The 2015 season was supposed to be the year in which Ohio State made believers out of the country, with a talented but young core from the class of 2013 seemingly a year away from blossoming last fall. Instead, the upcoming season is chance for the Buckeyes to make history. One year ago, they entered the season too young, too injured, too overmatched. With an unproven roster last fall further crippled by quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury, all hopes for the program’s return to championship-caliber football were pushed back to 2015. Even Meyer – who remained publicly optimistic in the wake of Miller’s absence and a dispiriting loss to unranked Virginia Tech – admitted he told his wife Shelley he wasn’t sure how the season might turn out.
“I don’t know if I shared it with you guys, but I remember talking to my wife, saying it’s going to be a tough one,” Meyer said at Big Ten media days. Speaking of his depreciated expectations for the season, Meyer added he hoped “we get to a decent bowl game.” Instead, Ohio State found itself in the middle of an unexpected growth spurt as younger players – particularly members of that heralded class of 2013 – matured earlier than expected and settled into newfound key roles.
“Then all of a sudden, boom! Darron Lee, Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell, Mike Thomas – Boom! Boom! Ezekiel Elliott started really blossoming,” Meyer said.
Meyer is fond of attributing this development to the culture of the program. In examining last year’s campaign, Meyer points to a transition from theory to testimony, and that journey began in the spring of 2014 with a blueprint — leadership classes, seminars, guest speakers — for what Meyer wanted his program to become.
Overcoming obstacles became an obsession, and Ohio State sure had enough chances to refine that craft. Miller was injured less than two weeks before the season opener and J.T. Barrett, the then-freshman quarterback who successfully replaced him, him broke his ankle against Michigan in late November. That same weekend, walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge was reported missing. His suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was discovered the day after the win over the Wolverines.
“The amount of time that goes into our leadership training and the trying to develop that culture, it’s endless, and it never stops because of the fluidity of the program with freshmen coming in,” Meyer said. “I’m convinced more than ever – and I always have been, but not to this degree – that leadership training that we do, the power of the unit structure the way we do that, that the kids did that for some reason.
“If you’re good enough to stay self disciplined, have self respect and a good work ethic, that makes you one of about 10 percent if you’re lucky, and it’s because of the love of the teammates and they care about each other.”
The Buckeyes slowly built to a crescendo, gathering strength with blowout wins against bottom feeders like Maryland, Rutgers and Illinois. A road win against Michigan State changed everything, and it was eventually followed by a dizzying postseason stretch that included wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon to claim the first ever CFP National Championship.
The Chase was over, and the Buckeyes were back.
The Bad News
In examining Ohio State’s quest to make history as the first back-to-back champions in the history of the program, let’s start with the bad news: Winning two straight titles, as it turns out, is really hard. Alabama did it in 2011 and 2012 and USC (sort of) did it in 2003 and 2004. The only other repeat in the lifetime of current college athletes came when Nebraska won it all in both 1994 and 1995.
Like last year, the Buckeyes don’t appear to be in for a smooth ride. It was announced July 30 that four key contributors – defensive end Joey Bosa, wide receiver Corey Smith and hybrids Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson – would be suspended for the season opener against Virginia Tech for violating team rules.
For all of Ohio State’s work in culture development, it’s still a battle the program will have to fight just as much at the top of the rankings as it did following the loss to Virginia Tech that sent expectations tumbling.
“There’s an element of human nature on the way to the top, too, that you have to fight,” linebacker Joshua Perry said. “Either way, you’re going to have to find a way. It doesn’t matter if you start at the bottom. There’s human nature where you’re always complaining about things not going your way. On the way there, things get tough and there’s that human nature of, ‘Man, it would just be really easy to just kind of be here and be average.’ Then you get to the top and there’s the human nature of getting complacent, but I think we fought through all those things and we were able to get to a certain point, so you’ll see us continue to fight and continue to do what we do.”
Further down the list of problems is the matter of making everyone happy on a roster loaded with stars who will have to fight for touches. An attempt by Meyer to name the top five receivers in the rotation perfectly illustrated this point – the list had ballooned to 10 by the time he had named everyone he thought belonged in the top five.
The quarterback race received a welcome reprieve in that department when Miller switched to wide receiver but the position battle to end all position battles will still have one contestant who doesn’t get the outcome he’s looking for. Both Barrett and Cardale Jones insist the looming decision won’t be a problem when the verdict is handed down, but there’s no way to know for sure until it actually happens.
Although last year would insist otherwise, the possibility of injuries remains a concern. It might seem silly to suggest health problems could sink the Buckeyes (what could be worse than losing two starting quarterbacks?), but there are positions on the team that aren’t as well stocked as the quarterback spot was last fall. With the exception of a meniscus injury for true freshman running back Mike Weber – one that will only sideline him for a month or two at most – the Buckeyes have actually been very lucky in that regard this season.
Lastly – maybe most importantly – there’s the pressure that comes with occupying the top spot. After skating by unnoticed for much of last season (the Buckeyes were 16th in the initial College Football Playoff rankings released in early November), this campaign already has the feel of a team under the microscope.
