Before the season, Ohio State was the overwhelming favorite to repeat as National Champs, becoming the first unanimous preseason number one in the AP Poll in history. It wasn't hard to see why.
The Buckeyes returned not one, not two, but three excellent quarterbacks. They returned four members from what was one of the best offensive lines in the country, anchored by a possible 1st round prospect at left tackle. They returned a Heisman candidate at running back, a quality tight end, an NFL prospect at wideout, and almost everybody of consequence on defense.
Because of all the returning talent, it was easy to overlook the toughest people for Ohio State to replace heading into the season. Not Devin Smith. Not Michael Bennett. Tom Herman and Stan Drayton.
If you hire good people, others are going to want to pluck them away for promotions, and losing assistants isn't new to Ohio State or Urban Meyer. Perhaps because of Meyer's success with hiring coaches (he now has one of the largest and successful coaching trees in college football), or perhaps because the returning talent at Ohio State just seemed so overwhelming, the fact that the Buckeyes were replacing two excellent coaches and reshuffling responsibilities on offense flew under the radar a little bit, and nobody really batted too much of an eye when Ohio State hired Tony Alford and Tim Beck as the replacements.
After all, the Buckeyes promoted Ed Warinner to offensive coordinator, a move that seemed like a no-brainer after the superior job he did molding an inexperienced offensive line into a dominating force. And since Meyer's fingerprints were likely to be on the offense anyway, did it matter too much who the QB coach was going to be, as long as he could recruit? Both Beck and Alford seemed to have potential there, after all. At any rate, there didn't seem to be a reason to be concerned about Ohio State's coaching, especially on offense, during the offseason.
But after Ohio State's 17-14 loss yesterday, the finger pointing started. You probably saw Ezekiel Elliott's remarks after the game, lambasting the playcalling and the coaching, and it seemed like Darron Lee agreed. Former Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde chimed in, since he knows a little bit about not getting the ball in a loss to Michigan State. Any lingering locker room issues started bubbling up in front of everybody, a bad sign for a team whose regular season isn't over, and still has a shot at a New Year's Six bowl, if not a playoff bid.
While maybe Ohio State's players shouldn't have communicated their frustrations the way that they did, they have every right to be upset. Despite all of their talent, Ohio State's offense has regressed at virtually every level, and this coaching staff is a major reason why.
That starts with Ohio States QB situation. Braxton Miller's health took him out of the QB derby, leaving Tim Beck and company with two excellent options. Both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett had demonstrated they were capable of performing at a high level, if not a near Heisman level, but both regressed horribly during the season. Jones struggled to find the right touch on his deep balls, previously thought to be his major strength, as well as his efficiency, while Barrett looked far from player he was a year before, who finished 5th in Heisman voting.
Cardale Jones completed more than 60% of his passes just four times, with one of those a 3/3 mop-up duty performance against Rutgers. J.T. Barrett threw for over 100 yards in a game just twice this season, and his QB rating is nearly 20 points worse than last year. The staff couldn't completely commit to which QB they wanted until the Rutgers game late in October, with both options showing a drop off in accuracy, efficiency, and confidence. Could this have been alleviated if the staff picked one option and stuck with him earlier? Are their problems in practice? To see such a dramatic drop in production from two quality players is head-scratching, especially when one is lauded for his leadership. That suggests scheme or coaching issues.
The problems weren't just at QB, though. Ohio State's offensive line regressed at nearly every level, especially in pass protection, despite their experience. The Buckeyes weren't lacking in four star backups in case complacency had set in with this unit. They seemed completely unable to figure out how to block an odd man front for the first half of the year, and could not get enough of a push later in the season. The Buckeyes never really developed a consistent secondary receiving threat to pair with Michael Thomas, and confidence in their passing game dropped as the season went along, forcing Ohio State to become one dimensional, and almost comically so against Michigan State. And that cost them.
The only position group that didn't regress was at running back, as Ezekiel Elliott was just as excellent as he was the year before, excelling as a blocker, receiver, and between the tackles runner. And yet, Ohio State forgot about him against the Spartans, giving him only two carries in the second half. It wasn't the first time the Buckeyes neglected to give Elliott the ball (see also: Virginia Tech), instead opting for constant QB draws and options.
To be fair, injures have also been an underrated factor in Ohio State's offensive struggles. Projected starting WR Noah Brown broke his leg before the season. Pure WR Corey Smith suffered a season-ending leg injury against Indiana. Dontre Wilson never got healthy and barely played. Parris Campbell and Johnnie Dixon, two others who figured to get in the WR rotation, struggled with injuries too. For much of the year, Ohio State had to trot out Michael Thomas, and then two players who aren't actually WRs (Jalin Marshall and Braxton Miller), and at times, you could tell. That would slow a lot of teams down.
But even so, that doesn't explain so much of Ohio State's struggles. The Buckeyes never really solidified an offensive identity. Is this an offense that wants to build from a read-option based rushing attack? Are they build to attack defenses vertically? Are they going to run a pro-style from spread sets? Are they going to try and replicate last year? This team went from saying that the read option wasn't a big part of their playbook to running it nearly exclusively in a win over Penn State. Meyer even admitted after the Michigan State game that Barrett not being the starter for the first seven games "could have" been a reason for the passing game not being where they want it to be.
It would be one thing for Ohio State fans to clamor of the head of a coach after simply suffering one loss, but the fact is, these struggles have been an issue all season long. One of the most efficient teams in the red zone a year ago suddenly become one that couldn't score inside the 20. Of the best rushing teams in the country occasionally forgot about their star running back. The team with one of the preseason best QBs in all of college football suddenly couldn't throw anymore. The number one team in the country for most of the season couldn't decide on their quarterback, or even who was calling the plays. That's a problem.
And it might get worse. Ezekiel Elliott essentially declared for the NFL Draft yesterday, a curious move given that the season isn't actually over. The Buckeyes will need to replace most of this offensive line, and their best wideout. After J.T. Barrett, two of the next three QBs on the depth chart (Torrance Gibson and 2016 four-star recruit Tristen Wallace) are developmental players who will need significant help to grow into the position. If Ohio State couldn't score with established NFL caliber talent everywhere, what happens when they need to develop some? Ohio State won't have a QB controversy next season, but they will have some big holes to fill at wideout, running back and along the line. And even now, who exactly is calling the plays, or is responsible for what, isn't totally clear.
After the game, Urban Meyer said he calls a lot of the plays, and that the "finger will be pointed right here, and I have to do better." And as a coaching staff, that's true. The playcalling, and development over the course of the season, was not where it needs to be, and that's with Ohio State enjoying imminence advantages over their opponents.
It's too early to say that any coaching hire was a failure, but it is clear that the status quo is not working. Ohio State needs to figure out their playcalling situation, and what their identity is going to be. They need to decide how to deploy their coaching personnel in a way to put their players in the best position to succeed. And they need to figure out how to quell any locker room frustrations and concerns, and quickly, if the Buckeyes hope to beat Michigan and reach some lofty goals this season.
Right now, for whatever reason, this coaching staff hasn't been able to figure out how to make everything work. And it only gets harder, not easier, in the future. Coaching attrition and internal issues contributed to a decline in Meyer's programs at Florida. Can he prevent that from happening in Columbus?