As first reported by Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch, Braxton Miller re-injured his shoulder during practice on Monday afternoon. The severity of the injury is yet to be known, but it appears that he did not have enough recovery time from his February surgery to be ready for full-contact football.
While the primary story will focus on the seriousness of Miller's injury and the length of his absence, the Buckeyes now must move on quickly to prepare for a new offensive identity. At least the first part of 2014 will be dominated by a quarterback battle between freshman JT Barrett and sophomore Cardale Jones.
And if the worst-case scenario develops, Ohio State will need to rely on one or both of these youngsters for the entire 2014 season.
But how will this new quarterback situation change the outlook for the Buckeyes and the Big Ten race at large? Let's take a look.
Starting with the Buckeyes, the good news is that Barrett and Jones have received all of the spring and most of the fall camp reps due to Miller's rehabilitation. That being said, Jones did not show the ability to effectively run around pressure or lead a dominant passing attack in limited playing time during the 2013 season.
Furthermore, Barrett has apparently moved past Jones on the depth chart (as referenced in the Tim May piece linked above), so the relevant question is whether this redshirt freshman can replace Miller's role in the 2014 offense.
Barrett likely has the natural tools to fit the mold of a Terrelle Pryor and a Braxton Miller with time. But behind an inexperienced offensive line replacing four starters, Barrett will not be able to take the extra time a freshman normally needs to consistently make the right decision. Barrett is surrounded by great skill position talent, but he will be forced into playmaking by most opposing defenses this season.
Unlike a decade ago, Ohio State is not completely unfamiliar with playing freshmen at quarterback. Both Terrelle Pryor and Braxton Miller started most of their freshman seasons, although both had a proven veteran with which to share time (Todd Boeckman for Pryor in 2008, Joe Bauserman for Miller in 2011). Here are stat lines for those seasons:
Pryor in 2008: 12 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 1,311 yards on 60.6 percent passing, 139 rushes for 631 yards, season ended with 10-3 record (highlighted by loss caused by Pryor's fumble against Penn State).
Miller in 2011: 13 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 1,159 yards on 54.1 percent passing, 159 rushes for 715 yards, season ended with 6-7 record (highlighted by losses caused when Miller had to leave field with injury, including a 21-point lead blown at Nebraska).
Considering Barrett may have similar skills to both of these talents (as a freshman), similar numbers could likely result. Those numbers are nothing like what Pryor managed in his final two seasons, which were Big Ten championship seasons, or what Miller accomplished during back-to-back 12-0 regular seasons in the 2012 and 2013 campaigns.
That means Ohio State will need to become a defense-first team. Part of the big difference between the success of 2008 and the struggles of 2011 was having Jim Tressel at the helm of a dominant defense. The defensive cupboard is not as barren as in 2011 thanks to Urban Meyer's great recruiting, but he and new defensive coordinator Chris Ash are building the defense from scratch after a poor run in 2013.
Accordingly, despite boasting one of the best defensive lines in the country (if not the best), Ohio State cannot just expect to shut all teams down like the best Tressel teams in the last decade. At multiple points in 2014, perhaps against the likes of Cincinnati and Maryland, Barrett and the offense will need to outscore the competition.
In all likelihood, that will be a problem in at least one, if not two or three, of those games. The dreaded freshmen mistakes will probably derail the Buckeyes or make it much more difficult to win a couple of these close games.
Despite redshirt freshmen Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston winning the last two Heisman Trophies, the trend is much more likely to go against Buckeye fans' wishes. Manziel and Winston had much better offensive lines and perhaps more natural talent, which goes a long way when determining how well a freshman season will play out.
Assuming Miller cannot play at all in 2014, the schedule looks a bit more daunting overall for the Buckeyes. Here's how the games stack up:
- Should Win (5): at Navy, Kent State, Rutgers, Illinois, at Minnesota
- Tricky Tests, Still Favoring Buckeyes (3): Cincinnati, at Penn State, Indiana
- Toss-Ups (3): Virginia Tech, at Maryland, Michigan
- Likely Loss (1): at Michigan State
Barring a total surprise, this type of schedule analysis does not bode well for a playoff appearance in the inaugural four-team bracket. A loss to Michigan State plus one other Big Ten loss would almost certainly eliminate the Buckeyes from contention in the East Division. Which means, this team has no room for error—a tough spot to be in with a freshman (or sophomore) quarterback.
Thus, Ohio State is likely tracking towards a similar season as in 2008: competitive but not championship material. The sky is not falling, though, as a likely nine- or 10-win season would possibly set up for a huge run in 2015, especially if Miller takes a redshirt and comes back to the team in 2015 (a real possibility considering he decided to stay to improve his draft stock this offseason).
Turning to the Big Ten at large, this injury reshapes the East Division race in a huge way. Michigan State benefits the most, going from a co-favorite in the division to a prohibitive favorite. Mark Dantonio's defense totally stymied Braxton Miller in his worst start as a freshman, and a trip up to East Lansing is bad news for JT Barrett or Cardale Jones.
The Spartans also get the other division contender Michigan at home, as well as the only tough crossover game against Nebraska. That means Maryland, a newcomer and relative unknown in the Big Ten race, could have the best chance to knock off the Spartans the week after the OSU-MSU showdown. It seems unlikely that Maryland will win more than six conference games in its first Big Ten season, which means there is little chance anybody other than Michigan State shows up in Indianapolis this December.
The West Division race will likely not be affected by Ohio State's woes, although the loss of Venric Mark to Northwestern should cement that as a three-team race: Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Hawkeyes get all season to prepare for the other two teams, and the Badgers and Cornhuskers have to go to Kinnick Stadium.
The talent level might be slightly better overall at Nebraska and Wisconsin, but Iowa is due to take advantage of that schedule and have another big season. Nebraska has the only really tough East Division game at Michigan State, so expect the West Division to come down to Wisconsin and Iowa.
Wisconsin has battled well with the Spartans, including in the first Big Ten Championship Game three seasons ago. Meanwhile, Iowa has not played particularly well against Michigan State in recent seasons, likely as a result of having an offense that plays right into Sparty's hands.
Consequently, if Iowa makes it out of the West Division, Michigan State should be heavily favored to win the championship and likely then make the College Football Playoff. If Wisconsin survives to Indianapolis, then it will be more of a toss-up for a trip to the top bowls.
If nothing else, the Miller injury provides a new, clear narrative for the Big Ten in 2014. How will the other teams knock Michigan State off the high perch achieved with the Rose Bowl win in the 2013 season?
Although Michigan State would rather beat a fully healthy Ohio State to bolster its resume for a playoff appearance, fate seems to be smiling on East Lansing these days. The Green and White parade should continue deep into the 2014 season thanks to this critical development.
How do you see the Big Ten and the Ohio State seasons playing out, assuming Miller cannot play? Please provide your comments and counterpoints in the comments section below. I look forward to bringing you more great coverage of the Big Ten in 2014.
David is a columnist focusing on Big Ten football for Bleacher Report. He has been a Featured Columnist in 2011-2013, and you can follow him on Twitter @Buckeyefitzy for more discussion. Please provide any article suggestions you have there. Thanks for reading!
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