly cemented during Barrett’s junior year when Rider was facing its own adversity as it trailed Abilene Cooper 28-0 in the third quarter.
“We ended up winning it, and it was because of J.T.’s motivation,” Garfield said. “He called the guys up and in his words, he just basically said we’ve got to get this done. He had everybody up, everybody’s attention -- I’m talking like defensive linemen and things like that. Everybody was drawn to him.
“When he started to speak, everybody sat up and listened.”
Barrett has a new audience now, and the Buckeyes are all ears.
Brian Bennett: Minnesota wins back a long-lost trophy
The Gophers have won the Little Brown Jug game against Michigan only once (2005) since 1986 and have lost 10 straight Paul Bunyan's Axe games to Wisconsin. Jerry Kill's team reverses one of those trends this season, even though both games are on the road. Watch out for the Sept. 27 game at the Big House in particular.
This is predicated on equal parts opportunity and ability. Michigan's Devin Funchess appears to be sticking outside, so that means the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year Award will be heading elsewhere this season. Tyler Kroft (Rutgers) has tougher defenses to deal with this season, Maxx Williams (Minnesota) has a quarterback more geared toward the run and Jeff Heuerman (Ohio State) is dealing with a rookie signal-caller. But James? Well, he has one of the Big Ten's best in Christian Hackenberg, who just so happens to be looking to replace the 97 catches from Allen Robinson, who was last year's Big Ten receiver of the year before heading to the NFL. James stands 6-foot-7, runs in the 4.6s and has been lauded for his hands. Put simply, he's a freak.
Adam Rittenberg: Tevin Coleman leads the Big Ten in rushing
Coleman isn’t part of the national discussion like fellow Big Ten backs Melvin Gordon and Ameer Abdullah, but people will know his name come November. The Indiana junior is explosive like Gordon, averaging 7.3 yards per carry last season and tying for the national lead with eight rushes of 40 yards or more, while playing in only nine games. If Coleman can stay healthy, he will put up monster numbers playing behind of the nation’s most underrated lines. He might not win Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but he’ll be the first IU player to lead the league in rushing since Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.
Mitch Sherman: Indiana is going to make it back to a bowl game
It’s been too rare an occasion in Bloomington for football season to extend into December. The Hoosiers’ 2007 visit to the Insight Bowl marks the program’s lone postseason appearance in the past two decades. Kevin Wilson’s club possesses plenty of firepower -- led by the dynamic trio of Coleman, Nate Sudfeld and Shane Wynn -- and just enough defense to forge a .500 record. It’s no simple task to find six wins on this schedule, but Indiana will sweep the Big Ten’s new duo and beat Purdue on Nov. 29 to secure that elusive bowl bid.
Austin Ward: Half the league will have a 3,000-yard quarterback
The Big Ten might be better known for its running backs, and it certainly has had some well-documented issues recently at the game’s most important position. Even a year ago only one passer in the conference topped 3,000 yards, and Nathan Scheelhaase isn't even in the Big Ten anymore. But passing games leaguewide are poised to make a big jump, starting with Scheelhaase’s replacement at Illinois, Wes Lunt, and including Penn State’s Hackenberg, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Indiana’s Sudfeld and Michigan State’s Connor Cook. If Iowa’s Jake Rudock continues his improvement and J.T. Barrett keeps the Ohio State attack rolling in place of Braxton Miller, at least half the Big Ten could have passers hitting that yardage milestone.
"It's what I would describe as a fresh start," Delany told ESPN.com on Monday morning. "It's going to be what happens on the field, what happens as the [playoff selection] committee evaluates teams.
"It's much more of a new day than an old day in a sense that the old polls, the old computers are things people can look at, but the tendency is going to be for the committee to look at things in a new way, in a novel way."
If the committee members let recent performance or conference perception enter their minds, the Big Ten will be in trouble. Big Ten fans hate hearing this, but when a league hasn't won a national championship since 2002 and just two Rose Bowls since 2000, its reputation takes a beating.
