NCF Nation: Braxton Miller

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Urban Meyer seemed to be guarding a secret, and it couldn’t be deciphered by reading between the lines.

The Ohio State coach joked about being a little bored by his spring game, expressed some frustration about the lack of offensive execution and stressed that there was plenty of work to do at a few key positions heading into the offseason.

But the truth about how good his third team at Ohio State might be was tucked away on the sidelines, leaving little to truly evaluate between them as the Gray beat the Scarlet 17-7 on Saturday at the Horseshoe. And based on the number of players he held out of the spring-closing scrimmage, it might be a safe bet that Meyer is actually feeling pretty good about what he has returning in the fall.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe spring game didn't say much about Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. And he seems fine with that.
“There were guys out there who will either never play or they’re not ready to play now,” Meyer said. “Like, [Ohio State sports information director] Jerry [Emig] hands me stats, I’m not sure what to do with these. I don’t care.

“... We all know what we saw out there. It’s not the Ohio State Buckeyes.”

Exhibition games rarely provide much of a reliable gauge for how good a team might truly be, and in the case of the Buckeyes, that might have been by design.

Braxton Miller was already on the shelf as he finishes up his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery. Having the two-time defending Big Ten player of the year and a three-year starter at quarterback out of the equation obviously changes the complexion of the Ohio State offense. Cardale Jones was productive enough throughout camp to win the backup job, but his 14-of-31 passing performance Saturday was yet another reminder of the importance of having a healthy Miller to lead the attack.

Meyer indicated there was some uncertainty about his receiving corps after the spring game, but he had enough faith in Devin Smith and Dontre Wilson that he didn’t feel the need to press either of them into action over the weekend -- aside from a cameo appearance by the latter in a race against students at halftime.

And after watching what could be one of the most talented defensive lines in the country terrorize a rebuilding offensive line throughout camp over the last month, Meyer certainly didn’t need to see any more from Noah Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett or Adolphus Washington to boost his confidence heading into the summer, adding to the list of starters who effectively were allowed to take the day off.

Cornerback Doran Grant was largely an observer as well, though he did make an appearance to win the halftime derby and became the “fastest student” on campus. Projected first-team guard Pat Elflein was a scratch, and presumptive starting running back Ezekiel Elliott only touched the football three times. Tight end Jeff Heuerman was on crutches after foot surgery, but he’ll be back in time for the conditioning program next month.

So while the game itself left little worth remembering aside from what appeared to be marked improvement and depth in the secondary and another handful of mesmerizing catches from Michael Thomas, there were actually clues littered around Ohio Stadium that Meyer is poised to unleash his most talented team since taking over the program in 2012 and rattling off 24 consecutive wins.

The trick was knowing where to look.

“[The spring game] was a chance to see some young guys [who] really haven’t played, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how much they will play,” Meyer said. “This is a chance for a lot of guys in our program who work very hard, and to be able to get some guys play or catch a pass in Ohio Stadium or whatever, in the big picture it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s a great thrill for a lot of people.”

The real thrills, of course, don’t come for a few months. And based on the amount of players who didn’t get to actually step between the lines on Saturday, Meyer might not-so-secretly have plenty to be excited about by fall.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Stan Drayton isn’t picky about how the job gets done.

The Ohio State running backs coach doesn’t need his next starter to have all the same physical qualities Carlos Hyde brought to the backfield. Drayton doesn’t even care if he needs more than one guy to fill the void Hyde left behind after his final season with the Buckeyes, and he’s not in a hurry to settle on a depth chart or figure out how to distribute carries.

In terms of fitting some sort of ideal mold for a tailback, Drayton has no preference as he sorts through a handful of options with different sizes and strengths. As for the details of how to match Hyde’s wildly productive, staggeringly efficient work on the ground, it doesn’t appear to make any difference to Drayton whether it takes one guy or five, as long as the results are the same.

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Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsBri'onte Dunn, a four-star recruit in the 2012 class, redshirted last season and is squarely in the mix for playing time.
“He has to be replaced,” Drayton said. “This is The Ohio State University, and it’s the next man up. I’m sure if you asked Carlos Hyde, he’d tell you the same thing. It’s the next man up.

“Somebody has to step up and fill the shoes of Carlos Hyde. If it takes more than one guy to do that, I promise you it’s going to get done.”

The Buckeyes certainly weren’t a one-man show on the ground last year, and no matter what happens at running back this spring, they still won’t be in the fall with Braxton Miller and his talented legs returning at quarterback.

But Hyde was far and away the main focus at tailback last season, accounting for more rushing attempts than the rest of Ohio State’s stable of running backs combined despite missing three games to suspension. And now that he’s gone, those 208 carries he had as a senior will have to go somewhere, and the race is already heated as the new candidates scramble to claim them.

Rising sophomore Ezekiel Elliott appears to be first in line after shining in a limited role a season ago, averaging 8.1 yards per carry while showing off his explosive speed and the ability to absorb or inflict punishment with his 225-pound frame.

Rising senior Rod Smith isn’t far behind and is doing everything he can to finally turn his natural talent into production before it’s too late. Sophomore Bri’onte Dunn is coming off a somewhat unexpected redshirt season during his second year at Ohio State and is impressing with his improved grasp of the offense. Warren Ball and early enrollee Curtis Samuel both are squarely in the battle for playing time as well, with the latter turning heads during offseason workouts and potentially becoming an option to play a hybrid role as a rusher and receiver when he gets completely healthy.

So even if the Buckeyes can’t settle on just one guy to fill Hyde’s shoes, they’re clearly not short of options.

“It’s real competitive, and coach Drayton really has us going,” Dunn said. “Everybody wants to play for Ohio State, so we’ll go as hard as we can.

“Carlos was like a big brother to me. He taught me a lot, and by his example last year, it just taught us all a lot. ... Everybody is just going hard and trying to go for the spot. Our mindset is to be the best back in the country.”

Hyde made his case last season, finishing with 1,521 yards, 15 touchdowns and a resume that might make him the first running back selected in the upcoming NFL draft.

But Drayton doesn’t necessarily need one candidate to emerge as the best individual rusher in the country to get what he’s looking for this spring. The only thing that really matters to him is making sure Ohio State has the best backfield, any way he can get it.

