If there were a spot above No. 1 in the preseason rankings heading into 2015, Ohio State would be there with a bullet.
The Buckeyes dispatched the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the College Football Playoff rankings by a combined score of 84-55, getting all-world performances out of a sophomore tailback and rallying behind an unlikely third-string quarterback. Oh, and the Buckeyes kept the Heisman Trophy winner and both other finalists in check en route to the Big Ten’s first national championship since 2002, when Ohio State beat Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
And to think, the Buckeyes weren’t even supposed to be here.
"To say we had this vision back in September or even August, no, not a chance," coach Urban Meyer said after the 42-20 win. "I thought this was a team that we could battle and battle and find a way to win a bunch of games and then a year later go make a run at it.”
So much for a rebuilding season. Ohio State retooled its offensive line, replaced two first-round NFL draft picks on defense and found somebody to follow in the footsteps of Carlos Hyde. That was all before incumbent starting quarterback Braxton Miller went down with a serious shoulder injury at the end of fall camp.
Following a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, the Buckeyes weren’t focused on getting in the top four of the rankings. Rather, they were trying to climb into position to reach the Big Ten title game. Yet that’s when quarterback J.T. Barrett went supernova. He threw for six touchdowns in game against Kent State on Sept. 13. He passed for four scores with no interceptions in a 50-28 win over Cincinnati on Sept. 27. He dazzled with his arm and his legs in subsequent victories over Maryland (Oct. 4) and Rutgers (Oct. 18).
His turning point seemed to come at Penn State on Oct. 25. Barrett didn’t have his best game, not by a long shot, against an underrated Nittany Lions’ defense. Ohio State was pushed to overtime after blowing a big lead. But Barrett ran for a score in the first overtime, then followed that up with the game-winning touchdown in the second. This wasn’t just a guy who was capable of handling the Buckeyes’ offense. He was something special.
Even when the Buckeyes upset Michigan State 49-37 on Nov. 8, it still seemed crazy to think they could play their way into the playoff field. But everything fell into place. A 59-0 exclamation point over Wisconsin in the conference championship helped sway the opinion of the committee -- even with Barrett injured and Cardale Jones taking his place.
The team that wasn’t supposed to be here wasn’t supposed to beat Alabama, either. Or take down the Heisman winner. But motivation is a heck of a thing.
“That’s Urban Meyer. He never stops trying to figure out another way to motivate players, improve the program, get coaches to coach better,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio told SI’s Pete Thamel on Monday. “That’s the secret recipe to him. It’s not scheme. The scheme is fine, but there’s too much emphasis on that. Get your guys to play fast and get them motivated, that’s your value as a coach."
A year or so ahead of schedule, Ohio State seems primed to stay at the top for as long as Meyer sticks around in Columbus. The biggest issue for the Buckeyes is having three standout quarterbacks and no way to play them all.
Barrett has already said he is sticking around, and even if one or both of Jones and Miller decide it’s in their best interest to transfer or enter the draft (Meyer has said he will discuss the early-entry process with Jones, but Jones has said, “My personal opinion is I’m not ready for that level yet”), there is four-star quarterback Torrance Gibson coming to campus in 2015.
The offensive line, which came together throughout the season, won’t see many changes. Lots of skill players, headlined by Michael Thomas, remain on the outside. And Ezekiel Elliott, he of the 696 rushing yards and eight combined touchdowns in the Big Ten title game, Sugar Bowl and national championship, will enter his junior year. And that’s just on offense. Defensively, Joey Bosa will be back along with cornerback Eli Apple and linebacker Raekwon McMillan. Linebacker Darron Lee, safety Vonn Bell and others will return, too.
The scary thing for Ohio State is it just won the national championship, and it wasn’t even as good as it can be. That’s not to say a drop-off won’t come -- Meyer can look to Alabama there -- but the Buckeyes are stacked, not only for next year but for years down the road. Ohio State already has commitments from 11 four-star prospects in the class of 2015 alone, and picked up verbal pledges from Kareem Walker, a big-time ’16 running back, and four-star ’17 cornerback Shaun Wade during the title game on Monday.
The Big Ten -- and college football, by and large -- needed Ohio State to be an elite program again. That happened. The only problem for the rest of the league? It has to keep playing the increasingly dangerous Buckeyes, year in and year out.