The playoff decision, if done right, will be about what happens from Thursday night until Selection Sunday on Dec. 7. According to college football playoff executive director Bill Hancock, committee members have been told to "discredit" potential influences like the preseason polls. Hallelujah.
"There's somewhat of a clean slate," Delany said.
It gives the Big Ten the perfect opportunity to change the narrative, beginning with this week's games. No conference needs a stronger start than the Big Ten, which not only has chances to compete with the elite (Michigan State-Oregon, Wisconsin-LSU) but several other games (Virginia Tech-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska, Iowa-Pitt, Utah-Michigan) where it must hold serve.
The goal for the Big Ten is to perform well enough that conference games become résumé-boosters for the playoff rather than overlooked contests in an also-ran league. How many SEC teams have played weak or so-so nonleague schedules but received enough credit for their league wins to make the national title game? That's a luxury the Big Ten wants, and one that must be earned in the coming weeks.
Take the Ohio State-Michigan State game, for example. A Buckeyes win that night means a lot more if it comes against an MSU team that stunned Oregon in Eugene. A Spartans win carries more weight if it comes against an undefeated Ohio State squad that is handling Braxton Miller's absence well. If both teams struggle in nonleague play, the game likely falls off the national radar.
Unfortunately, the Big Ten lacks many premier division crossover games this season. Top West Division contenders Wisconsin and Iowa don't play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State. Nebraska, another threat in the West, only plays Michigan State. It's why the Big Ten needs surprise teams to rise up early in the season. Then there will be more league games the committee must monitor.
Michigan beating Notre Dame and Utah could help, especially if those teams go on to good seasons. The same holds true for Penn State beating UCF, Minnesota beating TCU, Maryland handling West Virginia and Syracuse, and Rutgers and Illinois winning in Seattle (against Washington State and Washington, respectively). It's all connected.
"You only have four nonconference games, and a lot of them are against opponents you're not going to get any credit [for beating]," Delany said. "You have a number of big games. If you do well, you're going to have people recognize you. If you don't, they're going to look at those who do do well. It's important."
One early game that will get much more attention than it would have weeks ago is Saturday's meeting between Ohio State and Navy. Buckeyes redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett will make his collegiate debut, filling Miller's massive shoes.
The Miller injury sparked the standard gloom-and-doom about Ohio State's season outlook, but it also spilled over to the Big Ten. If Ohio State couldn't make the playoff, many concurred, the Big Ten was toast, too.
To that, Delany passes out SPF 15 and Ray-Bans.
"Braxton's a great player, a Heisman Trophy hopeful," he said. "Big loss for Ohio State, but to equate it to a conference is probably 'the sky is falling' -- not a lot of perspective. I can't spin it that it doesn't have an effect on Ohio State and some effect on the Big Ten, but college sports is replete with young players doing really well, whether it's [Johnny] Manziel or Jameis Winston. It's also replete with people stepping up, teams adjusting. That's the essence of sports.
"There's no assurance that if you have your team intact, you're going to win all your games. There's no assurance if you lose a player, you can't win all your games."
The possibilities are out there for the Big Ten, but to keep the dark clouds away, the league needs a strong opening statement.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman hailed the leadership skills of the redshirt freshman. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off Barrett's positive attributes as a passer, starting with his ability to make the right decisions and consistent accuracy that should allow them to pay off for the Buckeyes. Coach Urban Meyer focused on Barrett's potential as a "distributor," likening him to famed Ohio State backup Kenny Guiton in the process.
But there is one more comparison that has popped up during a wild week at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that might offer another clue about how the Buckeyes might look this season without Braxton Miller running the show, one which the coaching staff mentioned to SI.com's Pete Thamel.
Barrett's smooth release and pretty spiral prompted numerous members of the Buckeyes staff who worked with Meyer at Florida to compare Barrett to former Gators QB Chris Leak. "I'll take that," Meyer said with a smile. "I'm a big Chris Leak fan."