“I’m always going to operate under the notion I need at least three [guys],” Drayton said. “I need at least three, and there’s five of them.

“All those guys are in the mix. They’re so competitive, they all bring something different to the table, they all have a different style, different strengths and weaknesses and they can all help this football team. ... I just prefer a guy who is going to be productive, period.”

Drayton might not be picky about how the production comes. But there’s no flexibility about making sure the Buckeyes get it one way or another.

Video: Ohio State focused

March, 4, 2014
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Ohio State coach Urban Meyer discusses his medical procedure to alleviate recent issues with headaches, the lessons he learned from losing the final two games of last season, the health of quarterback Braxton Miller and more.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Whether Braxton Miller was healthy enough to throw a football or not, the first few entries on the spring checklist didn’t require him to do it.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsOhio State QB Braxton Miller will work on the mental side of football this spring.
Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman rattled off the priorities a few days before Miller underwent minor surgery on his throwing shoulder last month. And while there might still be mechanical improvements to be made with his star quarterback, they were almost an afterthought as the two set the course for his last season with the program.

Herman stressed even more dedication to film study. He wanted Miller to know opposing defenses inside and out and be ready to diagram them on the whiteboard whenever he might be prompted to do so. The Buckeyes expect the spread offense to be second nature to him heading into his third season operating the system. Miller tacked one more thing on himself, making it clear that he anticipated becoming a better leader than he has been.

Nothing on this list requires Miller to actually toss a football. So it shouldn’t really matter that he’s expected to be limited physically when camp opens for Ohio State on Tuesday.

“I think probably as improved as he got in the mental side of playing quarterback [in 2013], he still can get a whole lot better,” Herman said. “He can probably make that same leap this year and still have work to do.

“Just the constant studying of the game, studying of defenses and the studying of our plays now that we’ve kind of done the same thing for two years in a row. ... I think he’s getting to that point where all that stuff is slowing down, and he needs to stay on that path.”

Miller has largely made the journey look pretty easy over the past couple pf seasons, steadily improving his numbers, piling up victories and collecting enough individual trophies to fill several mantles in his parents’ house. But for all of his personal success and the 24-game winning streak the Buckeyes put together following the arrival of coach Urban Meyer, there have also been a handful of moments that Herman can point to as evidence that Miller isn’t a finished product yet.

He doesn’t have to go back too far to find tapes to drive the point home. There were a pair of uneven outings in Ohio State’s losses in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, performances where Miller alternated between his trademark brilliance and moments of indecision or uncertainty that proved costly.

The key for Herman, though, is that those losses weren't because Miller didn’t possess the fundamentals to take his game to a higher level as a passer. The Buckeyes emphasized fine-tuning Miller’s mechanics during spring practice a year ago, but even if he was completely healthy now, the focus has shifted to making sure he’s comfortable enough mentally to use them.

“When you know what you’re doing, know what you’re seeing and what everybody else around you is doing, it’s easy to play with great fundamentals because you’re relaxed,” Herman said. “If you’ve ever stood back there and tried to make a decision in 1.9 seconds and see the things that he has to see and process that kind of information that fast, there’s a tremendous learning curve to that.

“I think fundamentally, the more we keep attacking that [mental] side of it, the more consistent he’ll be -- because he knows how to do that.”

Miller doesn’t need to prove anything from a physical aspect this spring, and his surgery will limit the chances to do it anyway. But that might just give him more time to spend on items Herman already had at the top of the camp checklist.

Video: B1G East top returning players

February, 25, 2014
Feb 25
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As the college football world gets ready for spring football, Toni Collins and ESPN Big Ten reporter Chantel Jennings discuss some of the top returning players in the new Big Ten East Division.
Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the new Big Ten East this spring.

Indiana

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: TBA

What to watch
  • Getting defensive: The Hoosiers have had no trouble scoring since Kevin Wilson took over the program, but opponents have made it look even easier. New defensive coordinator Brian Knorr might have his hands full turning around the Big Ten’s worst unit, but Indiana could be dangerous if he can.
  • Quarterback derby: The offense operated just fine with Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld taking turns leading the attack, so Wilson might not even need to settle on just one quarterback. Typically it does help to have a pecking order behind center, though, and the Hoosiers will be watching these guys closely to see if one can gain some separation.
  • Next in line: There is a ready-made candidate to take over as the team’s most productive receiver, but Shane Wynn is going to need some help. For all his speed and elusiveness, Wynn is still undersized and doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional receiver, which will make it necessary for somebody like Nick Stoner to step up to help replace Cody Latimer.
Maryland

Spring start: March 1

Spring game: April 11

What to watch
  • Get healthy: The Terrapins have one of the most talented groups of wide receivers in the country when they’re completely healthy, but that was an issue last season with both Stefon Diggs and Deon Long suffering broken legs -- just for starters. Neither of those game-breakers is expected to be on the field this spring, but their respective rehabs are critical moving forward.
  • Give and take: An emphasis on protecting the football on offense and creating more turnovers defensively is nothing new in spring practice, but Randy Edsall might just double down on that message this year. The Terrapins finished last in the ACC in turnover margin last season and were ranked No. 102 in the nation with seven more giveaways than takeaways, which isn’t a recipe for success in any league.
  • Coaching chemistry: The deck wasn’t completely reshuffled, but the Terrapins will have three new assistants in charge and could use a seamless transition as they prepare to move to a new league. Keenan McCardell (wide receivers), Chad Wilt (defensive line) and Greg Studrawa (offensive line) will help deliver Edsall’s message moving forward, and it’s as crucial for a coaching staff to jell and find common ground as it is for players on the field.
Michigan

Spring start: Feb. 25

Spring game: April 5

What to watch
  • Go pro: If it was the coordinator keeping Brady Hoke from putting the offense he wanted on the field, that won’t be an issue anymore with Al Borges out of the picture. Snapping up Doug Nussmeier from Alabama should put the Wolverines on the path for a more traditional pro-style attack, and establishing that playbook starts on the practice field in spring.
  • Quarterback quandary: The competition to lead the new-look offense is open between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris, and how that battle shakes out will obviously have a lasting impact and shape the season for the Wolverines. Gardner has the edge in experience and turned in a gritty, wildly productive outing against Ohio State while injured to end the season, but he certainly has lacked consistency. Morris filled in during the postseason with mixed results, but one of those guys will need to emerge.
  • On the line: The Wolverines were in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in sacks, and only Purdue was worse in the league at protecting the quarterback. Both sides of the line have plenty of room to develop, and those daily battles against each other this spring will need to sharpen both the pass-rushers and the blockers if Michigan is going to be able to win games up front.
Michigan State

