What a difference one play can make.
From the moment that Braxton Miller announced he was returning to Ohio State for his senior season on Jan. 9, 2014 at 7:37 p.m., the Buckeyes were considered national title contenders for the 2014 season.
For more than seven months, fans in Columbus prepared to rewrite the Ohio State record book with Miller's name in it. Seven months of measuring the Buckeyes up against reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State. Seven months of preparing for the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Those seven months came to a screeching halt and proved to be null and void on Aug. 18, when a seven-yard pass attempt in Ohio State's afternoon practice ended with the Heisman-hopeful signal-caller tearing the labrum in his throwing shoulder—an injury that will cost Miller the entirety of the 2014 season.
While Miller's pursuit of virtually every OSU offensive record has been put on hold—he says he intends to return to the Buckeyes as a fifth-year senior in 2015—Ohio State's 2014 season appears to have lost a lot of its luster.
No longer do all roads lead to a Nov. 8 date in East Lansing, Michigan—which was supposed to host a de facto Big Ten East championship game between the Buckeyes and Spartans—and gone are realistic expectations for Ohio State to be playing in a national semifinal game on New Year's Day.
But what the Buckeyes' 2014 campaign lost in optimism, it now makes up for in intrigue. While a Big Ten title and potential selection to the inaugural playoff may no longer be likely, Urban Meyer provides just enough hope to make each appear possible in what will be his third—and most interesting—season in Columbus.
|2014 Ohio State Coaching Staff|
|Title||Name||Years on Team|
|Head Coach||Urban Meyer||3|
|Co-Defensive Coordinator/Safeties Coach||Chris Ash||1|
|Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach||Luke Fickell||13|
|Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach||Tom Herman||3|
|Defensive Line Coach||Larry Johnson||1|
|Co-Off. Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach||Ed Warinner||3|
|Cornerbacks Coach/Special Teams||Kerry Coombs||3|
|Running Backs Coach||Stan Drayton||4|
|Tight Ends/Fullbacks Coach||Tim Hinton||3|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Zach Smith||3|
After managing to keep his entire staff intact following the Buckeyes' undefeated season in 2012, Meyer had to deal with making the first coaching replacements of his Ohio State tenure this past offseason when two defensive assistants opted to take their careers elsewhere. And given the struggles of the Buckeyes defense in 2013, that may be for the better in Columbus.
Gone is co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Everett Withers, who left Ohio State to become the head coach at James Madison University. In search of a new voice to overhaul his team's defensive philosophy, Meyer landed on Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who held the same title at Wisconsin when the Buckeyes beat the Badgers in 2012.
The early returns on Ash have been positive, with the Ohio State players praising the "one unified voice" that they hear on their defense. Also tasked with total control of the Buckeyes secondary, Ash has installed a quarters coverage system that places an emphasis on press coverage.
"College football has always been run the ball, stop the run. And when you're facing some really good throwing teams or you [face] a Sammy Watkins, you have to be able to get more than one hand on him. We have the ability to do that now," Meyer said. "So far, it's exactly how I wanted to see it look."
The other new face on the Ohio State staff is defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who replaces now-Houston Texans assistant Mike Vrabel. An 18-year assistant at Penn State, Johnson has spent his entire college coaching career recruiting against the Buckeyes, who are now benefiting from his abilities.
"We lost a home run. I love Mike Vrabel,'' Meyer said. "We replaced Mike with a top-shelf coach. A guy that has great respect, very good recruiter, a very good coach, the players love him already."
Rounding out the rest of the Buckeyes defensive staff, Luke Fickell returns for his 13th season as a coach in Columbus, hoping to shore up a linebacker corps that is now without first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Shazier. With Ash in charge of coverage, Kerry Coombs now has more time to spend teaching technique to his cornerbacks while also focusing on his role as OSU's special teams coordinator.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes return their entire staff for a second consecutive season, which should help ease some of the growing pains that will come along with a unit replacing seven starters from a season ago.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman's primary objective will be to get J.T. Barrett ready to fill the enormous shoes that Miller leaves at the quarterback position, while Ed Warinner will be tasked with replacing four multiyear starters on what's been one of the top offensive lines in the country over the past two seasons.
Wide receivers coach Zach Smith, running backs coach Stan Drayton and tight ends coach Tim Hinton have each done an admirable job developing their respective units, as Meyer believes that the Buckeyes now possess the best set of skill players that they've had since he took over the Ohio State program in 2012.
