With the possible exception of Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley, no player was more valuable to his team that had a legit national title shot than Braxton Miller was to Ohio State.
However, with the news Tuesday that the dynamic senior QB, a two-time Big Ten MVP, had reinjured his right shoulder and would miss the season, the Buckeyes are in scramble mode and the College Football Playoff picture, at least from the Big Ten’s perspective, has changed.
I was one of those who touted the Buckeyes, led by Miller, as one of my preseason Final Four playoff picks. Urban Meyer had upgraded team speed and improved his defensive staff. Meyer’s recruits would become more of the nucleus of an active D. The O-line did need to be rebuilt, but Miller and the speed around him at the skill positions was impressive. So was the fact that the 6-foot-2, 220-pound burner had continued to blossom as a passer, going from 58 percent completions in 2012 to 64 percent last year.
Meyer and OSU offensive coordinator Tom Herman really were excited about how much better Miller’s command of the offense had gotten this offseason. The road to the playoff also appeared quite manageable with only one ranked opponent on the regular-season slate — Nov. 8 at No. 8 Michigan State. The game against arch-rival Michigan is in Columbus, as are games against Va. Tech and Cincinnati.
But without Miller, the Buckeyes — a team that averaged 46 ppg, 511 yards and 0.64 points per play (better than Oregon’s .61 or Auburn’s 0.55) last season — look much more vulnerable. Oddsmakers at the Las Vegas Hilton say Miller is worth a full seven points to the Buckeyes in their eyes and a team that 24 hours earlier was a 10-1 pick to win the College Football Playoff has plummeted to a 50-1 long-shot.
The Buckeyes also no longer have dependable backup QB Kenny Guiton around to bail them out. Instead, they’ll turn to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, the son of a career military man, who has wowed the coaches with his character. Still, Barrett doesn’t have the arm, wheels or experience that Miller has.
Barrett’s a capable run threat, but not the kind of game-breaker Miller is where he was such a go-the-distance threat that he’d keep defenses on their heels. The hunch here is that Ohio State will keep things conservative and rely on the running game since they have so much speed there and try to sprinkle in some passing.
Those who have spent time around Barrett say the kid won’t be rattled. Still, with a very green quarterback AND a new O-line, the Buckeyes figure to have their hands full with some good but not powerful opponents. Among the teams that should be a lot more competitive with OSU now: Va. Tech (Sept. 6), Cincinnati (Sept. 27) and the road games to Maryland and Penn State in October.
Even without Miller, my guess is Meyer and Herman can manage the offense and their playmakers well enough to open 7-1 or 6-2 before the trip to East Lansing, where I suspect they’ll lose. Overall, I’ll say the Buckeyes end up 9-3 in the regular-season, which is still good, but obviously a lot different than it would’ve been with Miller running the show.
As for the Big Ten, my champion pick went from OSU to Michigan State once I heard the news about Miller’s injury. I actually thought the two teams weren’t far apart to begin with. I like MSU’s defense and am a believer in QB Connor Cook, who is a rising star and has a solid group of skill guys around him along with an experienced O-line.
One additional note about the impact of Miller’s absence: With the Buckeyes less of a threat to make a playoff run, it only makes the MSU-Oregon game in Week 2 at Autzen Stadium that much bigger for the Big Ten. A Spartan loss, especially if Wisconsin loses in Week 1 to LSU, would hobble the Big Ten in any effort it’s trying to make to gain traction nationally.
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.