Coming into the inaugural College Football Playoff, Alabama was the favorite to win it all. And in the Sugar Bowl, nobody really gave Ohio State a chance against the winner of the mighty SEC West. Alabama was a 7.5-point favorite, according to Odds Shark, and seemingly every analyst was picking the Crimson Tide.
That is how it has been for Ohio State for the duration of Urban Meyer’s tenure. The Buckeyes have always been perceived as second-tier regardless of their performance.
According to the skeptics, when the Buckeyes went a perfect 12-0 in 2012, it was because they weren’t facing any pressure, as they couldn’t participate in the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. And in 2013, when they won their first 12 games, it was only because they were playing against weak Big Ten competition. That claim was made stronger when Ohio State lost their final two games, falling to Michigan State in the conference championship game and then to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
In 2014, it was a different story. The Buckeyes were highly touted before the start of the season, ranked fifth in the AP Preseason Poll, but their title hopes went bleak in a hurry when Braxton Millertore his labrum in practice the week before the team’s season opener against Navy.
The doubt became greater as J.T. Barrett struggled in his first few starts. The Buckeyes lost their first regular-season game of the Urban Meyer era, a rough defeat to Virginia Tech, but once Barrett got a little experience under his belt, he was phenomenal. The sense of doubt did not begin to abate until Barrett scored five touchdowns against then-eighth ranked Michigan State in a convincing 49-37 victory over the Spartans.
He accounted for 45 touchdowns on the year but suffered a gruesome ankle injury against Michigan in the last game of the regular season. In stepped Cardale Jones, who led the Buckeyes to a dominating 59-0 win in the Big Ten Championship Game and then found a way to beat Alabama in a hard-fought playoff victory.
That’s how it’s been for Meyer so far in Columbus. Even as his team continues to win boatloads of games, the Buckeyes haven’t gotten much respect due to the perceived inferiority of the Big Ten conference.
However, that is going to change soon.
The Buckeyes have a very young team, and they are only getting better. Of the team’s top offensive playmakers, only receivers Devin Smith, Evan Spencer and tight ends Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are seniors.
Running back Ezekiel Elliot, who torched the Tide for 230 rushing yards, is a sophomore. Michael Thomas, the team leader in receptions, is a sophomore. Speedster Dontre Wilson is also a sophomore, and receiver Jalin Marshall is only a freshman.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s much of the same. Of the Buckeyes’ top 10 tacklers, only Curtis Grant and Doran Grant are seniors. Safety Vonn Bell, who made a pivotal interception against Alabama, is a former 5-star athlete who has turned into a terrific player as a sophomore. Linebacker Darron Lee, who is second on the team with 16.5 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks, is a freshman. And first-team All-American Joey Bosa, who is fifth in the nation with 13.5 sacks, is only a sophomore.
When Meyer got to Ohio State, it wasn't exactly stocked with dynamic players. The Buckeyes were coming off of a disappointing 6-7 season, but like he has done everywhere he has been, Meyer found a way to quickly turn them into winners.
Using a blend of superb recruiting, a new offense and a culture change, Meyer has gone 37-3 in his three years in Columbus.
And now, with the Buckeye players heading into the biggest game of their lives, those recruits are starting to blossom. Ohio State’s recruiting hauls have ranked fifth, second and third in the past three years. Each of those classes were the best in the Big Ten, and it was that top-tier talent that allowed the Buckeyes to knock off Alabama.
But while the OSU roster is loaded with young talent, their inexperience is not hindering them. 2014 was not supposed to be their year, especially when Braxton Miller went down, but they are in the national championship game nonetheless. The fact that they can compete on college football’s highest level with so many freshman and sophomores logging significant playing time is a testament to Meyer’s coaching ability.
He has found a way to mold his players into winners, and what is scary is that there are even brighter days ahead. Those players are going to continue to improve, and more and more top recruits are going to flood into the program.
The Buckeyes’ current recruiting class ranks sixth in the nation and best in the conference, according to 247Sports.com.
So even if they cannot find a way to slow down the potent Oregon offensive attack and they end up losing, it will still be a tremendously successful season. Because if they can make it so far with inexperienced quarterbacks, just imagine what they can do with a seasoned signal-caller.
Whether it’s Miller, Barrett or Jones, it will be an improvement over the 2014 quarterback play. If it’s Miller, he will be playing because Meyer feels he is better than the other two. If it’s Barrett behind center, he will undoubtedly perform better with a full offseason of practice with the first-stringers. And if it happens to be Jones, he will have grown immensely as he learns the offense and continues to hone his craft.
Whatever the case, Meyer will make it work. Barring any catastrophic setbacks, the Buckeyes are my early selection to be the top-ranked team in next year’s preseason poll.
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