What to Watch For on Offense
|Ohio State 2014 Offensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||J.T. Barrett||Cardale Jones||Stephen Collier|
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott||Rod Smith||Bri'onte Dunn|
|WR||Devin Smith||Corey Smith||Johnnie Dixon|
|WR||Evan Spencer||Michael Thomas||Noah Brown|
|H-Back||Dontre Wilson||Jalin Marshall||Curtis Samuel|
|TE||Jeff Heuerman||Nick Vannett||Marcus Baugh|
|LT||Taylor Decker||Kyle Dodson||Jamarco Jones|
|LG||Joel Hale||Billy Price||Antonio Underwood|
|C||Jacoby Boren||Chad Lindsay||Billy Price|
|RG||Pat Elflein||Chase Farris||Demetrius Knox|
|RT||Darryl Baldwin||Evan Lisle||Brady Taylor|
|K||Sean Nuernberger||Kyle Clinton||Tim Scott|
|PR/KR||Dontre Wilson||Jalin Marshall||Marshon Lattimore|
When Ohio State's quarterback for 2014 changed, so did its offense, as Barrett is hardly the dynamic runner that Miller's been through the first three seasons of his college career. The redshirt freshman doesn't have quite the arm strength that Miller possesses either, although the Buckeyes coaching staff is confident that he can more of a "distributor" behind center, a la former OSU backup Kenny Guiton.
"Kenny Guiton was one of the best I've been around as far as getting the ball out quickly and distributing to playmakers and letting them run with the ball, let them make plays," Meyer said. "That's what my initial evaluation of J.T. is—he's very good at that."
With less being asked of Ohio State's signal-caller this season, more pressure will be placed on a plethora of highly touted playmakers on the Buckeyes roster, many of whom have yet to live up to the hype that accompanied them to Columbus.
That includes H-back Dontre Wilson, who came to Ohio State expected to fill the "Percy Harvin" role in Meyer's spread offense. After being used as little more than a decoy in his freshman campaign, it's been clear that the DeSoto, Texas, product has become one of the focal points of the Buckeyes offense this offseason, and his usage rate should only increase in Miller's absence.
Another sophomore who could find himself shouldering a significant load of the OSU offense this season is running back Ezekiel Elliott. While Big Ten Running Back of the Year Carlos Hyde left a gaping hole in the Buckeyes backfield, Elliott has already shown flashes of a blend of size (6'0", 225 pounds) and speed that make for an intriguing fit in Meyer's spread offense.
While fifth-year senior Rod Smith and redshirt sophomore Bri'onte Dunn will serve as Elliott's immediate backup at running back, don't count out the impact that true freshman Curtis Samuel could make in his debut season.
A 4-star prospect by way of Brooklyn, New York, Samuel initially projected as a wide receiver at the college level but has already managed to make his mark at running back, stealing the heart of his new head coach in the process.
"I've got to be careful, because I do this, but I love that kid and man, oh man, does he go hard," Meyer said. "He's talented and he will play this year."
At the wide receiver position, a number of high-risk, higher-reward players line the Buckeyes roster.
Devin Smith has always been one of college football's top deep-threat wideouts, but he no longer has the benefit of Miller's big arm being able to find him down the field.
Senior Evan Spencer has been steady but unspectacular and could soon find himself passed in the OSU pecking order by fourth-year junior Corey Smith and/or third-year sophomore Michael Thomas, each of whom took redshirts a season ago to preserve extra seasons of eligibility.
Also, don't count out freshman Johnnie Dixon, who has already drawn rave reviews from the Buckeyes coaches since arriving as an early enrollee in January.
While OSU's offensive line rebuilds under the eye of Warinner, the unit should benefit from the help of senior tight end Jeff Heuerman, whom Meyer has described as one of the best point-of-attack blockers in all of college football. And as a redshirt freshman quarterback searches for a security blanket, look for Heuerman to only continue to emerge as one of the top prospects at his position in next year's NFL draft.
Even without Miller, it's clear that the Ohio State offense has potential, but until the Buckeyes take the field, it's nothing more than just that. Without the safety valve of Miller's legs in Herman's back pocket, Barrett will need to prove that he's capable of being every bit the distributor that Meyer thinks he can be for the Buckeyes to have a successful season on the offensive side of the ball.
