BuckeyesSports.com was there for all of it, from the season-opener against Navy in Baltimore to the game for all the marbles against Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Our panel, BuckeyeSports.com writers Ryan Ginn, Blake Williams and Marcus Hartman along with editor Jeff Svoboda, take a look back at the season that was.
1. When did you believe this was a national title team?
Ryan: I honestly didn’t believe this team could win it all until after the Sugar Bowl, and my garbage predictions record this year bears that out. I picked the Buckeyes to lose to Navy, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Alabama. When they beat the Crimson Tide the way they did, there wasn’t really anything left for me to do except stop being wrong.
Marcus: After they beat Alabama – and they way they did it. There's enough evidence piled up for me to believe the Crimson Tide, even if they had some spots that aren't as strong as others this season, are still the most talented program in the country... or at least they were. Ohio State won individual battles all over the field against a team that has been sending oodles and oodles of guys to the NFL. That's enough proof to me of the job Urban Meyer is doing on the recruiting trail and Mickey Marotti is doing in the weight room. Before then it was fair to question just how good the Buckeyes were simply because they hadn't passed any big tests outside the conference in years.
Blake: Honestly, I was pretty late to the party. I was skeptical even after the decimation of Wisconsin, and while I said that I thought the Buckeyes could beat Alabama, I wasn’t a true believer until they did. I just kept thinking that Cardale Jones would falter on the big stage and Ohio State would be bounced by a more experienced team. I felt that the Buckeyes were as talented as any team in the country, but wasn’t sure that they were ready. Man, did they prove me wrong. I should have realized that talent trumps experience and that head coach Urban Meyer has both. I did pick the Buckeyes to beat Oregon, so I guess I wasn’t the last one to the national championship party.
Jeff: I'll be honest, it took until the Alabama game. I knew the Buckeyes were contenders after the Michigan State game and thought there was a chance going into the Michigan game, but I honestly thought everything was out the window after the Michigan game and the injury to J.T. Barrett. I think we all knew Cardale Jones had talent, but this was a guy they wouldn't even let throw in most of his relief appearances in his career until the Illinois game. Who knew what the Buckeyes had? We started to find out in the Wisconsin game, but beating a top-15 team like Wisconsin is one thing; beating No. 1 Alabama, annual recruiting ranking champion and winner of three of five national championships is another. Once Jones passed that test with flying colors, calmly leading the Buckeyes back from a 21-6 deficit in the Superdome, I knew the Buckeyes would leave Dallas with the championship.
2. How do you view the Virginia Tech loss now?
Ryan: Prior to the Oregon game a reporter asked Joshua Perry about the importance of the Virginia Tech loss and it took everything I had to not laugh out loud. I think this team would have developed even without that defeat, and sugarcoating losses with the idea of a wake-up call always seems a little silly. Mostly I just view it as unbelievable. I’ve never heard a coaching staff openly admit after a game they had no idea what was coming and didn’t adjust well enough. At the end of the day, though, this team was worlds away from its potential when that happened. Luckily for the Buckeyes, they got a chance to prove it.
Marcus: A perfect example of why the BCS was terrible.
This loss was visible from a mile away, and I picked it in the preseason both before and after Braxton Miller was injured. Admittedly, I thought the Hokies would be better than they turned out to be, but it was just a bad matchup with so many new parts on offense facing a brilliant defensive coordinator and a the Ohio State defense playing really its first game against a "normal" offense. One unit needed to be on top of its game to pick up the other, and that didn't happen. The odds were always against that, too.
A team not being ready for that type of challenge in the first month of the season should never be weighed as heavily as what a team does once its plan has come online in the middle and end, so it's nice that doesn't have to be the case anymore.
And to be honest, I didn't know how good Ohio State was, either, so it's a good thing we have a system that let the Buckeyes show the world.
Blake: It’s pretty tough to look back at that game and see even the makings of the team we saw control games against Alabama and New Orleans in the past month. That ugly, 35-21 loss certainly showcased the Buckeyes deficiencies at the time and gave them plenty to work on going forward. I’ve seen the argument that Ohio State was better for having lost that game, but I don’t buy it. Had they struggled against the Hokies, but pulled out the win I believe they still would have known what they needed to work on. Still, the game is perplexing in hindsight. It’s reasonable to believe that an inexperienced line and quarterback would struggle against the hyper-aggressive VT defense, but the defense couldn’t get off the field on third down and Michael Brewer played what had to be the best game of the quarterback’s season. It’s a weird loss no matter how you look at it and I imagine the Buckeyes are looking forward to the 2015 season-opener in Blacksburg already.
