NCAA Football News

Ohio State's Road Back to College Football Playoff

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As the confetti fell from University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday night celebrating Alabama's win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game, Ohio State's reign atop the college football world came to an official end.

It's been one year since the Buckeyes beat Oregon in Arlington's AT&T Stadium, capturing the inaugural College Football Playoff championship in the process. Ohio State was a heavy preseason favorite to defend its crown, but as what Urban Meyer deemed "The Year of Stuff" followed their defeat of the Ducks, the Buckeyes found themselves on the outside looking in of this year's playoff.

"I think we won it last year on January 12," the Ohio State head coach said. "This started on January 13. 'The Year of Stuff.'"

That "stuff" Meyer is referring to includes the realities of having a roster full of 18- to 22-year-olds fresh off a national championship season in a rabid football town. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott filed for trademarks. Cardale Jones became college football's biggest offseason celebrity. Maybe even Meyer's midseason bye week book tour belongs in that category.

It included the in-season arrest of quarterback J.T. Barrett for operating a vehicle while impaired, a particularly ugly loss to Michigan State in a de facto Big Ten East Championship Game and culminated in the days following Ohio State's season-ending Fiesta Bowl victory, when nine underclassmen declared to enter the NFL draft.

But with the Crimson Tide's victory on Monday night, the Buckeyes' "Year of Stuff" was brought to a much-needed end.

Welcome to "The Year of Development."

It may not sound as sexy or exciting, but it's exactly what Ohio State will need to once again topple Alabama and reclaim college football's throne.

"I compare it, as I've discussed with our staff, very similar to the 2014 team," Meyer said of his 2016 outlook. "That was a team of development." 

Replacing 16 starters—eight on each side of the ball—the Buckeyes will need to follow a similar track in 2016 that they did two years ago, which led to not only a national title for Ohio State, but the mass exodus of NFL talent that it currently finds itself replacing. The potential is there; Meyer has recruited four top-seven classes since arriving in Columbus in late 2011 and will add another in three weeks.

But the Buckeyes will once again need current unknowns to become household names over the course of the next year, much like Darron Lee, Jalin Marshall, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell and Eli Apple did two years ago.

It's too early to tell who those players will be—that's why those players are currently considered "unknowns"—but Meyer has already singled out junior H-back Curtis Samuel, redshirt freshman running back Michael Weber, senior H-back Dontre Wilson and redshirt freshman wideout K.J. Hill as players he has his eye on for breakout seasons in 2016. Sophomore wideout Noah Brown belongs on that list as well after the 6'2", 222-pounder enjoyed an impressive fall camp last August before a broken leg brought his 2015 season to an end before it began.

"You guys never got to see him in that camp," Meyer told reporters. "He was one of our one, two, three best receivers on our team before he got hurt."

On the offensive line, where Ohio State will be replacing three of its five starters, Meyer has already penciled in sophomore Isaiah Prince and junior Jamarco Jones as his starting tackles. "Isaiah Prince has gotta make a huge jump," Meyer said. "Jamarco Jones is a key cog to the wheel."

On the defensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes will be replacing the potential No. 1 overall pick of the upcoming NFL draft in Joey Bosa, as well as potential first-round picks in Adolphus Washington, Lee, Bell and Apple.

But Meyer has already named middle linebacker and Ohio State's leading tackler from 2015, Raekwon McMillan, a captain and will return defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard, who finished first and second, respectively, in sacks for the Buckeyes this past season.

In the back seven, Meyer named linebackers Jerome Baker and Chris Worley and safeties Erick Smith, Cam Burrows and Malik Hooker as players who will need to step up in the coming year.

The Buckeyes roster will also receive a boost on national signing day in three weeks, with Meyer currently slated to land the nation's third-ranked recruiting class. Seven of the Buckeyes' 18 commits are already on campus as early enrollees, including 5-star defensive end Jonathon Cooper and 4-star wideout Austin Mack.

