5 biggest reasons Ohio State is playing for national title

DALLAS — Ohio State plays Oregon for the College Football Playoff national title Monday night at AT&T Stadium.

A season that started with two-time Big Ten Player of Year Braxton Miller suffering a season-ending shoulder injury and a subsequent home loss to Virgina Tech ends on college football’s biggest stage. Considering the youth across the depth chart and the significant losses from last year’s team, even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer admits he believed his team was a year away from this stage.

Instead, the Buckeyes could be 60 minutes away from winning a national title. Following are the five reasons why this team has been able to come so far, so soon . . .

1. The quarterbacks have delivered

Lots of teams have had to use a third quarterback over the course of a season due to injury; most of those teams have forgettable seasons. The Buckeyes, though, are having one for the ages. Credit for that goes to the players themselves — neither J.T. Barrett nor Cardale Jones had significant game experience before getting the call — and to the coaches, specifically Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman, who at first went extra conservative with Barrett before realizing that wasn’t the way to go.

Barrett had 10 days to prepare, had two forgettable games, then was good enough to break the Big Ten single-season touchdown record and finish fifth in the Heisman voting. Jones first had two minutes to prepare after Barrett’s injury, then seven days to prepare to start the Big Ten Championship Game, and now six weeks later he looks like "The Next Big (he’s more "huge" than big at at least 6-foot-5, 250 lbs.) Thing."

Barrett had the Buckeyes going both fast and efficiently. Jones has them going deep and won’t go down easily. Oregon presents a different challenge and has the Heisman winner at quarterback, but Ohio State clearly has a winning formula with the game’s most important position. The prospect of having to play Jones was once scary. Now, there are few worries about what he’ll give Ohio State. This is Herman’s last game with Ohio State before he takes the head coaching job at Houston. In a quarterback-centric game, Houston probably isn’t paying him enough.

2. The Buckeyes have been resilient

Braxton Miller was injured 10 days before the season. The disastrous Virginia Tech loss came in the season’s second game. Ohio State was rolling early at Penn State before going flat and having to survive in double overtime. The Buckeyes trailed early at Michigan State. They trailed Alabama 21-6.

Along the way, a team that’s still heavy on young talent and was replacing a quarterback and four offensive linemen from last year found its legs and a confidence that carried it through a later round of adversity. Meyer has called the late October win at Penn State the turning point, and two weeks later Ohio State won at Michigan State. Without that Michigan State game becoming an impressive win, there is no College Football Playoff.

3. The defense has matured nicely

Last year’s Buckeyes were burdened by the win streak and ultimately sunk by defensive failures. This year, sophomores Joey Bosa, Darron Lee and Vonn Bell have made splash plays and been consistently productive for a defense that’s also gotten contributions from veterans Michael Bennett, Joshua Perry, Adolphus Washington and Doran Grant.

Ohio State’s defense is fast, solid up front and deep enough in the back to keep up with pass offenses — though it hasn’t seen one like Oregon — but the biggest improvements have come in fundamentals. Fewer missed tackles and more hits on opposing quarterbacks make life easier on everyone, and timely turnovers have been a product of the improved fundamentals and faster front.

4. Old and new

The second-year players have made quite a splash, but the seniors have played key roles, too. Devin Smith has never been better. Urban Meyer said Evan Spencer might be the team’s MVP. Steve Miller made very few splash plays in four years, then returned an interception for a touchdown vs. Alabama. Darryl Baldwin came to Ohio State as a defensive end and now starts at right tackle.

Players have bought in — coaches love to say that but love it more when it happens — and the really talented younger players like Bosa, Lee, Bell and Ezekiel Elliott have arrived. Maybe the best is yet to come from Ohio State considering the young guys already becoming stars and the others waiting in the wings, but Ohio State wouldn’t be anywhere near Dallas this weekend if it wasn’t for Meyer’s recruiting classes developing and the program’s veterans delivering at various (and multiple) big moments.

5. Urban F. Meyer

That’s his middle initial. Really. Meyer came to Ohio State with high expectations and higher goals, and for as fast as the fast track he put the program on with a 24-0 start was, everything is now faster with the Buckeyes playing for the national title before Meyer thought they would. Win or lose Monday, these last three months have changed everything about Ohio State’s program — standards, expectations, perceptions — and everything has Meyer’s stamp on it.

Different challenges and questions lie ahead, the SEC isn’t exactly dead yet and Meyer wants to play for lots of titles, not just one, but his visions of an SEC-like defensive front complementing a tempo offense and having speed across the roster are close to coming to fruition. Meyer is demanding and has been relentless, and he’s going to stay on the pedal. Maybe the best is yet to come — and maybe Meyer is a few days from raising the big trophy. Both seem possible.