Urban Meyer, nation's best coach, is starting an Ohio State dynasty
Bill Hancock gave the College Football Playoff a collective pat on the back following No. 4 seed Ohio State’s 42-20 win over No. 2 seed Oregon in Monday night’s national championship game.
“It validates what we’ve known for the last month,” the playoff’s executive director said. “That the [selection] committee got it right.”
No question, the Buckeyes have made Jeff Long, Tom Osborne, Condoleezza Rice and the gang look smart indeed for including the Big Ten champs in their inaugural four-team bracket. But even they couldn’t have possibly foreseen just how drastically their decision would alter the paradigm of college football.
Two games ago, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones was a still largely unheralded third-string quarterback. Two games later he’s a national championship quarterback.
Two games ago, Jones’ teammate Ezekiel Elliott was not even an honorable mention All-Big Ten running back. Two games and 476 yards later, Elliott could win the Heisman if they held a re-vote this week.
Two games ago the Big Ten was still a national laughing stock. Two games later, the Big Ten owns a more recent championship than the SEC.
Two games ago, Alabama was the No. 1 team in the country and Nick Saban the sport’s undisputed No. 1 coach. Two games later, Urban Meyer has unseated Saban as college football’s current top dog.
And Ohio State is the sport’s new budding dynasty.
“This is why you come to Ohio State,” All-American defensive end Joey Bosa told FOX Sports late Monday. “Everyone has the same goal, to come in and win championships. To see a team go through what we went through and come out on top is so amazing.
“Hopefully we can do it again next year.”
Who would bet against them in 2015 after such an improbable run these past five months?
A team that loses its two-time Big Ten player of the year in preseason practice wouldn’t seem capable of winning a national championship, much less a team that loses that Heisman contender’s Heisman-caliber replacement.
A team that loses to a mediocre Virginia Tech at home the second week of the season wouldn’t seem capable of winning its own conference, much less running the table and winning the league title game 59-0.
And what about Monday night’s game itself? A team that coughs up four turnovers against mighty Oregon sure wouldn’t seem capable of beating the Ducks, much less running away from them to win by 22 points.
“Anytime you talk about the plan to win, you don’t win with four turnovers,” teary-eyed running backs coach Stan Drayton said on the field afterward. “But there’s just something about this team and the camaraderie and the brotherhood. They just persevere. In the face of adversity, we just get better it seems.”
Ohio State made a fitting first champion in the four-team playoff era. In finally satiating the public’s decades-old clamor to expand the postseason field, college football’s power brokers introduced an element that’s long been true of every other sport with a bracket. It’s not the best team during the regular season that necessarily wins the title. It’s the best team at the time the playoff begins.
Even Meyer doesn’t pretend the Buckeyes were national-championship caliber until the final possible stages.
“The national title conversation?” the coach asked rhetorically. “Not until the [Dec. 6] Wisconsin game” did it enter his mind.
“This team wasn’t supposed to do this, but they fought through adversity,” said Meyer. “They got stronger and stronger and stronger, and … we finished the year a great team.”
And they’ll likely enter next season even better.
It’s a familiar script for Meyer, who won his first national championship at Florida in his second season, in 2006, with a team whose offense didn’t truly gel until the SEC championship game against Arkansas. Those Gators beat consecutive top-five foes 38-28 and 41-14.
And only then did the Tim Tebow-Percy Harvin era truly begin.
At Ohio State, the J.T. Barrett/Cardale Jones era began a year earlier than expected, and it’s anyone’s best guess who the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback will be next August. What a ridiculous luxury to have.
But more so, Ohio State won this national championship with relatively few seniors (six starters), and none of its underclassmen are expected to enter the draft. Elliott, the sophomore who shredded the Ducks for 246 yards and four touchdowns — his third straight 200-yard game to end the season — will be back. So will four of the five offensive linemen who opened those gaping holes for him.
So will Bosa and Adolphus Washington, the defensive linemen who helped shut down Oregon’s inside running game and render Heisman winner Marcus Mariota a one-man show who found himself under constant pressure in the second half. So will season tackles leader Joshua Perry, championship game tackles leader Tyvis Powell, Sugar Bowl defensive MVP Darron Lee and standout defensive backs Vonn Bell and Eli Apple.
Meyer is building a juggernaut in Columbus much the same way he did in Gainesville and at Utah before that. His offense is cutting edge. His in-season and in-game adjustments are impeccable.
But most of all, his roster is dripping with talent, allowing the Buckeyes to beat two higher-seeded playoff foes, Alabama and Oregon, that play two completely different styles. After outmaneuvering Saban’s physically imposing Tide with their superior speed, the Buckeyes took a page out of the Ducks’ own playbook and wore them down in the second half with a relentless rushing attack.
“We base everything on our toughness, and [Oregon] is more based on speed, and we knew that coming in,” said tackle Darryl Baldwin. “We knew if it came down to playing inside, our line versus their line, we knew we would win.”
Receiver Evan Spencer is one of the few starters who won’t be back next season. He wore a huge smile in the locker room Monday night as he surveyed his teammates. His career ended in triumphant fashion, but he knows he’s leaving just as the fun’s truly beginning.
“Next year,” he said, “is going to be something special.”
Next year, Ohio State won’t likely be the last team in.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. His new book, "The Thinking Fan's Guide to the College Football Playoff," is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.