What to Watch For on Defense
|2014 Ohio State Defensive Depth Chart|
|Position||1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DT||Michael Bennett||Tommy Schutt||Chris Carter|
|DT||Adolphus Washington||Michael Hill||Donovan Munger|
|DE||Noah Spence||Rashad Frazier||Jalyn Holmes|
|DE||Joey Bosa||Steve Miller||Tyquan Lewis|
|OLB||Joshua Perry||Camren Williams||Dante Booker|
|MLB||Curtis Grant||Raekwon McMillan||Joe Burger|
|OLB||Darron Lee||Chris Worley||Trey Johnson|
|CB||Doran Grant||Gareon Conley||Marshon Lattimore|
|CB||Armani Reeves||Eli Apple||Damon Webb|
|SS||Tyvis Powell||Erick Smith||Ron Tanner|
|FS||Vonn Bell||Cam Burrows||Malik Hooker|
|P||Cameron Johnston||Sean Nuernberger||Kyle Clinton|
Ash's new quarters coverage system may place an emphasis on the Buckeyes' back end, but Ohio State's defense will start up front this season with one of the best defensive lines in the country. Defensive tackles Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington team with ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa to create a more than formidable foursome that should apply constant pressure to opposing backfields.
Bosa may be the youngest of the bunch, but he's also probably the most talented, as his 13.5 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks in 2013 were nothing short of remarkable for a freshman. The 6'5", 278-pounder was named a Sporting News Freshman All-American a season ago, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him earn that same title—sans "freshman"—in the coming year.
Despite losing Shazier, who was selected 15th overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers in last May's NFL draft, the Buckeyes like what they have in their linebacking corps, which is headlined by senior middle linebacker Curtis Grant, junior Joshua Perry and redshirt freshman Darron Lee.
It's a now-or-never year for Grant, who has failed to live up to 5-star expectations since arriving in Columbus three years ago. He beat out 5-star freshman Raekwon McMillan to earn the right to start for Ohio State for a second consecutive season, but how long he stays with the Buckeyes first team will be dependent on how he performs.
A starter a season ago, Perry slides over to fill the void left at weak-side linebacker by Shazier, where he'll attempt to replicate stats similar to the 144 tackles and seven sacks that the now-Steeler accumulated a season ago. Lee moves into the lineup at the strong-side linebacker role, which will require him to also cover receivers in the slot.
In the secondary, Meyer likes what he has in senior cornerback Doran Grant, who is arguably the most athletically gifted Ohio State player on the defensive side of the ball. Meyer said that he has All-Big Ten expectations for the Akron, Ohio, native this season, as he appears to be a perfect fit in Ash's system.
As for who will be starting opposite Grant at corner when the Buckeyes take the field against Navy in Baltimore for the season opener, that remains up in the air.
Junior Armani Reeves is currently penciled in as Ohio State's nickelback this season, leaving redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to battle with true freshman Marshon Lattimore for the open starting spot. With Ash's plan to rotate corners, all three could see significant playing time this season.
Whereas Ohio State's safeties were a weakness for the Buckeyes a season ago, they suddenly appear to be a strength, thanks to a trio of talented sophomores.
Vonn Bell came to Columbus a year ago as a 5-star prospect but didn't get the first start of his college career until the Orange Bowl. It was there that he managed to show just why he was so highly touted, recording a diving interception on a pass thrown by Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Joining Bell in the Buckeyes defensive backfield will be Tyvis Powell, a redshirt sophomore who spent 2013 as Ohio State's starting nickelback. Now playing a new position at strong safety, Powell believes that he'll be capable of consistently making more big plays, like his two-point conversion interception that sealed the Buckeyes' win over Michigan last season.
Sophomore Cam Burrows will likely serve as the top backup to both and also possesses the ability to play the dime position in the OSU defense. Hard-hitting freshman Erick Smith has also emerged as another toy for Ash to play with and should find his way onto the field in his freshman season.
Like its offensive counterpart, the Buckeyes defense has talent but obvious questions about its new scheme. How quickly the players pick up on what Ash is trying to teach them will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Silver Bullets make a return to Columbus in 2014.
|Ohio State Injuries|
|Player Name||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Braxton Miller||Torn Labrum||Out For Season|
|Kyle Berger||Torn ACL||Out For Season|
|Dylan Thompson||Fractured Kneecap||Out For Season|
The impact of Miller's injury goes without saying; the Buckeyes' odds of winning the national championship shifted from 12-1 to 50-1 as soon as it was confirmed that the star quarterback would be out for the entirety of the season, per Bovada (via CBSSports.com's Chip Patterson).
