On the morning of Aug. 18, ESPN college football analysts were required to provide their national champion and Heisman Trophy predictions for the upcoming season. Kirk Herbstreit—perhaps the sport's most prominent pundit—opted to stay close to home with his picks, choosing Ohio State and Braxton Miller to sweep college football's two most prestigious trophies.
A homer pick? Perhaps. But the former Buckeyes quarterback had his reasons.
Playing in a still-rebuilding Big Ten, Ohio State had arguably the easiest path to the first-ever College Football Playoff. And with a quarterback as experienced and talented as Miller, it was not far-fetched to think that the Buckeyes could win it all.
"The light had finally gone off for him as far as really understanding defenses and his offense and how to attack," Herbstreit told B/R. "I think he was ready to have a big year. The overall athletic ability around him was at a whole different level. I think he was going to flourish."
But just hours after Miller downplayed Herbstreit's bold prediction—"He said that," Miller reminded reporters—both Ohio State and its senior signal-caller were sacked with a season-altering moment. A simple seven-yard throw in the Buckeyes' afternoon practice session resulted in Miller's right shoulder falling out of place, a torn labrum that will sideline him for the entirety of the 2014 season.
Unsurprisingly, Herbstreit revised his predictions, forecasting Florida State to repeat as national champion and UCLA's Brett Hundley to win college football's most prestigious individual award. As the Centerville, Ohio, native explained, Miller's injury is simply too much to overlook in Columbus, given what the two-time Big Ten MVP meant to the Ohio State offense.
“Oh yeah. They have to," Herbstreit responded when asked if expectations for the Buckeyes changed with Miller's injury. "This would be like Florida State losing Jameis Winston or UCLA losing Brett Hundley or Oregon losing Marcus Mariota or Baylor losing Bryce Petty. He’s at that level.
"To sit here in August and say, ‘Oh, no problem, next guy up, they’re still going to have the same year,' I mean, you’re talking about one of the elite players in the country and a four-year starter. So obviously it’s going to be a hit."
How much of a hit for Ohio State will it be? Herbstreit admits that's something that remains to be seen. Noting that the Buckeyes will still likely be favored in 11 of their 12 scheduled games this season, Herbstreit believes that OSU could still be in line for a special third season under head coach Urban Meyer, but it will all depend on what it gets from Miller's replacement.
And while that player appears to be redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, Herbstreit's not so sure. It may be Barrett who's currently listed atop the Buckeyes depth chart at quarterback, but the former Ohio State signal-caller expects both he and redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones to see significant snaps when the Buckeyes take the field for their season opener against Navy on Saturday.
"My guess is Ohio State plays both quarterbacks early to figure out, ‘OK, now we know, whoever it is—'J.T.’s definitely the guy or wow, Cardale is playing well,’" Herbstreit said. "It’s one thing to announce that [Barrett's] the backup to Braxton Miller. But to announce that he’s a starter—that’s a totally different thing. I’m expecting them to play both guys and find out if one of them takes a big step when the bright lights are on and the game is real.”
Like Meyer and OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman have done this week, Herbstreit described the Buckeyes' new quarterback's role as that of a "distributor." And although Herbstreit praised Ohio State's skill position players—singling out sophomore H-back Dontre Wilson and freshman running back Curtis Samuel—he also noted that he wouldn't be surprised to see the Buckeyes experiment with a Wildcat attack in order to replace what they lost in Miller's running ability.
"These two quarterbacks, neither one of them are real threats running the ball," Herbstreit said of Barrett and Jones. "It wouldn’t shock me to see a Jalin Marshall or somebody incorporated in a package to run the ball from that zone-read look. Jalin Marshall was an outstanding high school quarterback at Middletown."
But regardless of who it is behind center or what outsiders—like himself—are saying, Herbstreit pointed out that he doesn't see the expectations inside the walls of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center changing for the upcoming season. Well-versed in the pressures of playing at Ohio State, the 1992 Buckeyes captain knows that it's championship or bust in Columbus, no matter who's on the field.
“I still feel like in their minds, despite the loss of Braxton Miller, I still think a successful year is a Big Ten championship," Herbstreit said. "The fact that they’ve won so many games since Urban has been there, for them to say, ‘Hey, a successful year would be 9-3 or 10-2 and let's get to a Jan. 1 bowl game,’ you’ll never hear that out of Columbus. A successful year is always winning a Big Ten championship and trying to make a run at a national title.”
Will that even be possible without No. 5 at quarterback for the Buckeyes? Maybe. But it will certainly be a lot more difficult.
After Meyer got off to a 24-2 start with the players that he inherited from Jim Tressel, he now has arguably the most talented team that he's possessed since arriving in Columbus. Whether or not it's capable of reaching its potential will depend on the play of Ohio State's new quarterback—whoever it is—which is something that even Herbstreit himself knows that he can't project.
And given his most recent track record with predictions when it comes to his alma mater, that may be for the better for the Buckeyes.
"Before Braxton’s injury, I thought this was the year based on the recruiting and having a four-year starting quarterback. I would’ve thought they could’ve had a shot to win a national title," he said. "Now I think they have a shot to have a really, really good year. It’s impossible to predict how these quarterbacks for Ohio State will play. We’ll know more in the next few weeks."
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit has teamed up with Allstate to give fans nationwide the chance to attend two of the biggest games of the college football season. As part of a season-long celebration of the 10th anniversary of its “Good Hands” field-goal nets, Allstate is launching the It’s Good Sweepstakes, featuring an ultimate prize package of $100,000 and a trip with three friends to the 2015 Allstate® Sugar Bowl.® Fans can enter the sweepstakes at allstatecfb.com.
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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