Meyer brought the Buckeyes to a perfect 12-0 record his first season on the job, but he knew he was far from done. He knew the road back to the top in college football wasn’t over and hung a giant banner that read “The Chase” at one end of the team’s indoor practice facility at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
In year one, Meyer and the Buckeyes chased and caught a 12-0 record, but Ohio State’s season ended their, ineligible for the postseason. Alabama won the national title that season, decimating Notre Dame 42-14 while the Buckeyes were home wondering what could have been.
But Ohio State wasn’t ready. CBS recruiting analyst Tom Lemming knew as much two years ago and his comments to BSB in 2012 now seem prophetic.
“They can beat almost any team in the country except maybe one of two SEC teams, and Alabama is definitely one of those teams,” he said of Ohio State in 2012. “A couple more recruiting classes like the ones he’s bringing in and he’ll be there talent level-wise with Alabama. It is just a matter of time. Give him two more years and he’ll be in the national title game.”
Two years later, Meyer is one win away from that title game and he’ll have to go through Alabama and Saban to get there. The team’s square off in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
By Meyer’s own admission, Ohio State hasn’t been on the Crimson Tide’s level since he came to Columbus.
“So I think we’re a building program, they’re an established program and our players, we have to be on point to beat this team,” Meyer said when learning of the Buckeyes post season opponent.
The Crimson Tide won the BCS National Championshipo game in 2009, ’11 and ’12. Meyer was on hand for the 2012 title, working with ESPN as the Buckeyes sat at home with their perfect 12-0 record.
That unblemished record propelled the Buckeyes to the No. 3 ranking in the final Associated Press poll, but Meyer knew Ohio State wasn’t ready.
“To say we could roll in there and beat a team like (Alabama), I don’t know,” Meyer said after the Crimson Tide dismantled the Fighting Irish in the 2012 national title game. “Honest answer, right now, we have too many holes to fill.”
Now, the Buckeyes get to see if that progress has been made as they get ready to take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide.
Defeating the Tide that will propel Ohio State and Meyer back in to the short list of perennial national contenders. While a program with the history and tradition of the Buckeyes is never far out of the conversation, the dominance of the Southeastern Conference combined with the Big Ten’s struggles in recent years have put a damper on Ohio State from a national perspective even though the Buckeyes actually have a slightly better record percentage-wise the past three years (35-3) than Alabama (36-4).
While player development and on-field strategizing are certainly a big part of both coaches’ success, the recruiting trail is where the battle begins and where Meyer started chasing the Tide. In eight years as head coach of Alabama only once has Saban signed a class outside of the top five of Scout.com’s class rankings, a seventh-ranked class in 2011.
“There’s only one way to get an Alabama-type of roster – you have to recruit it,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Bill Greene said in 2012. “You have to recruit the type of players that Urban saw that night on that field at the championship game on the winning side. He has to have a bunch of them and he knows it.”
Two years later, he does, as each of Meyer’s classes have finished in the top five of Scout’s rankings since his hiring. Meyer put together the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in 2013, including eight players that drew serious interest from Saban and Alabama, and that class is playing a big role for the Buckeyes this season.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott, safety Vonn Bell, H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall, linebacker Darron Lee, defensive lineman Darron Lee, quarterback J.T. Barrett, cornerback Eli Apple and lineman Billy Price all came to Ohio State as part of that class and have all started for the Buckeyes this year.
“I think that if you have one of the top programs and I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for the energy in recruiting that Urban and his staff and their organization has in trying to go after some of the best players, identifying them and going after them.,” Saban said on the playoff coaches’ teleconference. “Obviously they've done a great job of recruiting there and that's why they have a very good team and that's why they're going to be in this playoff.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for the way they recruit.”
That recruiting has been the foundation on which Meyer has built the Buckeyes into a team capable of challenging Alabama, or at least one considered worthy of trying.
Senior captain Curtis Grant said he was happy the Buckeyes got a chance to prove themselves against the best of the best as part of their 2014 chase.
“From what I’ve seen, even at the beginning of the year, the Big Ten has hung with the SEC, we just didn’t finish,” the linebacker said. “That’s the biggest thing, finishing. We’ve just gotta finish the game.”
If Ohio State can do that and topple the Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes will be one step closer to finishing what Meyer has been chasing since coming to Columbus, a step closer to becoming the program that Ohio State and the coach have been striving to be.