The extended victory lap, as well as the uncomfortable questions about next season, began Tuesday for Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and the rest of college football’s newly crowned national champions.
Meyer confessed that he never envisioned this team as a contender to win the inaugural title of the College Football Playoff era until the Buckeyes blasted Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 6. Until that triumph lifted the Buckeyes (14-1) past TCU (12-1) and into the four-team playoff field, Meyer thought his squad was “a year away” from winning at the highest level in college football.
But third-string quarterback Cardale Jones, running back Ezekiel Elliott and a better-than-advertised defense had different ideas, capping OSU’s improbable postseason run with Monday’s 42-20 victory over No. 2 Oregon (13-2) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
“This team wasn’t supposed to do this, but they got stronger and finished the year as a great team,” said Meyer, whose team dominated the Ducks despite a 4-1 disparity in turnovers. “It’s as improved of a football team as I’ve ever been around. From Game 1 to Game 15, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
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Much of that can be attributed to the uncanny success of Jones, 22, who posted a 3-0 record as an emergency starter in the Buckeyes’ final three games after season-ending injuries to the top two quarterbacks: Braxton Miller (shoulder) and J.T. Barrett (ankle). Because of the backlog of proven quarterbacks on the Ohio State roster, where all three are eligible to return for spring drills, speculation began mounting Monday night that Jones (6-foot-5, 250 pounds), a new father, may be inclined to throw his name into the NFL Draft before Thursday’s deadline for underclassmen.
Jones, appearing at a press conference at the Dallas Renaissance, is aware of his opportunity as well as the speculation. But he made it clear in a Tuesday news conference that he does not consider that his best option … yet.
“In my personal opinion, I’m not ready for that level yet,” Jones said, calling it “very odd” that his name has surfaced as a potential NFL draftee after just three starts at the college level.
He said he planned to have a conversation with Meyer about his NFL Draft stock “down the road.” But Meyer, who needs to untangle a logjam of talented quarterbacks for next season, offered an interesting observation about the third-year sophomore from Cleveland.
“He could play in the NFL. He certainly has the talent,” Meyer said. “Is he ready right now? That’s a chat I guess we’ll have. Cardale’s brand right now has never been stronger, might never be stronger again in his life.”
Reading between the lines, that sounds like a coach who might want Jones to reconsider his NFL timetable.
On the flip side, Miller is a two-time Big Ten player of the year who has the option to transfer with immediate eligibility because he already has graduated. Miller has been linked to transfer opportunities at Oregon, LSU and Florida State, among others. His potential departure clouds the Buckeyes’ quarterback picture for 2015.
What is clear is that Ohio State, as the defending champion with a boatload of returning players, joins TCU, which finished No. 3 in Tuesday’s final Associated Press poll, as the early favorites to claim next year’s national title. Tuesday’s opening odds posted by Bovada Sports Book for next year’s title chase have Ohio State (6-1) ahead of TCU (15-2), with both schools in front of Alabama (10-1).
Meyer, who has won three national championships in 13 seasons as a head coach at FBS schools, understands the expectations and potential pitfalls that will greet the Buckeyes going forward.
“I think we’ll be very good,” Meyer said when asked about the potential for a CFP title repeat. “We have to watch for complacency in the program, and we’re going to watch that very closely. There’s some very, very talented guys on our team coming back. The human element is very dangerous if those talented individuals open themselves up to people that have their own desires, rather than the players’, at heart.”
In terms of recruiting, Meyer acknowledged February’s anticipated banner haul just improved because of Monday’s outcome.
“The door’s open. You move to the front of the line,” Meyer said about the impact of recruiting as the defending national champion. “[If] you can’t recruit to this now you’re officially a bad recruiter. It’s not just theory. It’s testimony.”
The biggest piece of testimony came Monday, when a team whose coach did not consider it title-worthy as recently as six weeks ago hoisted the first championship trophy of college football’s playoff era.
Based on returning players, the Buckeyes should be primed to make a run for a repeat title. But chances are good that, unlike this season, Ohio State will have to settle things on the field with TCU rather than merely in the minds of CFP committee members.
Now, that would be a playoff matchup that fans in Texas would be eager to embrace next season. Too bad it did not happen Monday night in JerryWorld.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760