Jeff: Well, I'd say a fluke, but that's obviously not the case because the Buckeyes were overwhelmed that night. The "Bear" thing continues to be inexplicable -- OSU had faced similar defenses before but seemed lost when it came to adjustments -- but it does make sense that a young offensive line and quarterback just weren't ready for that level of aggressive defense. Not many teams had the cornerbacks to just straight man-up against OSU and bring such creative blitzes, but credit to the Hokies for doing so. Some days it's just not your day, as you have to remember VT QB Michael Brewer also played out of his mind in that one as well, and being behind with an inexperienced offensive line and quarterback was just not the situation the Buckeyes could be in. This sort of plays into how overrated being undefeated is in college football (Florida State wasn't one of the four best teams this year but had to get to the playoff to prove that), but that's an argument for another day. The moral of the story is the Buckeyes had a bad day Sept. 6, but they were at least given the motivation to respond from it as well.
3. Aside from the quarterbacks, who surprised you most this year?
Ryan: Darron Lee, for sure. Urban Meyer did spend spring saying that Lee was a guy to watch out for and who had impressed them, but you have to take praise from him with a grain of salt. After all, last year Meyer called Jimmy Garoppolo “one of the best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen.” But damn if Meyer didn’t hit this one right on the head. Lee was a force to be reckoned with all year long and provided a nice bookend by scoring the first and last touchdowns of the regular season.
Marcus: The offensive line and Darron Lee. I spent the offseason figuring the offensive line would be solid enough that it wouldn't be a liability with a dynamic quarterback and improved receivers taking the lead. Instead, it grew into an elite unit that dominated everyone in the second half of the season and the postseason.
I liked what I saw from Lee in the Ohio North-South All-Star Game and certainly believed he would find a spot somewhere at some point and become a contributor, but I didn't think he would be such a tremendous playmaker at such an important spot so early. Lee was a real difference-maker when usually just getting a redshirt freshman to take care of his business is all one can reasonably expect.
Blake: There are a lot of candidates here. The team had five freshman All-Americans, and I’d be lying if I said I saw the steady play of Billy Price or breakout campaigns from J.T. Barrett or Darron Lee coming. But Barrett’s decision making is what made him great and that’s what we heard about all preseason while Lee’s aggression and athleticism served him well. So while unpredictable, neither player was as surprising to me as the dominating way that Ezekiel Elliott finished the season. I knew that the sophomore was talented, but I didn’t expect him to dominate three top 15 opponents and make a case for himself as one of the best running backs in the country. I couldn’t pinpoint when it happened, but at some point everything clicked for Elliott. The game slowed down and the young back was able to take full advantage of his patience, vision and surprising (to me) physicality. The loss of Carlos Hyde from the 2013 team was considered one of the biggest holes entering the 2014 season and after a bit of a slow start Elliott made that position a strength. I thought he’d be good. I didn’t know he’d be great.
Jeff: It would have to be the offensive line. Darron Lee was a revelation and Eli Apple was awesome for a redshirt freshman cornerback in an aggressive scheme, but how do you replace four offensive line starters (three of whom started for NFL division champions) and really not miss a beat? Ed Warinner deserves whatever raise he'll get for being promoted to offensive coordinator, and this was his most impressive job. At least in 2012 those guys were all highly rated recruits and upperclassmen when they jelled; of the five starters on this year's unit, two arrived as defensive linemen and two others were three-star prospects. These five guys deserve plenty of Five Guys after they punished Alabama and Oregon in the playoff.
4. Who was the MVP of the 2014 season?
Ryan: I think it’s Michael Bennett. In addition to the fact that he galvanized the team with mid-game speeches against Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan, he raised his level of play throughout the season. Ohio State got better later in the season when Bennett improved as an individual, and the senior captain made those around him better, too. I’m not sure OSU is a title team without him.
Marcus: That is a tough one. With so many major contributors on offense, it's hard to isolate anyone on that side of the ball. Joey Bosa was the best overall player on the defense, but I think the most valuable was Michael Bennett. He became the consummate leader as senior is expected to be, and his move back to three-technique coincided with the defense moving to another level. So I would pick Bennett for his combination of leadership and production.
Blake: This one is particularly tough because it depends on what you’re looking for in most valuable. Is it the player who had the biggest impact in the most games? Or maybe it should be the player with the biggest impact in the biggest games. I’m going with the latter. With three straight 200-yard performances in the three biggest games of the year, my MVP goes to Elliott. The sophomore was the best player on the field in three straight postseason games and there is no way that Ohio State would be crowned champions without his steadying performance behind a mauling offensive line. A hat tip to Barrett for being a stabilizing force for Ohio State throughout the season, but in the biggest games it was all Elliott.
Jeff: This is one of the toughest questions you can ask. Do I have to pick one person? I think I do, obviously, but it's tough. I'm gonna go with J.T. Barrett, which is a total copout in some ways. Sure, just give it to the quarterback who started and won the most games. But there's a reason quarterbacks win the MVP or the Heisman almost every year; the ball is in his hand every play, and with so many option-based offenses these days, the quarterback in the modern game has to make a decision and get the ball where it needs to go without a mistake. It's a huge responsibility, and to be honest, Ohio State didn't know if it had a quarterback two games into the season. But Barrett came back from a very public rough day vs. Virginia Tech to throw six touchdown passes a week later, and from that point the team seemed to play with much more confidence and comfort. Jones was amazing, obviously, at the end of the year, but he inherited a team with a solid identity. Barrett was a major part of creating that identity so he gets my vote.