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Something cooking: The finishing flourish in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl showed how far Connor Cook had come from the start of the season to the end, but there’s still more room to grow. His numbers are slightly skewed thanks to the way Michigan State handled the job early in the season, but overall he averaged fewer than 200 yards per game passing. With such a great defense, that was enough -- but boosting that total would be better for the Spartans.
  • Reload defensively: The seemingly impenetrable defense might have been more than sum of its parts, but the individual pieces Michigan State had on hand weren’t too shabby, either. With Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen all gone, the Spartans will need to identify some replacements for the stars of that elite unit from a year ago.
  • Plug some holes: Both starting offensive guards have to be replaced, and given the perhaps overlooked significance of the work the line did for the Spartans last season, that shouldn’t be dismissed as a meaningful item on the checklist. Cook has to be protected in the pocket, for starters, but with the way the Spartans traditionally pound the football on the ground, they’ll need some road-pavers to step up during spring practice to keep the offense on the upswing.
Ohio State

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Backs to the wall: There weren’t many deficiencies to be found on a team that again went through the regular season unbeaten, but Ohio State’s glaring weakness caught up with it late in the year. The Buckeyes looked helpless at times against the pass, and new co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash was brought in to make sure that unit is dramatically improved.
  • Hold the line: The Buckeyes held on to Braxton Miller for another year, but they lost four seniors who had protected the quarterback for the past couple of seasons. That might be a worthwhile trade, but finding replacements up front will be imperative for a team that has leaned heavily on that veteran presence in the trenches since Urban Meyer took over the program. Taylor Decker is the lone holdover in the starting lineup, and he’ll need to assert himself as the leader of the unit.
  • Air it out: Miller had some shaky performances throwing the ball down the stretch, but taking the passing game to a higher level is not solely his responsibility. The Buckeyes also need improved play and more reliable options at wide receiver, and they’ve recruited to address that issue over the past couple of years. Michael Thomas, who redshirted during his second year on campus, might be leading the charge for a new batch of playmakers on the perimeter.
Penn State

Spring start: March 17

Spring game: April 12

What to watch
  • Starting fresh: There are new playbooks to learn again for the Nittany Lions, and spring practice will be the first chance for James Franklin to start shaping his team in his image. That process doesn’t just include memorizing schemes and assignments for the players, since every coach has a different way of structuring practices and meetings. The sooner the Nittany Lions adjust the better off they’ll be in the fall.
  • Next step: As debut seasons go, it’s hard to find much fault in the work Christian Hackenberg did after being tossed into the fire as a true freshman. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns, completing 59 percent and setting the bar pretty high for himself down the road. As part of his encore, Franklin would probably like to see the young quarterback cut down on his 10 interceptions as a sophomore.
  • Tighten up the defense: There were pass defenses with more holes than Penn State’s a year ago, but that will be little consolation for a program that has traditionally been so stout on that side of the ball. Adrian Amos and Jordan Lucas can get the job done at cornerback, but the Nittany Lions need to get stronger at safety -- and also need to fill notable spots in front of them with linebacker Glenn Carson and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones now gone.
Rutgers

Spring start: March 25

Spring game: April 26

What to watch
  • Toughen up: The Scarlet Knights have seen hard-hitting competition and proven they aren’t afraid of a challenge, but the Big East and American conferences don’t provide nearly the weekly physical test that playing in the Big Ten does. There’s no reason to think Kyle Flood won’t have his team ready for the transition and a new league, but developing both strong bodies and minds starts in spring practice.
  • Settle on a quarterback: There’s a veteran signal-caller on hand with 28 career starts to his credit, but Flood made it no secret as far back as January that he would hold an open competition during camp to lead the offense. Gary Nova has the edge in experience, but he also has more interceptions in his career than games started. That could open the door for one of three younger guys to step in, though Mike Bimonte, Blake Rankin and Chris Laviano have combined to take a grand total of zero snaps.
  • Star turn: There’s nothing wrong with spreading the wealth, and the Scarlet Knights certainly did that in the passing game last season. Having five targets with at least 28 receptions can keep a defense off-balance, which is a good thing. But ending the season with none of those guys topping 573 yards might not be quite as encouraging, and establishing a consistent, go-to, big-play threat in the spring could prove useful for a team that finished No. 62 in the nation in passing yardage.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There’s no escaping the history for Braxton Miller.

It was there sitting on a table just off the court at Value City Arena on Wednesday night, another Tribune Silver Football with his name on it to honor the Big Ten’s best player.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images Braxton Miller holds the Silver Football awarded to the Big Ten's most valuable player.
It was echoed over the speakers during a presentation at midcourt as the Ohio State quarterback was identified as only the fourth two-time winner of the prestigious award, just before he and everybody else were reminded he could become the first to claim it three times.

Even when he’s not showing up to collect some hardware, Miller only has to walk through the hallways of the practice facility on campus to see where he now ranks among the all-time greats to have suited up for the Buckeyes.

Miller doesn’t need the reminders, though, and it’s what he has yet to accomplish that at least played some part in his decision to return for one more season with the program.

“I walked past a board the other day and my name is right under Troy Smith,” Miller said. “I texted him, ‘Hey man, check this out. I’m right behind you, man.’ He said, ‘That’s a good look. Keep it up.’

“I’ve just got to keep putting in work. … I mean, he’s got the big thing. He went to the [national championship game]. He’s got the Heisman. I’m working towards that, too.”

Those two entries are about the only items missing from Miller’s résumé, and while trophies might not have been the top priority on his list of pros and cons, they are clearly motivating him now that his mind has been made up about his future.

Miller stressed the importance of getting a degree and referenced how much he still has to learn about the mental side of the game as key factors for him. While he declined to specify what grade he received as part of his feedback from the draft advisory board, he called it “one of the best evaluations you can get.”

