Lost in the hype and commotion surrounding The Game this weekend is the fact that the Buckeyes won’t just be facing their hated rival with a playoff bid and bragging rights on the line. This game, like it is every year, is the last chance to say goodbye.
With this being the final game of the regular season, this will be the last chance, short of the postseason, for many Buckeye players to suit up for the Scarlet and Gray. It’s the last chance to play in front of 100,000+ screaming Buckeye partisans in Columbus, the last chance to take part of the home-game traditions, and the last chance to hear the Victory Bell ring.
Thanks to a huge spate of NFL early entrants last year, this isn’t a very big senior class for Ohio State. That doesn’t mean that important Buckeyes won’t be saying goodbye on Saturday, as offensive line stalwart Pat Elflein, punter extraordinaire Cameron Johnston, and H-back and wideout Dontre Wilson finish their eligibility. They will all be missed, and should be celebrated.
But the real drama may come from the next batch of Buckeyes who may leave early for the NFL. Some of those names, like defensive back Gareon Conley and linebacker Raekwon McMillan, are almost certain to leave, as they are projected to be near the top of their position groups for the NFL Draft. But there are a few others could go either way.
Perhaps the most intriguing? Quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Barrett isn’t projected to be a high level NFL prospect at this point, or even necessarily a very good one. He’s not listed in the top 10 QB prospects by Sports Illustrated. He’s listed as the 17th QB prospect by Walter Football. Concerns about his arm strength and ability as a pocket passer prevent him from rising in these rankings, and it seems unlikely Barrett would be higher than a 5th or 6th round draft pick, at this point.
But would playing a fifth year of college football change any of that? Barrett is who he is at this point, and another year at Ohio State won’t make him any bigger, and probably won’t make his arm dramatically stronger either. He’s already demonstrated he’s an exceptionally productive college quarterback, helped lead his team to a national title, and has them on the cusp of a playoff bid for the second time in three seasons. What else does he have to prove?
Barrett owns nearly every passing record of note for Ohio State. All time leader for career passing touchdowns? Got it. Ohio State’s career total touchdown record, held by Braxton Miller? Broke that too. Big Ten honors? Barrett won the freshman of the week award so many times they might as well have named it after him, and he’s been a regular on the award’s sheet ever since.
I don’t know what Barrett is going to do. When asked about it earlier this week, Barrett said he hadn’t thought about it, saying “I’m just taking each week and trying to focus, live in the moment. My mind, it ain’t even got there.” I can’t even really speculate at to what Barrett should do.
But I do think that the chances that he leaves are less than zero. So now seems like as good a tiny as any to ask ourselves, what is J.T. Barrett’s legacy? How will he be remembered?
This isn’t scientific by any means, but I think few players have elicited more of a response in our Twitter mentions and on Facebook than Barrett. It’s true, Barrett has regressed from his exemplary performance in 2014. He’s completed fewer than 50% of his passes twice this year, including last week against Michigan State, and his YPA is a yard and a half less than it was in 2014. Apart from the spreadsheets, it’s clear to anybody who has watched Barrett that his touch on deep passes, or even many medium-length passes, has left something to be desired this season. If Ohio State’s offense has struggled at times this season, it is fair to point at least some of that blame on Barrett.
Of course, “some” blame shouldn’t be all of the blame. Barrett is throwing to a wideout group made nearly entirely of underclassmen who had no game experience before this season. He’s behind a young offensive line that has struggled a few times. He’s handing off to a freshman. And quarterbacks coach Tim Beck ... well, he isn’t Tom Herman.
But even with his failings, and his inability to live up to the exceptionally lofty expectations of this season, Barrett has still been really damn good. His elusiveness in the pocket is excellent, despite not having Braxton-Miller like raw speed or direction-changing ability. His decision making, both in running the read-option and in deciding where to throw the football, has been the tops in the Big Ten. His leadership has been lauded by Urban Meyer and players alike. And, hey, he’s thrown 24 touchdowns passes against just four interceptions this year. That’s really good!
I don’t know what folks will think about the Barrett era in say, a decade. He wasn’t the physical marvel of a Terrelle Pryor or a healthy Braxton Miller. Even when Barrett managed to break an explosive run, he didn’t always look explosive, you know?
Barrett didn’t put up the crazy passing numbers from other peers in college football. He went over 300 yards passing just four times, and only once since 2014. And after that 2014 run that vaulted him into the Heisman top five, he never reached that level again. After getting Heisman hype to start this season, Barrett may not even finish in the top ten.
But despite that, Barrett was the triggerman for some of the most successful Ohio State teams in history. He helped pilot the program to a national title. He’s beaten Michigan twice, and has a chance to do it again on Saturday. And you don’t become the touchdown leader at a place like Ohio State, with a year of eligibility left to spare, without being an excellent quarterback.
Barrett hasn’t always wowed. But he’s done virtually everything you need to do to be a great Ohio State quarterback very well. And, regardless of what happens this weekend, or after, he should be remembered as such: as one of the very best quarterbacks to ever play for Ohio State.
Hopefully, Buckeye fans get another year of Barrett. But if they don’t, they should treasure him this weekend. He might not have ended up as exactly what we thought he might be a few years ago, but he may have been exactly what Ohio State needed.