Commentary

Big Ten playoff hopes in doubt

Originally Published: August 19, 2014
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

O-H-N-O!

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.

Sure, Meyer and his staff, which includes highly regarded offensive coordinator Tom Herman, are more than capable of pulling off a miracle this season. But the Buckeyes built their offense around Miller's dual-threat capabilities. Worse, they lost four starting offensive linemen and tailback Carlos Hyde, who ran for 1,521 yards with 15 touchdowns last season.

If OSU fans are looking for a silver lining in this dreadful news, here it is: reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston had never stepped on the field before leading Florida State to an undefeated record and BCS national title last season. The quarterback FSU beat in the BCS National Championship, Auburn's Nick Marshall, was a defensive back at Georgia before he transferred to a junior college and then joined the Tigers on the Plains last summer. And who knew Cam Newton was capable of doing what he did in 2010?

Could Barrett or even sophomore Cardale Jones do what Winston, Marshall and Newton did unexpectedly? Sure, why not?

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio and Connor Cook
Harry How/Getty ImagesMark Dantonio and Connor Cook led Michigan State to a Rose Bowl victory last season, and may be the Big Ten's best hope for a playoff berth now.

But make no mistake: Miller's injury has dramatically deflated hopes at both Ohio State and in the Big Ten. The Buckeyes were ranked No. 5 in Sunday's preseason Associated Press Top 25 poll and were considered the league's best chance at making the playoff.

And you have to remember that at least one champion of a Power Five conference is going to be left out of the playoff. There are only four available spots. After Miller's injury, the chances of two teams coming from one league just increased dramatically.

Defending Big Ten champion Michigan State might move into the driver's seat in the league now. The Spartans, ranked No. 8 in the AP preseason poll, won their first outright Big Ten championship since 1987 and then defeated Stanford 24-20 in the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio last season.

This season, MSU brings back quarterback Connor Cook and tailback Jeremy Langford, but it must replace much of its menacing defense, which ranked No. 3 in the country in points allowed (13.2 per game) in 2013.

The dawning of the four-team playoff was supposed to allow the Big Ten to put its forgettable performance in the BCS era in the rearview mirror once and for all. Big Ten teams won exactly one national championship in 16 years of the BCS system -- and needed a controversial pass-interference call for Ohio State to defeat Miami 31-24 in double overtime in 2002.

A Big Ten team hasn't won a national championship since, and the Buckeyes were the only team from the conference to play for a BCS title in the past 11 seasons, losing to Florida in 2006 and LSU in 2007.

Unless Michigan State or No. 14 Wisconsin runs the table (or Michigan rebounds dramatically or either Nebraska or Iowa finally plays consistently) the Big Ten football season might be over before it even kicks off.

Think about this: If No. 13 LSU defeats Wisconsin in Houston in the Aug. 30 opener, and then No. 3 Oregon beats Michigan State in Eugene on Sept. 6, the Big Ten's chances of producing a playoff participant might be finished.

The Big Ten could be irrelevant in the national championship race before the calendar even turns to October.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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