After struggling down the stretch as a passer as the Buckeyes fell out of national-title contention with a loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game and then dropped the Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson, his professional stock certainly seemed to take a hit. But Miller indicated that he was leaning toward returning all along, and there doesn’t appear to be any shortage of benefits in doing so.

“There wasn’t a big thought about [leaving],” Miller said. “I always knew I was eventually going to make that decision and I was going to come back. … I just sat down with the coaches, observed everything, made sure that I was making the right decision. I went over everything, and it wasn’t too hard of a decision.

“Coming back, you want to accomplish things that you didn’t accomplish in your first three years and I feel like I left some little things out on the field and there’s a lot of achievements I can still go do. I can achieve all of my goals, there’s a lot of things that I think about and that’s why I wanted to come back. I sat down with my coach and my dad and we made the right decision.”

Aside from the chance to rewrite the record books individually, Miller now has a chance to fine-tune his mechanics, improve his grasp of concepts on both sides of the ball and potentially build himself into a high-round draft pick.

For the Buckeyes, the rewards are every bit as obvious. They’ve got a two-time conference player of the year, a multipurpose athlete who has twice finished in the top 10 in Heisman voting and a senior with three years of starting experience returning to lead their high-octane offense as they reload for another shot at a Big Ten title -- or more.

And everybody involved is aware of the kind of legacy they can create together.

“I trusted in the people, including myself and coach [Urban] Meyer and his parents, people that were advising him and the outlets where he was getting his information from, they all kind of pointed in the same direction,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. “That was to make sure that he does come back and continue improving on the trajectory that he’s been improving on.

“He’s got a chance, obviously, when he leaves here to set dang near every school record imaginable, every Big Ten record imaginable and win a championship or two. And then, hopefully, he’ll be a first-round draft pick.”

Those potential accomplishments are no secret to Miller, and he’s definitely not shying away from them. If anything, after clutching another Silver Football, the way he’s embracing history appears to be a key part of the reason he’s still sticking around.
The journey through the most valuable players in the Big Ten has come to a close, and it once again has arrived at a familiar destination.

Even with preseason hype, NFL potential and anything prior to last season tossed aside, the 2013 campaign ended with the same individual building the strongest case and claiming the top spot in the countdown of the league's best performers. And thanks to his decision to return for one more season, he's also got a chance to extend that reign for yet another year considering how much room he seemingly still has left to develop.

That's, perhaps, a conversation for another day. For now, we'll close the book on a season filled with incredible individual efforts by reflecting on the one that beat them all.

No. 1: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State

Previous ranking: No. 1

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller has room to improve as a passer, but he still completed 63.5 percent of his throws and finished with 24 TDs in 2013.
Making the case for Miller: There are flaws that can be picked on, and nobody at Ohio State really denies them. Miller could still become a better passer. There are times he's overly reliant on his legs, and he's not a perfect decision-maker. After missing time with an injured knee in September, the spectacular numbers backup Kenny Guiton put up in his place opened Miller up to some minor criticism because of the suggestion anybody could put up a ton of points leading Urban Meyer's offense.

But in reality that's just nit-picking, because there was never any serious doubt that Miller's incomparable talents always made him the first choice for Meyer and the engine for such an explosive attack -- and there was hardly any reason to question that the junior was still the most dangerous man in the Big Ten.

If he leans on his legs a bit too often, it's understandable given his acceleration, cutting ability and a nasty stutter-step move all combined to produce another 1,000-yard rushing season. He may not be a totally finished product as a passer, but he clearly improved in that department in 2013 as he bumped his completion percentage up to 63.5 and led the conference with 24 touchdown tosses. Even in the middle of some outings that weren't his finest in losses to close the season, Miller dragged the Buckeyes back and into position to beat both Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl before both games slipped away from them.

Make no mistake, even if Miller doesn't duplicate the strides he made in the 2013 offseason and only gives Ohio State what he provided as a junior, the program would gladly take it and had plenty of reasons to celebrate his decision to return. Nobody would turn away the Big Ten's best player, especially when he's got a chance to earn that label for a third straight time.

The countdown
The last two seasons have shown that two-quarterback systems can work in the Big Ten.

Northwestern recorded 10 wins in 2012 while rotating Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Indiana led the Big Ten and ranked ninth nationally in total offense last fall while alternating between Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa, Connor Cook
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAfter taking over the quarterback job in Week 5, Connor Cook led the Spartans to 10 consecutive wins.
Given the recent success, my next statement might surprise you: Every Big Ten team would be best served picking one quarterback and sticking with him in 2014. That includes Indiana and Northwestern.

Quarterback rotations can be successful in the short term, but they are rarely sustainable or desirable. We saw this at Northwestern last fall, as the Wildcats never established a consistent offensive rhythm and operated with a reduced playbook, in part because of injuries but also because the unit lacked a clear identity. Northwestern finished 10th in the league in scoring.

Minnesota alternated between quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner during several games, including the Texas Bowl against Syracuse. Although the Gophers had a nice surge during Big Ten play and recorded eight wins, they also finished 11th in the league in scoring and last in passing.

Nebraska had some success using two quarterbacks (Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III) last season but did so out of necessity following Taylor Martinez's injury. The Huskers also struggled to pass the ball, finishing 11th in the league.

The strongest argument for picking a quarterback and sticking with him comes from the Big Ten's best team in 2013. Michigan State's offense was a train wreck in non-league play as the Spartans used three quarterbacks. After a Week 4 loss to Notre Dame, the coaches decided Connor Cook would be their guy. You all know what happened next, but what struck me was Cook's mindset at the time.

"We went through spring ball competition and fall camp competition, it was the most stressed out I've ever been in my entire life just trying to be the quarterback," Cook said last month before the Rose Bowl. "After I got the starting job and started a couple of games, the stress went away and it turned to focus, me being focused and knowing they're not going to use other quarterbacks in the game and not stress too much that go if I make a bad play I'm going to be pulled.

"That's when the stress went out the window."

Players like Northwestern's Siemian and Indiana's Roberson and Sudfeld are more accustomed to sharing time than Cook was, but each of them, like any quarterback, would rather be the clear-cut starter.

Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase is another good example of a player who benefited from an unambiguous role. He struggled from the middle of the 2011 season through all of 2012, raising the possibility of a rotation last season. Instead, Scheelhaase started every game and led the Big Ten in passing (3,272 yards).