If Barrett is Meyer's latest version of Leak, it stands to reason he might also have a need for somebody to fill the role Tim Tebow played in the two-quarterback system that won Florida a national title in 2006. And, look at that, Ohio State has a 6-foot-5, 250-pound battering ram in Cardale Jones already on the roster.
The conversation about Jones has died down considerably since he left spring practice with the backup job ahead of Barrett, but it's not hard to envision how he could still have an impact for the Buckeyes as they put together a game plan for next week's opener against Navy.
For starters, Meyer has proven adept at managing multiple quarterbacks in his spread system in the past. Even a year ago with Miller in the fold, Meyer expressed his desire to find a way to get Guiton more involved and eventually installed a package of plays in the red zone that featured his backup quarterback.
One problem with using them both more often, aside from Miller's athleticism clearly setting him apart, was Meyer's two options behind center had similar skill sets. But that isn't really the case with Barrett and Jones, with the former four inches smaller and relying on an accurate arm, and the latter boasting a powerful-but-inconsistent arm but capable of pounding away at opponents regularly on the ground.
When asked on Wednesday, Meyer didn't rule out playing both quarterbacks as he tries to replace Miller's production, though he didn't provide any insight into how that rotation might work.
But even with Meyer simply saying "sure, yeah," looking at his past and the talent on hand, it's not a stretch to think some sort of quarterback combo could be back in his playbook -- if it isn't already there.
Playing quarterback at Ohio State already comes with high enough expectations. But when a backup has an up-close view of a record-setting, award-winning starter, that pressure to perform has the potential to become an even bigger burden.
The key, at least according to the guy who turned his gig as Braxton Miller's understudy into the role of a lifetime, is to channel all that energy into preparation. It's fine to appreciate Miller's speed, his elusiveness outside of the pocket and the deep touchdown bombs he throws when on the sideline. But if and when a time comes where the roles are reversed, Miller's play can't be on the mind of anybody hoping to pick up where the Buckeyes left off.
"It definitely is more pressure," Guiton, who spent the season playing for the LA Kiss in the Arena Football League, said by phone on Wednesday. "You're backing up a guy who is a Heisman hopeful, a guy that has all the awards and everything, and that's something that you love, you cherish that.
"I felt blessed because I got to go in for a guy that the world looks at as a Heisman guy, a world-class quarterback. There will be pressure, but if you go into the game not thinking about anything else, focused on his offense, his team, his coaching staff, you'll be just fine."
There's nobody more qualified to pass on that advice than Guiton, who made himself a legend at Ohio State by seamlessly taking over the offense when Miller was injured over the last two seasons. Whether it was just to finish off a drive or two or taking over for nearly three weeks last season and setting a few records of his own, Guiton was an invaluable security blanket for the Buckeyes and a model example for the backup position thanks to his study habits, ability to maximize mental reps without many live snaps and his leadership as a team captain.
In that quarterback meeting room and at times under the wing of Guiton last season was Barrett, a freshman quarterback going through a redshirt year and looking to soak up every bit of information he could. His devotion to learning the playbook has drawn comparisons directly to Guiton for Barrett, and if the latter still needs a few tips heading into his first start, the former remains as ready as ever to help out whenever called upon.
"I just always told the backups, we've got to be ready," Guiton said. "We've got to stay ready because you never know when your number is going to be called, and when it is, you want to be ready.
"I actually got a chance to see him yesterday and he looked pretty excited and ready to go, like there's no pressure on his back. There's going to be pressure on him, but if he comes in to those games having prepared well, not really worried about anything else outside of his offense or his team, he'll do just fine."
In some ways, Barrett will actually be thrown into the fire more prepared than Guiton.
According to Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, Barrett's training camp has included around 300 "competitive throws," attempts that come against a full-strength defense and not the scout team. When Guiton first came off the bench to replace Miller in a game two years ago, Meyer pegged his number of competitive throws at six.