5. Would Ohio State have won the national championship with J.T. Barrett or Braxton Miller at the helm?
Ryan: I don’t want to be dismissive of a two-time Big Ten MVP selection (who happened to win 24 straight games at one point, by the way), but I don’t think it happens with Miller. There’s a chance Barrett would have beaten Alabama, but Ohio State had a lot of success on deep balls over the middle and I’m not sure Barrett could have exploited that as well as Jones did. If forced to pick, I’d say that Jones took them further than any other QB could have.
Marcus: I believe either of them could have replicated (one way or another) what Jones did at quarterback in the games he started, but I'm not sure if so many others would have stepped up their games if Miller or Barrett were still playing. Some of the receivers showed the type of progress you would expect from one year to the next, but as the year wore on they just kept making more and more great individual plays. I also think it's no coincidence the defense raised its level of play after Barrett went out. Some guys just took it upon themselves to give more to the team. Would they have done that simply because of what was on the line in December and January? We'll never know, I guess.
Blake: Revisionist history is a tough game to play, but I’m inclined to say yes. Miller is a special talent, a player that every defense is forced to prepare for. It’s hard for me to argue that putting one of the best athletes in college football with the rest of Ohio State’s dynamic playmakers would have made the Buckeyes worse, so I think that he would have gotten it done. While Barrett isn’t the level of athlete as Miller or Jones, his decision making was excellent all season. I don’t think Ohio State had as high a ceiling with Barrett at the helm as they would have with Miller or did with Jones, but the redshirt freshman would probably have limited the mistakes that his counterpart made.
Jeff: This is a tough question. Both are certainly talented enough to have led a team to one, so I am tempted to say yes. But I also think that getting to a third quarterback was that extra bit of motivation that brought the team together, so who knows how the team would have developed in an alternate universe in which one or both was healthy? I did think for most of the season that Miller could have done a lot of the things Barrett did -- there's a reason OSU tweaked the offense to be based on the quarterback distributing during the offseason even when Miller was slated to run it -- and I thought Barrett was good enough to lead OSU to a title near the end of the year so I'll say yes.
6. What was your favorite moment of the season?
Ryan: I’m going to cheat and give y’all a few moments from the postseason. I enjoyed seeing Raekwon McMillan walk over to the stands to hug Curtis Grant’s family after the Big Ten title game, and I’ll always remember seeing Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington walk off the Superdome field together before doing joint interviews after taking down Alabama. Tyvis Powell was sitting a couple lockers away, cradling the football he intercepted to preserve the win and yelling back and forth with his teammates. The locker room after the national championship was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In all these moments, you could see just how much these players cared for each other. It’s one of the reasons they’re champions.
Marcus: I thought Elliott's breakaway against Alabama was really the culmination of many years of strife and progress for Ohio State. It was the last exorcism needed for the demons from the national title game losses at the end of 2006 and '07. The Buckeyes not only beat the beast of the SEC, they broke the defense of the league's best team with superior speed and power. It was kind of like watching an elite UFC fighter dominate on the feet then choke his opponent out -- who gets choked out at that level? Only someone who's been thoroughly and completely beaten and has nothing left. Kind of like a simple sweep going 85 yards. The length of the run also gave the crowd the time to rise to a fever pitch, a moment that was really incredible to experience live.
Blake: Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes run to the national title was filled with memorable moments, but I am going to go with one that is still relatively fresh in my mind: Evan Spencer’s touchdown pass. With the Buckeyes trailing Alabama 21-13 as the first half was drawing to a close, Ohio State had to score. That’s when Spencer took a lateral from Jalin Marshall, planted his feet at the 22-yard line and sent a ball towards the front left corner of the end zone. That’s where Michael Thomas made one of the most acrobatic catches I’ve seen in person, high-pointing the ball and somehow tucking his left foot inside the sideline for a touchdown. It was a truly remarkable, fun play that the Buckeyes had to have.
Jeff: There's a bunch of little ones that will stand out down the road -- seriously, these guys were a blast to be around -- but I'll never forget the deep ball Cardale Jones threw to Devin Smith for their second TD hook-up vs. Wisconsin. It was an absolutely effortless throw -- 50 yards on a line with pinpoint accuracy, all with a simple flick of the wrist -- and showed that Jones wasn't here to mess around. There's something about a Cardale deep ball you have to see in person to truly appreciate (it's like one of the marvels of the modern world) and this was probably his best one. I'm out of ways to describe it. It's that good. So let's go with that.