From a scheduling standpoint, Ohio State will face 2015 playoff participant Oklahoma in the third week of the season, providing the Buckeyes with an early opportunity to either make a statement or put their season on thin ice. But as OSU proved two years ago, you can suffer an early-season loss and still bounce back to not only make the playoff, but win the whole thing.

After the pressure of defending their title in 2015, perhaps a year of being the hunters and not the hunted is just what the Buckeyes need.

Asked by a reporter if this will be "fun," Meyer let out a laugh. As the names of the players leaving and the opponents on the 2016 schedule ran through his mind, "fun" may not have been his word of choice, but much like he did two years ago, the Ohio State head coach found a way to make it work.

"'Fun.' You use that word sometimes—'fun,'" Meyer said. "It'll be a challenge and challenges are fun."

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Deshaun Watson of Clemson was announced as the winner of the 2015 Manning Award as the top quarterback in college football Thursday.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports passed along word of the selection by the Sugar Bowl Committee. Watson led the Tigers to a 14-1 record, with the only loss coming to Alabama in the national title game.

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SEC Extra Points with Barrett Sallee: Alabama's Title, SEC Pride and Perception

As the confetti fell to the floor of University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, late Monday night, and Alabama celebrated its fourth national title in seven years, the echoes of the "S-E-C" chant began to grow louder and louder.

For the first time since Alabama hoisted the crystal football three years ago in South Florida after dominating Notre Dame, the national title was back in its rightful home.

The SEC.

The Crimson Tide's 45-40 win over Clemson capped off a stellar 9-2 bowl season in which every SEC favorite won, every underdog lost and the margin of victory for the SEC's winners was a whopping 23.6 points per game.

Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema made sure to point out just how good the SEC is following his team's romp over Kansas State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl (via Bo Mattingly of Sports Talk with Bo).

It was a massively important bowl season from a perception standpoint, which matters immensely in the world of college football. The SEC hadn't won a major bowl game during the previous two seasons, and Alabama's title coupled with Ole Miss' demolition of Oklahoma State, and the rest of the dominance in December and January, pumps the brakes on the "downfall of the SEC" talk that became pervasive over the last 11 months.

That's all it does, though. 

As I pointed out two weeks ago, we didn't learn much about any of the triumphant teams that we didn't already know over the holiday season, and there's plenty of work to do for those teams to help the conference get back to the true dominance it enjoyed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. 

We won't have to wait long, because one look at the Week 1 schedule in 2016 will provide another important barometer for conference power.

As I pointed out in the link above, bowl season wasn't a referendum on conference power because conference power in the offseason doesn't matter. 

It does matter in the regular season, though, especially in November, when the members of the College Football Playoff selection committee are sitting in that room in Grapevine, Texas, judging just how good these teams really are.

The perception that the SEC is back, at this point, is nothing more than an offseason talking point to hold us over through the next nine months. It's the equivalent of Congress bringing a proposal to the floor.

That proposal will be voted on over Labor Day weekend and could dramatically change the way the selection committee and the public views the conference.

 

Smart Laying the Groundwork

New Georgia head coach Kirby Smart was introduced to the world in December when he took the job, but he immediately went back to work at Alabama, as the Crimson Tide began preparation for their national title celebration.

Now, he's all Bulldog.

Smart flew cross-country from Arizona to Athens immediately following the College Football Playoff National Championship, and he got to work.

Smart commented on his whirlwind week, according to quotes emailed by Georgia:

I cannot explain how well I slept last night. Number one, we won the national championship at the University of Alabama. To be able to finish that the right way was a relief. Obviously we did not perform the way I wanted to perform, but we won the game. To know that those players achieved what they wanted to achieve, and then to get into this room yesterday and meet with this team, the University of Georgia team, my team—everybody told me when you get to do that finally, and it’s the only thing you have to worry about, it would be a great relief. A burden off your shoulders. That’s what it’s been for me. I feel much more relaxed. 

Job No. 1 for Smart is fixing an offense that was woefully one-dimensional a year ago, and that starts with the quarterback. Last season's starter, Greyson Lambert, and backup Brice Ramsey are back, and they are joined by 5-star early enrollee Jacob Eason.