It's a tribute to Guiton that he was able to finish off drives in a hard-fought battle with Michigan State and lead a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback against Purdue to keep the Buckeyes on track for a perfect season in 2012 with so few live snaps in practice. And at the same time, it also suggests that Barrett might truly be in better position to thrive than Ohio State's most famous backup.
"I feel like J.T. is in a great situation," Guiton said. "He's a young guy who has a year of college football and now he's actually getting reps. It's not just mental reps, he's getting real reps. He's actually in there, actually seeing himself on film, and he's in there running it with the ones. I think he's actually in a better position.
"With the reps J.T. is getting in practice, he will be ready. He's getting reps, and as a redshirt freshman, I wish I got those kind of reps and the shot he's getting."
With or without the practice time, Guiton always made the most of his chances behind Miller. Now it's Barrett's turn to try to do the same.
And here they are:
QB: Connor Cook, Michigan State: Braxton Miller's injury opened up this spot on the first team. Penn State's Christian Hackenberg and Indiana's Nate Sudfeld were potential choices here too, but Cook's Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl MVP finish earn him the nod.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Well, sure. He could lead the nation in rushing, unless ...
RB: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: ... Abdullah, his good friend, beats him to it. In a league blessed with great running backs, these two stand out the most.
WR: Stefon Diggs, Maryland: There is a lot of uncertainty in the Big Ten at receiver heading into 2014. This much is certain: If Diggs can stay healthy, he'll be one of the nation's best.
WR: Shane Wynn, Indiana: Wynn scored more touchdowns than any other Big Ten receiver the past season, and now he steps into a more featured role.
TE: Devin Funchess, Michigan: Funchess might play wide receiver almost exclusively, in which case this should be viewed as a third wide receiver spot on the team. The matchup nightmare looks poised for a big season.
OT: Brandon Scherff, Iowa: He might just be the best left tackle in college football in 2014. He's definitely got NFL scouts drooling.
OT: Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin: An enormous road grader at right tackle. Trying to shed him and catch Melvin Gordon is just not fair.
OG: Kaleb Johnson, Rutgers: He thought about leaving for the NFL after the past season but instead gave the Scarlet Knights a boost by returning. He has started 37 straight games.
OG: Kyle Costigan, Wisconsin: He could be the next rising star in Wisconsin's offensive lineman factory.
C: Jack Allen, Michigan State: A second-team All-Big Ten pick the past season, the former high school wrestling champion has no let up in his game.
DE: Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State: He’s the returning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year and could become the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2014, unless ...
DE: Randy Gregory, Nebraska: ... Gregory edges him out for the honor. The pass-rush specialist outpaced Calhoun in sacks (10.5) the past season, and Bo Pelini said Gregory has “only scratched the surface of what he’s going to be down the line.”
DT: Michael Bennett, Ohio State: He anchors the best defensive line in the conference and was named to the All-Big Ten’s second team last season.
DT: Carl Davis, Iowa: He still thinks Scherff would get the best of him if they squared off, but Athlon thought highly enough of Davis to make him a fourth-team preseason All-American.
LB: Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern: The quiet Ariguzo likes to let his play do the talking, and it chatted up a storm this past season -- to the tune of 106 tackles and four interceptions.
LB: Mike Hull, Penn State: He was a coin-flip from transferring to Pittsburgh during the sanctions, but now he’s the leader of this revamped defense.
LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan: Ryan shocked onlookers last season by taking less than seven months to go from ACL surgery to playing in a Big Ten game. Hopes are higher now for the healthy redshirt senior, as he has registered a stop in the backfield in 25 of his past 30 games.
CB: Trae Waynes, Michigan State: He’s taking over at Darqueze Dennard's boundary cornerback position, but he’s up for the challenge. He’s already on the watch lists for the Bednarik and Thorpe awards.
