Braxton Miller is accustomed to individual accolades.
He won the past two Big Ten Silver Footballs as the conference’s best player, has appeared on more Sports Illustrated covers than any Ohio State athlete in history (four) and is seen as a serious Heisman candidate heading into the 2014 season.
However, the only way he can take care of the team success vacancy on his resume this year is by staying healthy.
Miller had offseason surgery on his shoulder and missed spring practice. He has been limited in August training as well and is clearly easing back into things.
Co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner didn’t seem particularly concerned, via Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors:
We’re kind of bringing him along slowly. I think we have a really good plan to get him where he needs to be Aug. 30. We definitely don’t need to rush it.
I love Braxton’s work ethic, his attitude, his mentality. His mindset is awesome. His understanding of the game is great, and his leadership has improved. We’re just letting him come along physically.
It’s part of the plan. There was no he got the hook in the middle of the day. It was all planned out. We’re doing that with some other guys who started a lot who are coming off injuries, just watching their volume until they build into it.
It’s certainly encouraging that things are apparently going according to plan, but any Buckeye fan who remembers Miller trying to push the ball downfield with a barely functioning shoulder in the Orange Bowl loss to Clemson knows Ohio State’s College Football Playoff hopes hinge on the signal-caller’s health.
Miller’s value to Ohio State is clear when we look at the numbers.
His completion percentage, passing yards and passing touchdowns have increased every year since he arrived on campus, and he posted 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air and 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground in 2013.
Austin Ward of ESPN noted that Miller’s abilities have landed him on preseason Heisman watch lists already:
B1G representatives in the first Heisman Watch: Braxton Miller (fourth) and Melvin Gordon (seventh). http://t.co/YlLs5yPji4— Austin Ward (@AWardESPN) August 14, 2014
However, that production—particularly the running—comes with a cost. Every time Miller tucks the ball away and takes off downfield, Buckeye fans (and likely coaches) hold their breath in anticipation.
The video game moves in open space are sometimes breathtaking, but Miller is vulnerable. It would probably be in Ohio State’s best long-term interest if Miller limited his running to the situations where the team really needed it. You don’t want to handicap his game, but he probably doesn’t have to be sprinting outside the pocket against Illinois or Kent State.
Where does Braxton Miller finish in Heisman voting?
So we know Miller is capable of putting up incredible numbers and leading the Buckeyes, but his health is even more important this year because the luxury that was Kenny Guiton is no longer around.
Guiton tallied 749 yards and 14 touchdowns through the air and 330 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in 2013. He carried the Buckeyes to a blowout victory at California, rescued them against Purdue in 2012 and played valuable snaps when Miller was briefly injured in a victory in East Lansing against Michigan State in 2012.
It was easy to mistake Guiton for a starting quarterback because of his poise and passing abilities. In fact, he may have been the best signal-caller in the Big Ten outside of his own teammate a year ago had he been given a chance to start all season. There was a point when Guiton actually led the nation in touchdown passes.
Without Guiton, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett assume the responsibilities that come with being Miller’s backup.
Sure, the potential is there, but the lack of experience doesn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence. National title expectations will be bearing down on the Buckeyes from the opening game, and Barrett and Jones have combined for zero meaningful snaps in their Ohio State careers.
Miller’s health is also incredibly important to Ohio State’s playoff chances because running back Carlos Hyde is no longer around.
Hyde barreled his way to 1,521 rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns in 2013 even though he missed three games. He was an absolute workhorse who took the pressure off Miller and the rest of the offense throughout the season.
Between Hyde’s absence and the fact that Ohio State is replacing four starters on the offensive line, Miller’s role is clear—playmaker and leader of the offense. He is the proven commodity in Urban Meyer's system and needs to stay on the field to prove it.
Despite the common narrative that the Buckeyes play a weak schedule, there will be plenty of tests in 2014. The Scarlet and Gray face off with dangerous Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati teams in the nonconference portion of the slate and have to travel to Penn State for a game that will be the Nittany Lions’ Super Bowl under the lights.
The annual clash with Michigan is always a cliche throw-out-the-records showdown (just look at last year’s 42-41 thriller), but the one contest that every member of Buckeye Nation has circled is the rematch of the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State gets another crack at Michigan State, this time in East Lansing, after the Spartans ended its 2013 national title dreams in Indianapolis.
Considering the fact that the Buckeyes and Spartans are in the same division, the winner will have the inside lane to the Big Ten title game. Logic would dictate that in a four-team playoff with the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten and ACC vying for spots, any Big Ten representative will likely need to win the conference.
The only way Ohio State can beat the stout Michigan State defense and reach Indianapolis is if its playmaker shines under center.
That will only happen if Mr. Miller is healthy.
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