As one might expect, Ohio State’s players and coaches have an answer and a plan for each of these issues and more. The biggest and most important one is this: Ohio State has as much talent as any team in the country.
Just as you can outplay an opponent in poker, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a college football team can outperform its roster limitations. It still helps to be holding the best cards, though, and in 2015 that honor belongs to Ohio State.
Even with the suspension of some of the most talented players on the team, the Buckeyes are double-digit favorites to beat Virginia Tech. With Marshall, Smith and Wilson unavailable for duty, the Buckeyes can simply rely on a trio of transplants to the position – Miller and Torrance Gibson from quarterback and Curtis Samuel from running back. In place of Bosa, the Buckeyes can turn to five-star recruit Sam Hubbard, who finally found a home at defensive end after starting his career at linebacker and tight end.
“We’ve seen it before. It’s tested,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “It’s testimony, it’s not just a theory that the next guy will play as well. We did it with the quarterbacks. That just doesn’t give me reason to believe we won’t be as good. All the guys we recruit can go anywhere in the country, any school, we’ve got talent all over the field. Mike Thomas, Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel and Braxton Miller sounds like a pretty good group of playmakers to me, so I am not worried at all.”
From the perspective of surviving not just the Virginia Tech game but also the rest of the season, Ohio State boasts an obscene amount of returning talent. In addition to Barrett and Jones at quarterback, Ohio State returns its leading rusher, leading receiver, leading tackler, leading pass rusher and interceptions leader. Four-fifths of one of the best offensive lines in the country returns, and right guard Pat Elflein was named an ESPN All-American along with Elliott, Bosa and Lee.
Ohio State almost certainly won’t be able to spread the ball around enough to please everyone, but offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said he doesn’t think selfishness will be a problem. The early season snaps and opportunities will be divvied up based on success in practice, and the staff will take it from there.
“By your performance and consistency we’ll figure out how to distribute the ball,” he said. “The defense sometimes dictates that, but we have great players and a lot of skill guys on offense who can make plays. The ones who do it the most consistently through training camp are going to be the ones who touch the ball early. We don’t worry about that because we understand it’s a good problem to have.”
As far as dealing with the pressure goes, Ohio State has a weapon that it didn’t during the 2013 season. Players like Jones, Powell, Lee and Bell are standouts not only on the field but also in interviews and the locker room. The constant stream of antics that engulfed the team outside of practice made it easier to form bonds and work together.
“I don’t think we had as many guys like that in 2013, and the tough thing about that team too is that we just weren’t as close,” Perry said. “We’re not going to make any bones about it. It’s just harder going into battle with guys you don’t feel as close to, as opposed to right now where everybody feels really close to each other and we know each other really well. I think it’s a pretty big deal. It really is.”
The change began after the low point that was the 2013 Orange Bowl. Perry said he and his fellow linebackers made the decision that the position room was going to be a fun place to be.
“We were like, ‘This is not going to be a place where people come and they hate coming here,” he said. “This is not going to be a place where people don’t want to spend time here. This is not going to be a place where people feel stressed out. It’s going to be a place where we care about each other.’
“That’s exactly what it became. It was just a group of us, and we would always be around each other, whatever it was – whether we were doing football stuff or not. I think that’s why guys played well. You saw the same thing happening with Vonn and Tyvis and those guys doing what they do together and Eli Apple going around with Doran Grant. And then you see all those guys on the D-line, they’re just so tight. I think that had a lot to do with (the success).”
As Ohio State chases another trophy, its players recognize that the same result will likely require a different path.
The Buckeyes started that process this summer by banning any reminiscing of the previous season. Lee in particular has kept a vigilant watch to make sure the focus has shifted from what has happened to what will come.
“You saw a couple guys still talking about last year and it’s getting mid-June close to July and it’s like nah, ixnay that,” he said. “We need to start focusing on this year and no more celebration and all that. Say, if we were still celebrating right now, it would be crappy practices and whatnot. It was a group effort. We have had a couple leadership meetings and just said, ‘Hey enough is enough. Last year is over and done with. Nobody wants to hear about it.’ ”
Added Apple: “Looking back isn’t going to help you move forward. We have a new team and we’re going to have to find a new winning formula for this year to make things work.”
The Buckeyes took down the banner dedicated to The Chase and signed it last winter. It now hangs on the opposite wall in the indoor facility, relocated from its previously prominent position. In its place rose a banner espousing the team’s new motto – “The Grind.”
Meyer also switched up spring practice, moving it from the typical afternoon time slot to the morning. But amidst those superficial changes, the framework of the culture and the program remains the same.
“I don’t know if there’s a whole bunch of different… you call it a different name and you get up a little earlier to practice, but really, we do all the same things,” Perry said. “That’s just the way we run our program, the culture that we have, the way that we practice, the way that we work out and how we get after guys, those are all the same. I don’t know if that has anything to do with making it a different season. The big difference for us is going to be just going out here with a little bit of a different group of guys and making that jell and making that work and then figuring out a way to be successful on the field.”
For the early blooming Buckeyes, a shot at history awaits.