CB: Blake Countess, Michigan: He tied for the Big Ten lead in interceptions (6) the past season -- despite battling lower abdominal pain most of the year.
S: Kurtis Drummond, Michigan State: The blue-collar DB started 21 straight games and was a Sports Illustrated All-American the past season.
S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: A smart and instinctive player, Campbell has been remarkably consistent for the Wildcats. He’s a three-time all-academic B1G player and has eight career interceptions.
K: Michael Geiger, Michigan State: As a freshman in 2013, he made 15 of his 16 field-goal attempts.
P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State: An ESPN.com All-American in 2013, Sadler combines with Geiger to give the Spartans the best 1-2 kicking tandem in the league.
KR: Kenny Bell, Nebraska: He led the Big Ten in return yardage the past season (averaging 26.5 yards per kick) and took one 99 yards for a touchdown at Penn State.
PR: Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa: He averaged 15.7 yards per return in 2013 and scored on two punt returns in the same game.
Selections by school:
Michigan State: 7
Ohio State: 1
Penn State: 1
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.
Tuesday's news that Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller will miss the upcoming season with an injury to his right (throwing) shoulder seriously deflates the Buckeyes' hopes of making the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff. Their national championship aspirations seem all but over -- 11 days before they'll open the season against Navy in Baltimore on Aug. 30.
Miller's injury also puts a serious dent in the Big Ten's chances of having a representative in the playoff. Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, was a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and one of the country's top returning quarterbacks.
Without Miller, the Buckeyes will have a difficult time matching their success in coach Urban Meyer's first two seasons, when they won 24 games in a row before losing to Michigan State 34-24 in the 2013 Big Ten championship game and 40-35 to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Miller, who threw for 2,094 yards with 24 touchdowns and ran for 1,068 yards with 12 more scores, was a tailor-made fit for Meyer's spread offense. Without him, the Buckeyes will probably turn to freshman J.T. Barrett, who has never played in a college game. In fact, Barrett played in only five games as a senior at Rider High School in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 2012 before injuring his knee. He redshirted at OSU last season while recovering from knee surgery.
How valuable was Miller to OSU? When news of his season-ending diagnosis broke on Tuesday, oddsmakers at the Las Vegas Hilton Sportsbook dropped the Buckeyes' odds of winning a national championship from 12-to-1 to 50-to-1. Ouch. There's a reason Las Vegas has so many glitzy buildings; the oddsmakers usually know what they're talking about.
Read the rest of Mark Schlabach's column here.
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.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There was optimism at seemingly every turn.
Braxton Miller pronounced himself 100 percent healthy whenever he was asked over the past two months. Urban Meyer expressed some concern about the volume of his reps, but he never indicated anything was off the schedule the Ohio State coach and his staff had set out for the star quarterback. Even in the hours leading up to a practice that the Buckeyes considered critical in gauging Miller’s rehab, there were no indications from offensive coordinator Tom Herman that anything was wrong.
And although it might be tempting to suggest that Ohio State rushed Miller back and put him in danger of reinjuring his surgically repaired shoulder or to think maybe the Buckeyes knew all along he was more seriously hurt than they let on, there’s nothing to suggest that everybody involved wasn’t doing all he could to have him on track to start on Aug. 30 at Navy.
Fluke injuries happen, and there doesn’t seem to be anything the Buckeyes could have done to prevent the devastating one that struck Miller on Monday and ended his season.
“It’s just the muscle,” Miller had said after the first workout of the two-a-day session, hours before leaving the practice field under the supervision of trainers. “It’s just getting it back, that little muscle around the surgery that I wasn’t using after I had the sling and stuff. Now that I’m back using it on an everyday basis, it just gets sore.
“I was throwing full-go every other day in the summer, so right now it’s practice every day. I can’t throw every day and just blow it out, then it’s sore for the next three days. We’ve just got to take it slow.”
The Buckeyes tried to do that every step of the way after Miller went under the knife in February.