[+] EnlargeTommy Armstrong Jr.
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsAfter playing well in place of Taylor Martinez, sophomore signal-caller Tommy Armstrong Jr. is the favorite to start for the Cornhuskers in 2014.
I'm all for competition at quarterback, and the Big Ten will feature plenty of it this spring and summer. Only five quarterbacks -- Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Penn State's Christian Hackenberg, Michigan State's Cook, Iowa's Jake Rudock and Michigan's Devin Gardner -- can feel pretty secure about their starting roles. Gardner has been mentioned as a possible rotation candidate with Shane Morris -- some Michigan fans wouldn't mind seeing Gardner line up at wide receiver, a position of need -- but I'd be surprised if Morris leapfrogs the senior.

I'm also OK with teams employing change-up quarterbacks for a package of plays, be it the Wildcat or something else. Michigan State could be a candidate for this in 2014 with dynamic redshirt freshman Damion Terry possibly spelling Cook from time to time.

The first few games also provide a platform to use multiple quarterbacks in settings that can't be replicated on the practice field. Former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel often did this with his younger quarterbacks, giving them a first-half series or two. It makes sense. But by Week 4, roles must be identified.

The offseason is full of Big Ten quarterback questions:

  • Will Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt take the reins at Illinois?
  • How will Gardner and Hackenberg fare with new offensive coordinators?
  • After Nelson's transfer, who emerges at Minnesota among Leidner, Chris Streveler and possibly a young quarterback such as Dimonic McKinzy?
  • Nebraska's Armstrong went 6-1 as a freshman starter, but can he hold off Johnny Stanton?
  • Can Gary Nova retain his job at Rutgers?
  • Will Danny Etling keep the top job at Purdue, or will Austin Appleby and possibly early enrollee David Blough enter the mix?
  • How does Siemian bounce back at Northwestern, and do the Wildcats look at Matt Alviti and Zack Oliver?
  • Will either Roberson or Sudfeld finally separate himself at IU?

Ultimately, these questions must be answered. The teams that avoid prolonged rotations should be better off for it.

2014 Heisman contenders: Big Ten

January, 17, 2014
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The most famous statue in college football has been awarded to seven guys since somebody from the Big Ten has lifted it and been recognized as the best player in the country.

But plenty of candidates are already emerging to snap that skid and become the league's first winner since Troy Smith, starting with another Ohio State quarterback who has already figured prominently in the voting over the past two seasons. Starting with that candidate, we'll take a closer look at five Big Ten players capable of breaking through in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBraxton Miller, who already has a pair of top-10 Heisman finishes, could earn a trip to NYC with another big year leading the Buckeyes' high-scoring offense.
QB Braxton Miller, Ohio State: If not for his September injury last season, Miller may have already made an appearance in New York for the trophy presentation. Perhaps with the numbers he missed out on, he may have even won it. With a pair of top-10 finishes already to his credit, Miller elected to return for his senior season and will make one more run at the top prize. If he can take another step forward as a passer, he could easily become the favorite if he leads the high-scoring Buckeyes on another unbeaten run through the regular season.

RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: For pure explosiveness out of the backfield, few players provide more firepower than Gordon. While he may wind up splitting some of the workload for the Badgers, with James White out of the picture Gordon isn't likely to finish second on the team in carries, which can damage an individual's case for hardware. Gordon rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns while sharing time, and boosting those numbers could make him an appealing option for voters.

QB Connor Cook, Michigan State: The statistical résumé isn't all that impressive, but Cook clearly developed as the season progressed, proving it in two outstanding performances to cap the season in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl. In both of those big wins for the Spartans, Cook had the numbers of a Heisman-caliber passer, throwing for more than 300 yards in each with five total touchdowns. Plus, he is the leader of a likely top-five team in the preseason polls, which will get him on the radar early.

RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska: The model of consistency, only two teams kept Abdullah from hitting the 100-yard mark as a junior -- and he came up short by just 17 combined yards. The centerpiece of the Nebraska offense decided to come back for one more season, and if he can match the prolific pace from last season when he finished with 1,690 yards, he could emerge as a legitimate threat for the trophy. The Huskers may need to spend longer in championship contention, but featuring Abdullah is probably the best way to do it.

QB Christian Hackenberg, Penn State: The Nittany Lions are still locked out of the postseason, and while that probably shouldn't matter for individual awards, it has seemingly been a voting deterrent in the past. Hackenberg will have that uphill battle to fight as he tries to follow up his fantastic freshman season, but he has already proved he has the talent to insert himself in the national conversation and now has a new coach in James Franklin who surely won't hesitate to campaign for his quarterback. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards in his first season at the college level, and he figures to get better with experience.

Big Ten's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
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We're starting to wrap up the 2013 Big Ten season, which included the rise of Michigan State to elite status, more accolades for Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, Iowa's mini-renaissance, Northwestern's backslide, Jerry Kill's health-related absence and Minnesota's impressive response, up-and-down seasons from Michigan and Nebraska and much more. The league's national title drought reached its 11th year, but Michigan State brought home a Rose Bowl championship to the frosty Midwest.

To put a bow on the season, here are some Big Ten superlatives:

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio made seemingly all of the right moves in 2013, including sticking with Connor Cook at QB.
Best coach: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State. Dantonio helped the Spartans find the inches that separated them in 2012, when they lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points. He made the right calls on offense after a shaky start, and the Spartans ended up winning their final nine games, including their first outright Big Ten title and first Rose Bowl championship in 26 years.

Best player, offense: Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. No player dominates the scouting report for opposing defenses like the Buckeyes signal-caller, who complemented premier rushing skills with a more accurate arm, despite some late struggles. He won Big Ten MVP honors and league offensive player of the year honors for the second consecutive season, had 3,162 yards of offense and 36 touchdowns (24 pass, 12 rush). Miller led Ohio State to a second straight undefeated regular season and will be back as a senior in 2014.

Best player, defense: Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard. The nation's No. 1 defense had several standouts, but Dennard tops the list after leading the "No Fly Zone" secondary and earning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. A first-team All-American, Dennard recorded four interceptions and 10 pass deflections, and repeatedly shut down opposing wide receivers. He was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy.

