CHICAGO -- When Ohio State hired Urban Meyer in November 2011, the news sounded alarm bells across the Big Ten. Meyer had an illustrious pedigree: He won two national championships, recruited a raft of NFL-bound talent and groomed one of the greatest college football players of all-time during his six seasons at Florida. The Gators’ first title under Meyer held special significance. A 41-14 thrashing of three-time defending Big Ten champ Ohio State in ‘07 began the SEC’s streak of seven consecutive national crowns.
Not only did Meyer’s move to Columbus threaten the streak, which ended with Florida State’s 34-31 win over Auburn in January, but it also promised to bring the winning formula he cultivated in Gainesville to Big Ten country. Conference titles became an expectation. National championships a realistic goal. And while the first two years of Meyer’s tenure produced a 24-0 regular-season record, postseason success -- either as a result of sanctions or narrow losses -- has proved elusive. Is 2014 the season the Buckeyes break through?
Ohio State rolled for the majority of 2013, coasting through four nonconference matchups, averaging 52.6 points a game during a five-game stretch (Penn State, at Purdue, at Illinois, Indiana and at Michigan) in league play, sporting a top-five offense and rising as high as No. 2 in the BCS standings. Yet just when the Buckeyes seemed poised to lock in a date with the Seminoles in Pasadena, something unexpected happened.
A Big Ten team built without four- and five-star recruits upended Meyer’s SEC-modeled juggernaut. The lasting memory from Michigan State’s 34-24 win over Ohio State in the conference title game was a sullen Meyer sitting on a golf cart eating pizza. About a month later, Clemson edged the Buckeyes, 40-35, in the Orange Bowl. With that, 24 games of goodwill had been undone. All of which leaves Ohio State in an interesting place heading into fall camp.
“It’s football, you know, that happens sometimes,” senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said of the back-to-back losses. “And if anything, it just puts a chip on your shoulder and makes it easier to come together after a tragedy than it does after everything goes right. Not to say that a football loss is a tragedy, but it sucks. And I’d say the coaches did a good job of, instead of just berating us with, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ it was, ‘Remember these games, but we need to move forward, we need to get better.’”
at Penn State
at Michigan State
The aura of superiority that had come to define the Buckeyes under Meyer has taken a hit. In a preseason media poll administered by Cleveland.com last week, Ohio State received 23 votes to win the Big Ten’s East Division and 19 to win the conference championship, 13 and 10 more, respectively, than second-place Michigan State. Contrast that with last season’s poll, in which the Buckeyes garnered 26 votes to win the Leaders Division and 25 to win the league title, and the change in perception is evident.
Still, the gloom should not be exaggerated.
There is no shortage of reasons to be bullish on the Buckeyes this year. Quarterback Braxton Miller sat out spring practice after injuring his foot in the Orange Bowl, but he reportedly made strides honing the mental aspects of his game and is on the early short list of Heisman Trophy frontrunners. The defensive line boasts the talent and depth to be among the best in the country, with star ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence flanking Bennett and Adolphus Washington. And while playmakers such as running back Carlos Hyde and wide receiver Corey Brown are gone, there are talented underclassmen (backs Ezekiel Elliott, Bri’onte Dunn, Warren Ball and Dontre Wilson, who has drawn comparisons to former Florida star Percy Harvin) and capable veterans (receiver wideout Devin Smith and tight end Jeff Heuerman) waiting in the wings.
A rewired mental approach with a greater focus on individual units calls to mind another college football powerhouse in Tuscaloosa attempting to undergo cultural changes this offseason. It could also help prevent some of the lapses that felled the Buckeyes late last fall. “You play at Ohio State, they're the hunted because they're at Ohio State,” Meyer said at Big Ten media days on Monday.
Under Meyer, the Buckeyes’ regular season games are viewed as building blocks toward larger goals. Given the team's returning talent and schedule, that means Ohio State’s directive in 2014 is simple: College Football Playoff or bust.