"Ultimately, we’ve got to do what’s best for our offensive system and what we have," Smart said. "What we have here right now, a situation with our quarterback environment where we’ve got to compete to find the best guy for the job.

"You do whatever you have to do to win the game. If that becomes a dual-threat quarterback, then we cross that bridge when we come to it."

If that seems like a coach speaking in code, it absolutely was. By not promising any quarterback anything and going as far as to suggest that Georgia could go with a dual-threat quarterback, Smart is essentially telling Eason that nothing will be handed to him and that he's nothing more than a freshman looking to make an impact.

In reality, he's not. He is the future of the Georgia football program, and he likely will become the starter at some point during the 2016 season if he doesn't win the job beforehand.

 

The Sequel to Swag

Chad Kelly went from virtual unknown to the SEC's record books in 2015, totaling 4,542 total yards—the third-best single-season mark in conference history behind former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's 5,116 yards in 2012 and 4,873 yards in 2013.

He'll have a chance to top "Johnny Football" in 2016.

According to Tim Graham of the Buffalo News, Kelly will return to Oxford for his senior season in the hopes of helping the program take the next step and earn its first SEC West title in its history.

"It feels great to be a part of a winning team for a school with such a rich history," Kelly said, "but I realize that there’s still a lot of learning and growing that I can do with this team.

"It will take the hard work and commitment of everyone involved, but I believe that we have a committed coaching staff and some of the best players in college football. I can’t wait to see what we can do together in 2016."

It's a great move for Kelly personally and huge for Ole Miss in 2016. 

Kelly was awesome in 2015 but took far too many risks and needs to cut that out as a senior. His 13 interceptions were the second-most in the conference behind former Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles, and that has to change if he wants to impress NFL scouts who will have their eyes on him this year.

For Ole Miss, it didn't just get an experienced quarterback who knows how to win with plenty of the same weapons around him. It got back one of the primary running threats. 

Kelly finished the season as the Rebels' second-best rusher with 500 yards and 10 touchdowns, and will enter 2016 as the team's leading returning threat on the ground. 

Could he be better as a senior? The loss of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell hurts, but don't be surprised if Kelly takes on even more responsibility and becomes a Heisman Trophy contender.

 

Rocky Top Return

While the rest of the college football world came down from the high of watching one of the most entertaining national championship games in recent history, Tennessee got some huge news.

Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin—the Volunteers' leading tackler from a year ago with 105 stops—announced that he's returning to school for his senior year.

How much did it resonate in the college football world? Oklahoma Ty Darlington, who played against Reeves-Maybin and Tennessee in Week 2, did his best to put his return in proper perspective.

He will be the centerpiece to new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop's first defense on Rocky Top, which should be one of the nation's best. 

In addition to Reeves-Maybin, the Vols will return stud defensive end Derek Barnett, a stellar interior line that includes Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle, and a secondary that has to fill a couple of holes but is still loaded with experienced players thanks to injuries that forced youngsters into the lineup.

He's one of the most underrated players in the country, and head coach Butch Jones getting another year out of Reeves-Maybin is the equivalent of signing a 5-star prospect who will make an immediate impact.

 

Quick Outs

  • Alabama head coach Nick Saban got the traditional phone call from President Barack Obama following his fourth national title under Obama's presidency. I wonder if they are running out of things to talk about? "So, Nick, how's the golf game?"
  • Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey, who caught the onside kick that turned the tables in the title game, had a little fun with Fox Sports college football analysts and vocal SEC critics Colin Cowherd and Joel Klatt following Alabama's win. Well done, Marlon.
  • OddsShark.com released its 2016 national title odds, with Alabama and Clemson leading the way. If you're looking for value, though, don't sleep on Florida State (+1600), Ole Miss (+2200) and Tennessee (+2200).
  • The recruiting dead period ended at midnight, so from Thursday until Feb. 2, the race is on. Let's get weird.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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