JT Barrett Holds Key to Ohio State's Title Hopes After Braxton Miller's Injury

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2014

Ohio State quarterback JT Barrett warms up during their Spring NCAA college football practice Tuesday, March 4, 2014, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

From unassuming backup to the starting quarterback of a national-title contender. Such is the life of Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, who suddenly finds himself in the enviable position of being the Buckeyes' starting signal-caller and the unenviable (read: and terrifying) position of replacing a Heisman favorite.

Braxton Miller, entering his senior season on the shortest of shortlists for college football's top trophy, suffered a torn labrum in practice Monday and will miss the entire 2014 season.

"I love Ohio State and Buckeye nation, and my goal is to come back from this injury stronger and better than ever," Miller said in a statement, per the team's official website.

"I am on course to graduate in December and I want to attend graduate school, and then return to lead the Buckeyes next season. In the meantime, I want to give all the support I can to my coaches and teammates as they chase a championship this season."

Miller will take a redshirt this season and plans on returning in 2015. While he's not yet become the world-beating superstar many expected during his freshman ascent, Miller seemed to be on the precipice of a real breakout as a senior.

He has gradually improved every season, setting career bests in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns and quarterback rating in 2013. He's even improved his yards per carry every season.

Ranked fifth by The Associated Press and sixth by the coaches, Ohio State opened camp with designs on being invited to the inaugural College Football Playoff. Michigan State and Wisconsin are the only major threats in another watered-down Big Ten, and the Buckeyes and Badgers will only go head-to-head if they win their respective divisions.

When assessing the title picture, I'd already penciled Ohio State into my "obligatory undefeated Big Ten team" slot. Gone were the likes of Carlos Hyde, Bradley Roby, Ryan Shazier and basically every lineman on the damn roster.

But there were enough returning starters defensively to give hope that the leaky unit from last season would improve, and Miller was there to hit Devin Smith downfield and atone for the departure of the steady stalwart Hyde.

Now? Yikes.

The Buckeyes go from title contender to third-best team in their conference in the blink of an eye. After being 10-1 or 12-1 at most sportsbooks throughout the preseason, Ohio State sits at odds anywhere from 30-1 all the way to 50-1 after news of Miller's injury was confirmed, per OddsShark

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Urban Meyer, who has compiled a 24-2 record in two seasons in Columbus, basically has one hope: He's brilliant enough to mold Barrett into a worthy Miller successor within the next 11 days.

The bad news: Barrett has never played a collegiate snap. The redshirt freshman sat out all of last season while recovering from a knee injury that cost him his senior season in high school. He is basically the Derrick Rose of football players, having appeared in only five games combined over the last two seasons.

Unfortunately, the NCAA does not accept self-made vouchers for one free year of Troy Smith eligibility. 

The good news: Barrett might not be terrible at football! Listed at 6'1" and 225 pounds, Barrett has an almost identical build to Miller. He was considered the third-best dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2013 by 247Sports' composite rankings and was the No. 137 player nationally. In five games prior to his knee injury, Barrett had averaged 263.4 total yards per game and scored 12 touchdowns.

With more than a full year of recovery under his belt, Barrett seemed to be picking up where he left off in camp. While he fell behind in the backup quarterback race during the spring, Barrett has since usurped third-year sophomore Cardale Jones.

"The offense moves better when he's in there," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters Monday. "You can throw all the completion percentages – he's probably completing more balls and making more of the right reads in the run game.

"But at the end of the day, the offense moves when he's in and sometimes it doesn't as much, not that Cardale is doing a bad job, but the offense moves more frequently when J.T. is the quarterback, and that's the sign of a good one."

From a skill set standpoint, he's much farther along as a passer than Miller was arriving at Ohio State. He is a natural quarterback—not an athlete forced into the position who can throw.

While Miller's lightning-quick speed is typically the first thing that stands out, for Barrett, it's about his stellar mechanics. Working in Meyer's spread offense will be a perfect fit; Barrett loves getting the ball out of his hands in short, quick-read throws. 

And it's not as if Barrett is Peyton Manning in the pocket. He is a very good athlete, able to beat linebackers and rushers around the edge on scrambles and smart enough as a rusher to handle designed carries. It's doubtful we'll see him bust off the 70-yard runs fans in Columbus have been accustomed to from Miller, but he has fine top-end speed as well.

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

That said, there's a sense losing Miller is one blow too many for Ohio State.

Not only is Barrett entering the fire nearly two calendar years away from his last competitive game, he's doing so behind an inexperienced offensive line. The Buckeyes are replacing four starters from last year's team.

Though graduate transfer Chad Lindsay brings some stability at center, Meyer will basically be banking on years of seasoning as a backup turning the likes of Darryl Baldwin and Antonio Underwood into solid contributors.

Offensive line was already seen as one of the Buckeyes' biggest concerns. Throwing a green unit out on the field to protect an even greener quarterback is a recipe for trouble. Ohio State doesn't have long to build chemistry on a cupcake trail either. After opening the season with Navy, Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer's consistently ferocious defense pays the Horseshoe a visit.

Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

Even if the Buckeyes are able to retain home-field advantage—after all, the Hokies remain fatally allergic to scoring those point things—trips to Penn State and Michigan State become infinitely harder.

The Spartans bring back stars Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford and are consistently among the nation's best defenses. If the Rose Bowl champs weren't already the favorite in that game, they certainly are now.

That, when boiling it down to its core, is kind of the problem. Barrett can andI suspectwill be pretty good this season. Miller was preparing for an invited-to-New York City-level great season. 

Ohio State's margin for error is not big enough to withstand a drop from superstar Heisman contender to above-average freshman. For the Buckeyes to win the national championship, they need Barrett to be Braxton Miller—not a decent facsimile.

As Ohio State fans know all too well and are preparing to find out, there's unfortunately only one Braxton Miller. 


Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.