Buckeyes can still contend without Miller
AUG 19, 2014 7:12p ET
What will Ohio State do now that star quarterback Braxton Miller is out for the 2014 season? Continue to be the most talented team in the Big Ten, in all likelihood. That wasn't enough to get the Buckeyes to the final BCS National Championship Game, though, nor even to win the Big Ten last season.
Michigan State took the latter honor and went on to win the Rose Bowl, leaving the Spartans the undisputed kings of the conference. Though MSU head coach Mark Dantonio's squad lost some key defensive players from last year's 13-1 campaign, the Spartans are now the clear frontrunners in the top-heavy Big Ten, where Ohio State and Michigan State were until Tuesday perceived to be the only serious College Football Playoff contenders this season.
The newly formed Big Ten West isn't bereft of quality teams, but the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska have more questions than the Spartans or Buckeyes in the East heading into the season. Someone solid will emerge from the West, but they might beat each other up first.
The biggest game of the conference season is still likely to occur when Ohio State takes on Michigan State on Nov. 8 in East Lansing, a place the Buckeyes won the last time they visited in 2012. The hero that day was Miller, who fired a rainbow to Devin Smith for a 63-yard touchdown pass over the top of MSU's vaunted "No Fly Zone" secondary. That provided the winning points in a 17-16 final.
To repeat the feat, Ohio State will likely turn to J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman who was the first quarterback to verbally commit to the Buckeyes after Urban Meyer became head coach in Nov. 2011.
Less than a month after Barrett arrived in Columbus as an early enrollee from Wichita Falls, Texas, the youngster had caught the eye of Meyer for his way of taking care of his business.
"I'm hoping he brings a little something that our quarterback position can use, and that's a grinder, a guy that's just nonstop," Meyer said in January 2013, comparing him to former Utah quarterback and No. 1 NFL draft choice Alex Smith. "They wake up in the morning and they're a quarterback all day long. They go to sleep and the next day they wake up again and they're a quarterback all day long."
Barrett, a 6-1, 225-pounder who was a four-star, dual-threat quarterback at Rider High School, has been described by offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman as a "gym rat" whose savvy and accuracy can help overcome what is not a particularly strong arm.
While fans have grown accustomed to Miller's highlight-reel plays, Meyer's offense is built to utilize a variety of players, stretching the defense from sideline to sideline while threatening it up the middle with the run. He wants it to be Woody Hayes' three yards and a cloud of dust without defenses being able to gang up on any one spot, super-charged for the new millennium with playmakers on the outside who can go the distance at any time.
It hasn't been as diverse as designed over the past two seasons with powerful running back Carlos Hyde and a bull-dozing offensive line complementing Miller's dazzling moves, but expectations were for it to become more balanced this year as Miller's passing acumen evolved and a plethora of weapons came of age.
Now it will be Barrett who is charged with facilitating the big-play ability of receivers such as Smith, sophomores Dontre Wilson, Corey Smith and Michael Thomas and redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall. Wilson has been talked up as a potential breakout player in the mold of versatile running back/wide receiver Percy Harvin from Meyer's high-scoring Florida teams that won a pair of national championships in the second half of the last decade, and Marshall was the top-rated recruit in the state of Ohio in the class of 2013.
Fortunately for Ohio State, Barrett and fellow reserve Cardale Jones have been getting first-team reps since the start of spring practice as Miller recovered from his initial injury and surgery.
Much of the talk throughout the offseason has centered on moving the ball and scoring points effectively without relying on Miller's considerably gifted legs, but this is not quite what the coaching staff had in mind while hatching a plan to better utilize his other talents and those around him.
If Barrett proves to be up to that task and a totally revamped defense shows the expected improvement, the Buckeyes have a reasonable expectation to beat anyone on their schedule, including the Spartans, whose defense lost some important pieces up the middle but have been tough on that side of the ball for the past few years.
Where Ohio State is most likely to miss Miller is on the biggest stage, where special players doing special things often proves to be the difference between first place and second.
The Buckeyes have a lot of work to do to get there, but that was already true. For all their accolades from the recruiting trail and as good as they have looked in shorts and helmets this offseason, almost none of the skill players mentioned above (save for Devin Smith) have shown what they can do in a college football game very often. The new-look defense also figures to be young, and it is as untested as it is supposed to be talented.
Rebuilding seasons are rare at Ohio State, where Jim Tressel won the Big Ten seven times in nine seasons while starting six different quarterbacks. Meyer endured a couple of them at Florida, including a growing-pain-filled 2007 season that helped forge the Gators for a 2008 title run.
Will he accept one at Ohio State, or has the program he has installed galvanized the Buckeyes for even losing their best player? Just add that to the questions they face this season, but don't count them out of reaching Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game in December. Not yet.