Ohio State went from national title contenders to a team that will be lucky to compete for a conference championship, as uncertainty swirls around its quarterback position.
As for the freshmen who have been lost for the season, Berger had been singled out as a player whom Meyer expected to contribute immediately, before the 4-star linebacker re-tore the same ACL that cost him his senior season at Cleveland St. Ignatius.
Thompson, a 3-star defensive lineman from Montini Catholic in Lombard, Illinois, was a likely redshirt candidate heading into his freshman season, but his fractured kneecap remains a setback in his development nonetheless.
With Miller out of the Ohio State lineup, it's hard to think of a bigger X-factor on the Buckeyes roster than Barrett, who now holds the fate of OSU's season in his hands.
In a best-case scenario for the Buckeyes, Barrett would prove to be a more physically talented version of Guiton, who got by on mental reps while sitting behind Miller in practice. The first quarterback prospect that Meyer personally recruited to Columbus, Barrett has already been lauded by the Ohio State coaching staff for both his preparation and leadership skills.
"This kid is kind of Guitonish," Meyer said of Barrett. "Very calm, cool and collected."
If Barrett can make good on his coach's kind words and the Buckeyes' skill players can live up to their hype, Ohio State's schedule could lead it right back into the national title picture. Barrett is no Miller—make no mistake about it—but every college star's story has to have a start, and this could be Barrett's.
Should Barrett not pan out, the Buckeyes will turn to third-year sophomore Cardale Jones, who entered fall camp as Ohio State's No. 2 quarterback. At 6'5" and 250 pounds, Jones isn't nearly as mobile as either Miller or Barrett, but the Cleveland-Glenville product does possess perhaps the strongest arm on the OSU roster.
Ohio State's worst-case scenario would be for neither Barrett nor Jones to prove effective, with all of Buckeye fans' worst fears about Miller's absence being realized. That's why it's important for Barrett to grab hold of the reins and prevent the OSU season from ever coming to that, as he'll get the first—and most important—crack at controlling the Buckeyes offense.
|Ohio State 2014 Schedule|
|Aug. 30||Navy||Baltimore, MD|
|Sept. 6||Virginia Tech||Columbus, OH|
|Sept. 13||Kent State||Columbus, OH|
|Sept. 27||Cincinnati||Columbus, OH|
|Oct. 4||Maryland||College Park, MD|
|Oct. 18||Rutgers||Columbus, OH|
|Oct. 25||Penn State||University Park, PA|
|Nov. 1||Illinois||Columbus, OH|
|Nov. 8||Michigan State||East Lansing, MI|
|Nov. 15||Minnesota||Minneapolis, MN|
|Nov. 22||Indiana||Columbus, OH|
|Nov. 29||Michigan||Columbus, OH|
Prior to Miller's injury, Ohio State appeared to be on a collision course with Michigan State for Nov. 8. The rematch of last season's Big Ten Championship Game between the Buckeyes and Spartans was so highly anticipated heading into the 2014 season, that it was already moved to a prime-time television slot.
But like with all things Ohio State, Miller's injury throws a monkey wrench into the schedule, as it's now harder to look ahead to November and the ninth game of the season without wondering what will happen before then.
That's what makes the Buckeyes' Sept. 6 date with Virginia Tech so intriguing, as Ohio State will face its biggest pre-Michigan State test in just the second week of the season. Should the Buckeyes manage to down the Hokies, they'll likely find themselves favored in every game before their showdown with the Spartans.
An Oct. 25 trip to Happy Valley to face Penn State on the road is a tall task for any first-year quarterback, but if the Buckeyes can get past that, then their meeting with Michigan State should live up to the hype.
It will take two to tango, as the Spartans will also have a say in the magnitude of their Nov. 8 date, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that the one game that stood out on Ohio State's schedule prior to the start of the season maintains its meaning.
Even before Miller went down, it was hard to get a finger on the pulse of this year's Ohio State season.
Now, it's nearly impossible to do so, as Barrett is yet to take a single snap in his college career. To me, it all comes down to that Virginia Tech game and whether or not Barrett and the Buckeyes can gain enough steam on their way to East Lansing.
I believe that they will, but once again, it will be Michigan State that brings an end to Ohio State's national title dreams. After that, I see another letdown on the schedule—perhaps a week later against the Golden Gophers in Minnesota. But all things considered, a 10-2 season would be far from the worst-case scenario for the Buckeyes this year.
Overall Record: 10-2
Conference Record: 6-2
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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