Best moment: Many wondered how Michigan State would fare in the Rose Bowl without star middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, suspended a week before the game. Turns out the Spartans were just fine as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Fittingly, MSU sealed its victory on a fourth-down stop of Stanford, where Elsworth leaped over the pile to stuff Ryan Hewitt. The play epitomized a team that overcame every obstacle and a defense that slammed the door on the opposition all year long. Elsworth was named Rose Bowl defensive player of the game.

Best rivalry game: Ohio State at Michigan. We haven't been able to say this very often about The Game in recent years, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes provided plenty of drama on Nov. 30 at the Big House. Neither defense had answers for the opposing offense and the teams combined for 83 points, 74 first downs and 1,129 total yards. Michigan went for the win with 32 seconds left, but its 2-point conversion attempt failed and Ohio State survived.

Best play: Nebraska's season hung in the balance Nov. 2 as the Huskers, coming off of a road loss to Minnesota, trailed Northwestern 24-21 with four seconds left at the Wildcats' 49-yard line. Huskers quarterback Ron Kellogg III, the team's third-stringer entering the season, evaded the rush and launched a Hail Mary to the end zone, which freshman wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp caught following a deflection for the winning touchdown. It saved Nebraska's season and possibly coach Bo Pelini's job.

Best coaching decision: Connor Cook didn't do much in a loss to Notre Dame to separate himself from the other Spartans quarterbacks. But after going to Andrew Maxwell for the final drive against the Irish, Dantonio and the staff decided to stick with Cook for the Big Ten season. It gave Cook the confidence he needed to lead MSU's offense to a Big Ten title.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
AP Photo/Lon HorwedelMichigan WR Jeremy Gallon had a game for the ages against Indiana.
Best individual performance: Michigan wide receiver Jeremy Gallon against Indiana. Sure, the Hoosiers' defense has been abysmal forever, but you just don't see too many wide receivers rack up 369 receiving yards, much less in a league game. Gallon set a Big Ten record for receiving yards and recorded the second-highest total for a receiver in FBS history. He had 14 receptions, two for touchdowns. Quarterback Devin Gardner had a team-record 503 passing yards. Ohio State's Miller had big performances against both Penn State and Iowa, Christian Hackenberg lit up Wisconsin's defense, and Cook recorded his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.

Best freshman: Penn State's Hackenberg. New Lions coach James Franklin inherits a future superstar under center, as Hackenberg backed up his recruiting hype in his first season. Hackenberg finished third in the Big Ten in passing (246.2 YPG) and threw 20 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. He completed the season by connecting on 70 percent of his passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin.

Best newcomer: Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory. The junior-college transfer excited Nebraska fans when he came to Lincoln and left them even happier after his first season. Gregory led the Big Ten with 10.5 sacks and tied for second in tackles for loss with 17. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and triggered Nebraska's improvement on defense down the stretch.

Best new coaching hire: Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The Illini improved their win total from two to four this season, but things would have been worse if not for Cubit, who helped Illinois improve from 119th in 2012 to 46th this year. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was the Big Ten's only 3,000-yard passer. Cubit might have saved head coach Tim Beckman's job for another year, as the Illini now look for a similar jump on defense.

Best and worst of the Big Ten bowls

January, 10, 2014
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As we continue to wrap up the 2013 bowl season, let's take a look at some of the best and worst of the Big Ten's seven postseason games:

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes couldn't slow down Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd in the Discover Orange Bowl.
Best game: Michigan State's 24-20 win over Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by VIZIO. The Orange Bowl was a wilder game with more huge momentum swings, but the Spartans won a classic, old-school slugfest. The context also included the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl -- and the last one before the College Football Playoff potentially changes everything -- and Michigan State's first Pasadena appearance since 1988. That adds up to make it the best game of the Big Ten's bunch.

Worst game: You have to wonder if the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl would have picked Michigan ahead of Nebraska had game organizers known that quarterback Devin Gardner wasn't going to play. Probably so, since the attendance was still very good. But the Wolverines were noncompetitive in the desert, needing a touchdown and two-point conversion with 1:15 left just to make the final score 31-14.

Best play: This one's an easy call. On third-and-long from its own 1-yard line, Nebraska opted to throw the ball against Georgia in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl. Tommy Armstrong Jr. found wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, and the result was a 99-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Cornhuskers and Gator Bowl history.

Best surprise: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill left the press box at halftime of the Texas Bowl against Syracuse and coached the rest of the game from the sideline, something he hadn't done since Sept. 28. Having Kill back on the sidelines gave the Gophers a spark as they erased a halftime deficit, but Syracuse still went on to win the game.

Worst bowl week: Ohio State enjoyed an oceanside hotel at the Discover Orange Bowl, but the buildup to the game was no day at the beach. A stomach bug swirled through the team, leaving several players nauseous and vomiting for about 12 hours each. The school found out that defensive end Noah Spence would be suspended for the game against Clemson and the first two contests of 2014. And cornerback Bradley Roby couldn't recover from his knee injury. It's a wonder Ohio State came so close to winning the game with all that went wrong leading into it.

Worst early celebration: Iowa safety John Lowdermilk intercepted an LSU pass and ran it back 71 yards in the third quarter of the Outback Bowl. But just before he crossed the goal line, Lowdermilk -- who had no defenders around him -- casually dropped the ball out of his right hand. The play was ruled a fumble, and luckily Iowa went on to score the touchdown. But not before some embarrassment for Lowdermilk. “I don’t know what I was doing," he said. "I really regret it and apologize. If I’m lucky enough to get in that situation again, I’ll probably put two hands around the ball and go to the back of the end zone, just to make sure."

Worst late celebration: Michigan State players tried to give coach Mark Dantonio a Gatorade shower near the end of the Rose Bowl. But Dantonio skipped out of the way, and the players' effort was embarrassingly off mark. Dantonio had already shown that he's light on his feet this year with all his dancing to Rich Homie Quan. It's way past time we retire the Gatorade bath, anyway, and come up with something a little more clever.