He was held out entirely of spring practice, but Herman adjusted by doubling down on mental reps by attaching a camera and microphone to Miller’s hat and having him call out protections, coverages and reads with where to deliver the football.
He was supposed to ease his way back into throwing a football during the offseason, but the progress was considered so encouraging that Miller breezed through a step that called for him to throw tennis balls in one day, impressing the training staff with his rapid recovery.
By the time Big Ten media days arrived in late July, nobody representing Ohio State, including Miller himself, thought he would miss any time.
But when training camp did arrive, despite all the optimism and repeated mentions of Miller's rehabilitation schedule, there were at least a couple of subtle signs that maybe everything wasn’t as rosy as the Buckeyes were indicating. They never made the exact details of the plan public, but Miller was limited to throwing every other day during the opening weeks of camp. He was always supposed to be limited to largely observing both scrimmages, but his absence still set off alarm bells as the start of the season crept closer without Miller showing he was as healthy on a daily basis as he had claimed to be.
The admission of soreness and Herman’s confirmation on Monday that there was a minor setback added fuel to the fire that everything wasn’t necessarily in full working order, but Ohio State still had no reason to question its approach to getting him back on the field.
“It’s hard for me to speculate,” Herman said after Monday morning's practice. “He is where he is right now not because the shoulder is injured but because the fatigue of multiple practices, practices day after day after day, 50, 60, 70 balls being thrown. The thing is going to get tired. The muscles aren’t ready for that, and we’ve got to continue to build him up.
“I think it’s too early to have that concern [of missing a game]. I think the trainers are optimistic, everything is on schedule. He had a little bit of a setback with some additional soreness that we weren’t expecting, but I’m not ready to say 'concerned' is the right word. Not yet.”
That final caveat was ominous, and Ohio State’s worst fears would soon be realized in the afternoon practice.
Maybe Miller was always going to miss some time and the Buckeyes weren’t prepared to admit it. Or, perhaps more likely, Miller, Meyer, Herman and an experienced training staff were all right when they evaluated his progress on the road back from February.
But either way, it doesn’t matter now. It’s safe to assume that Ohio State did everything it could to get Miller ready for this season, but now it’s over before it even began.
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.
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.
With the news that Ohio State QB Braxton Miller is out for the season with an injury to his throwing shoulder, it’s time to get to know who will be taking snaps for the Buckeyes this fall.
- The redshirt freshman only ascended to the No. 2 spot over the weekend, just in time to be in position to take the reins of the spread offense if Miller's shoulder is seriously damaged. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Barrett has the weakest arm of the three top quarterbacks on the roster, and the coaching staff has had no problem admitting that because he makes up for it with above-average tools everywhere else across the board. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman has praised Barrett since the moment he signed for his cerebral approach to the game, pinpoint accuracy and the sort of athleticism required to run Ohio State's offense even after suffering an ACL injury as a senior in high school. At this point, the Buckeyes elevated Barrett to the backup spot simply because, as Herman said Monday, "the offense moves better when he's in there."
- With his impressive size at 6-5 and 250 pounds, plenty of speed and the ability to overpower defenders as a rusher, Jones looked like the heir apparent in claiming the backup job during spring practice while Miller was on the shelf following surgery. The redshirt sophomore has a rocket for a right arm, but it doesn't always fire in the right direction and inconsistent accuracy has been regularly cited as the biggest hurdle for Jones in the passing game. He has a slight edge in experience with the program after enrolling in January 2012, putting him on campus for the entirety of coach Urban Meyer's tenure with the Buckeyes, but he has attempted only a pair of passes in live action with one completion for 3 yards. He has showed off his mobility during his few chances to play, rushing 17 times for 132 yards with a touchdown.
"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"
So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.
"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"
Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?
I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.
I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.
The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.
Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.
Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.
So, here is the actual data:
It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.
Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.
It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.
Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.
For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.
Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.
It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.
Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.
And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.