After Braxton Miller went down with a season ending injury before the Buckeyes played a single game, their goals for title contention probably should have gone down the drain too. A squad that was picked to finish behind Michigan State even when they were healthy suddenly had to lean on an entirely new quarterback.
And yet, here we are. Ohio State is down to QB3, replaced four starters on the offensive line, play a defense stocked with underclassmen, and are off to the College Football Playoff, after dominating both Michigan State and Wisconsin, both away from Columbus.
How did they do it? They owe it, in large part, to what has already shown to be a completely monster 2013 recruiting class, that has the potential to go down as the best in Ohio State history.
That's high praise for a group of kids that aren't even upperclassmen yet. For most schools, even schools that routinely sign highly rated recruiting classes, most kids from a class just two years in the past aren't playing yet. But many signees from this class are already seeing major time for the Buckeyes, and are positioning them to be a dominant team for the immediate future. Let's take a look.
The top recruit, per 247Sport's composite board, from the class? That's five-star safety Vonn Bell, who chose the Buckeyes over Tennessee. Bell has been a mainstay in Ohio State's defensive backfield, and may be the most athletic of the bunch. He also still has plenty of room to grow as a player, and could be one of the best in the Big Ten by next season, but he was more than solid this season, grabbing five picks, including three in his last four games. If his performances against Minnesota and Wisconsin are the new baseline for him, the rest of the league should be terrified of Bell.
The next guy on the board? Four star everything, and prep quarterback Jalin Marshall. All Marshall has become is perhaps Ohio State's most versatile playmaking threat on offense. He's rushed the ball out of the backfield (20 carries, 131 yards, a TD). He's caught the ball (28 catches, 392 yards, 6 TDs). He can run jet sweeps. He can go deep. Heck, now, he's Ohio State's backup quarterback. And fumbles aside, he's shown promise as a punt returner. He's already one of Ohio State'e best players now, and what he'll become over the next two seasons could make Buckeye fans giddy.
The third guy? Oh, he's only an AP-All American in his second season. If he doesn't get hurt, Joey Bosa has first round NFL talent, and was the most dominant defensive player in the Big Ten this season. It's hard to see anybody outside of Columbus passing him next season.
Those are just the top three. The fourth recruit on the list? That's Eli Apple, who has also been a productive cornerback and has all the potential to grow into a shutdown corner. Seventh on the list? Ezekiel Elliot, the Buckeyes most consistent offensive threat outside of a quarterback, a devastating downfield blocker, and a major reason for their success this season. Elliot was Meyer's second 1,000 yard rusher, and there is no reason to think he can't surpass Carlos Hyde in his Buckeye career.
Lots of schools can see exceptional results from the top few kids in a recruiting class, especially when all of them are consensus high four-star players. Ohio State is getting big contributions from kids a little farther down the list though. The 12th ranked player in the class, (and still a solid four-star), was J.T. Barrett, prematurely pressed into service, and all he did was finish fifth in Heisman voting, while crushing multiple passing records at Ohio State. Billy Price switched from defensive to offensive line, and then held down the starting left guard spot for an excellent offensive line. And the second lowest ranked kid, a three-star quarterback from New Albany, only became one of the best defensive playmakers at linebacker. Thanks, Darron Lee.
And that's not saying anything about Dontre Wilson, or Gareon Conley, or Trey Johnson, or Cameron Burrows, or Corey Smith, all players who have contributed on some level this season. This class is also too young to really claim any player is a "bust", and there are multiple very highly regarded players who can still play big roles at Ohio State, like Michael Hill, Marcus Baugh, James Clark (who was injured this season), Donovan Munger, and more.
Five-star Mike Mitchell transferred, as did four-star safety Jayme Thompson, but virtually everybody else is still there, and has either contributed, is on pace to contribute, or is getting healthy. It would be nearly unprecedented for every one of this players to pan out, but the hit rate is already exceptional for the Buckeyes. Having nearly every player you sign be a composite four-star certainly helps, of course.
This incoming class may not be as strong from a talent perspective on paper, but this coaching staff evaluated and developed talent like they did for the 2013 class, the Buckeyes will be virtually impossible to stop in Big Ten play in the near future.
At the very least, the future looks very bright. And the stars of that 2013 group are a huge reason why.