[+] EnlargeGordon
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesRunning back Melvin Gordon had a big day for the Badgers vs. South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl.
Best poetic ending: Kyler Elsworth filled in for the suspended Max Bullough at middle linebacker for Michigan State. On Stanford's final offensive play, a fourth-and-1 run by fullback Ryan Hewitt, Elsworth launched himself over the pile and stuffed Hewitt. That the fifth-year senior and former walk-on earned Rose Bowl defensive MVP honors spoke volumes about the depth and team-first program Mark Dantonio has built.

Best overlooked achievement: Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and James White both ran for more than 100 yards in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and set a FBS record in the process. They finished the season with a combined 3,053 rushing yards, surpassing the top total for a pair of teammates that Nevada’s Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson established with 3,004 yards in 2012. Gordon and White also were the first teammates to each rush for more than 1,400 yards in the same season. But the Badgers didn't feel much like celebrating as they dropped their fourth straight bowl game.

Wildest finish: The Orange Bowl had more endings than "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The game looked like it was over when Braxton Miller fumbled on a big hit by Clemson's Bashaud Breeland with 3:12 left. But then the Tigers threw an interception on a questionable call three plays later. Miller then returned the favor with an interception of his own with 1:18 remaining. It was a fitting conclusion to a game that contained all kinds of wild momentum swings.

Worst clock management: This one goes to LSU, against Iowa. The Tigers took possession with 1:42 left, and even with Iowa holding one timeout, they should have been able to run out the clock. But with confusion on the sideline and at quarterback, LSU called its own timeout with eight seconds left and had to punt. When Les Miles and clocks are involved, things are never boring.
A man wearing a newsboy cap approached Kirk Cousins and offered congratulations to the former Michigan State quarterback, who held court with reporters in the Rose Bowl tunnel moments after the Spartans beat Stanford.

Jim Delany wasn't easy to spot in the headgear, and one could argue that the Big Ten commissioner wisely disguised himself on a day that hasn't been kind to his league in recent years. But for the first time in four years, and for just the second time in 14 years, Delany walked out of the Rose Bowl with a smile on his face.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesConnor Cook and Michigan State gave the Big Ten plenty to celebrate.
For Delany and the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl sits on a pedestal. And after just one Big Ten win in the previous 10 tries, Michigan State's 24-20 triumph in the game's 100th edition was cause for celebration. MSU's victory doesn't dull the pain of the Big Ten's second consecutive 2-5 bowl season, but it certainly helps to prevail in the most important postseason game on the biggest stage against the best opponent.

The Spartans won a team-record 13 games and completed the best season for a Big Ten team in recent memory, finishing No. 3 in the final polls. Nebraska provided the other bright spot, upsetting Georgia in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl thanks to a stingy red-zone defense and several standout performances from seniors.

Elsewhere, the Big Ten felt the familiar postseason sting of what might have been. The league easily could have had a better record in the Florida bowls, but Wisconsin and Ohio State had sloppy performances and Iowa's offense never got on track against LSU.

Wisconsin never punted in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina and had two 100-yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White, but the Badgers committed four turnovers and scored just 17 offensive points. A team that had been so solid through the first 11 games unraveled in the regular-season finale against Penn State and in the bowl, failing to capitalize on a great chance to build on a 17-13 third-quarter lead. Dave Aranda's defense was shredded for the second straight game as South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw accounted for five touchdowns (3 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). A decorated Wisconsin senior classes ended 0-4 in Jan. 1 bowls.

Ohio State also finished the season on a surprising losing streak, squandering two second-half leads in a 40-35 loss to Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. Like Wisconsin, the Buckeyes also were doomed by turnovers, particularly a muffed punt by Corey Brown in the third quarter with a nine-point lead. A depleted Ohio State defense couldn't stop Clemson's big-play receivers, the coaches once again avoided running back Carlos Hyde in crunch time, and a banged-up Braxton Miller committed turnovers on Ohio State's final two possessions.

Injuries and personnel issues were a theme throughout the Big Ten during the bowl season. Wisconsin and Iowa saw their starting quarterbacks hurt during games, while Michigan's top signal-caller, Devin Gardner, showed up in Arizona on crutches and didn't play in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Michigan State overcame the loss of starting middle linebacker and co-captain Max Bullough, as Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris filled in well. Ohio State played without top cornerback Bradley Roby (injury) and top pass-rusher Noah Spence (suspension).

A little more offense could have put Iowa and Minnesota over the top in their bowl games. Minnesota didn't reach the end zone for three quarters in the Texas Bowl, eventually falling 21-17 to a mediocre Syracuse team. Iowa's only touchdowns came on drives of 1 and 4 yards, as the Hawkeyes had just 11 first downs and 233 total yards against LSU.

It wouldn't have taken much for the Big Ten to post a winning record in the bowls. The league had only one non-competitive performance, coming from Michigan in the Wings Bowl, as the Wolverines ended a disappointing season on a down note. The defense never gave first-time starting quarterback Shane Morris much of a chance, allowing touchdowns on Kansas State's first three possessions. Morris held his own but Michigan didn't reach the end zone until the 58th minute in what proved to be the final game for beleaguered offensive coordinator Al Borges.

Nebraska started New Year's Day on a good note as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa triggered the win with a 99-yard touchdown reception, while defensive linemen Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Thad Randle limited Georgia's offense. Michigan State capped the afternoon by rallying past Stanford behind a suffocating defense and quarterback Connor Cook, who collected another postseason MVP honor and his second straight 300-yard passing performance.

The Spartans boost hope for the future after another Big Ten postseason rife with missed opportunities. The league has another team capable of competing for a national championship.

The playoff arrives in 2014, along with a more palatable Big Ten bowl lineup and most likely more bowl-eligible teams. The Big Ten took a small step in the postseason after a historically bad 2012 campaign, but more progress must be made for the rest of college football to start tipping its cap.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Ohio State has no reason to apologize for its 12-2 season, even if the Buckeyes did fall short of their goals by losing in the Big Ten title game and in Friday’s Discover Orange Bowl to Clemson.

Still, the Buckeyes are a program that expects to win championships.

“This would be an unbelievable season for some people,” center Corey Linsley said after the 40-35 loss to Clemson. “They would be building statues about it at other universities. This is just another year gone by for us.”

Ohio State should enter next season in or near the top 10, especially with Braxton Miller expected to return for his senior season at quarterback. But as Urban Meyer’s team found out after winning 24 straight games and then losing its final two, that last step toward winning a championship is often the hardest. And significant challenges await in 2014.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesUrban Meyer's Buckeyes will need to replace some key players on both sides of the ball in 2014.
The offseason focus will center around fixing a defense that was dreadful in its final three games of the season. That job won’t include the services of star linebacker Ryan Shazier, who announced on Saturday that he’ll be leaving for the NFL, or cornerback Bradley Roby, who is also bolting Columbus for the pros.

Meyer has given every indication that he intends to keep Luke Fickell on as defensive coordinator, but the departure of co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers opens the possibility of bringing in a veteran defensive coach who can offer strong input at the very least.

“We’ve just got to go out and recruit out tails off,” Meyer said. “Got to develop players and work real hard with scheme. We’ll get there.”

The Orange Bowl offered an early look at the future, especially with Roby sidelined by a knee injury. The Buckeyes started six freshmen or sophomores on defense versus the Tigers. While the overall numbers weren’t good, there were encouraging signs of potential.

Sophomore Jamal Marcus got his first career start in place of the suspended Noah Spence and was very active, finishing with six tackles. With Spence also sitting out the first two games of 2014, Marcus could play early next season and, at the very least, create some excellent depth along a still-young defensive line.

“I’m really proud of what Jamal did stepping in for Noah,” fellow defensive end Joey Bosa said. “He had a great week of practice, we had a lot of confidence in him, and he went in there and played his heart out.”

The same could be said of Bosa, who turned in a terrific true freshman campaign and showed loads of toughness in the Orange Bowl despite a sprained ankle. Limping noticeably in the second half, he remained in the game and finished with a sack and a forced safety. He has super stardom written all over him.

“It was rough,” he said of the injury. “It was really hard to plant off it. I was just doing what I could do.”

Meyer called sophomore linebacker Joshua Perry one of the most improved players on the team during bowl practice, and if he can continue to develop, it could lessen the loss of Shazier. But Ohio State’s linebacker play needs to get better.

The secondary was depleted by the end of the season but has some promising prospects. True freshman Vonn Bell made his first start at nickel, and though he got burned early on a difficult one-on-one matchup against Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, he also made a one-handed interception near his own end zone that should be the first of many highlight plays for him. Sophomore Tyvis Powell also made his first start at safety, while sophomore Armani Reeves filled in for Roby.

“We’ve got a lot to build on,” cornerback Doran Grant said. “We’ve got some guys who can really play. I’m excited to see them play next season and see what they’ve got in the spring.”

The offense has its own question marks even with Miller back in the fold. Start with the offensive line, which was the engine of the Buckeyes' attack. It loses four senior starters, with only sophomore right tackle Taylor Decker returning. Senior Carlos Hyde, who ran for more than 1,500 yards in just 11 games, also will be gone. Same goes for the team’s leading receiver, Philly Brown.

The schedule finally toughens up, with nonconference games against Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati and the new East Division that will include reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. The Spartans, who play host to Ohio State on Nov. 8, may begin the fall as favorites to win the division.

Meyer has talked repeatedly about wanting to field an angry and hungry team. The master motivator shouldn’t need many slogans this spring to push a team that suffered two crushing losses on its biggest stages.

“I hope there’s hunger,” offensive coordinator Tom Herman. “I hope that the guys who are coming back feel the knot in their stomach that I do right now and want to fix the things we need to fix to make sure we don’t feel like this again.”

Ohio State will still have plenty of talent in 2014 and a coach who knows how to use it. The Buckeyes weren’t far off from winning a championship this season and expect to be in position again next fall. This isn't a rebuilding job by any sense. But some repairs are needed.

“I think we’re extremely close,” Linsley said. “Everybody will say the O-line is down, that if Shazier is gone, if Roby is gone, those guys are going to slack [on defense]. But I’m telling you, some of these guys haven't gone through an offseason here before. I’m excited to see what these guys will do next year."
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hitting one out of two was about all Ohio State could ask for with its star juniors.

Even better for the Buckeyes, they're apparently keeping the one who really matters to their title hopes in 2014.

Ryan Shazier is a fantastic defender, and given the woes on that side of the ball at the end of the season, Urban Meyer certainly can use as many of those as possible as he rebuilds and reloads that unit. Losing him to the NFL draft, as SI.com reported citing a source, is a significant blow. But the Ohio State coach has been stockpiling talent to turn loose defensively next season -- and replacing Braxton Miller was always going to be the taller order.

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Allen Kee / ESPN ImagesBraxton Miller's return instantly puts Ohio State in the conversation for next season's national title.
Now the Buckeyes won't have to do that for another year, and the benefits are obvious.

The record-setting spread offense will have its engine back with yet another year to absorb the system, become a better student of the game and again improve his mechanics. For all Miller's struggles at the end of the year throwing the football, whether he was banged up, slowed by bad weather or whatever else, he again proved in the Discover Orange Bowl how invaluable his singular skills are to the Buckeyes as he nearly dragged them to a win by himself with four total touchdowns.

Of course, the bid for a late comeback ultimately came up short when Miller misread a coverage and fired an easy interception directly to a Clemson defender, adding one more bit of evidence that he's not quite ready to be a professional passer. There was plenty of proof to go around during the final month of the regular season and another sloppy outing in the Big Ten title game. But even with Miller not quite reaching his potential, there's probably nobody in the country whom Meyer would trade for to run his offense.

Miller is the two-time defending Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. He has twice finished in the top 10 in voting for the Heisman Trophy. And while his arm might get criticized at times and NFL scouts night not have considered him ready to move on, Miller is plenty good enough at the level he's at now to take the Buckeyes back into national-title contention during his senior season.

Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett could wind up being productive quarterbacks down the road, and they might have been capable of leading an attack with veteran skill players such as Devin Smith and Jeff Heuerman returning along with promising dynamic threats such as Dontre Wilson and redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall without missing a beat. But they almost certainly don't have Miller's multipurpose athleticism. They haven't been through nearly as many battles leading the offense, and the Buckeyes would certainly have their hands full trying to bring the young quarterbacks along behind an offensive line with four new starters.

Shazier would have been icing on the cake if he returned. But Miller is the main course, and the Buckeyes now have enough to feed on to get back in position to play for it all next season.

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