When Urban Meyer is inevitably inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the prelude to his acceptance speech will read similar to an introduction to Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones.
"You are in the presence of Urban Meyer, King of the Buckeye State, hoister of championship trophies, flipper of five-star athletes, breaker of That Team up North, and father of the zone read."
Just 14 years into his head coaching career, Meyer is already an all-timer. He’s won three national titles with two schools, boasts a staggering record of 154-27, and has coached generational talents such as Ezekiel Elliot and Tim Tebow.
With Meyer as your coach, top-5 recruiting classes feel like a birthright and 20-game win streaks are customary. But the ability to create a culture that permeates a program from the first-string quarterback to the walk-on long snapper could be Meyer’s finest quality.
Four to six, A to B. It’s an idiom that players and coaches toss around like footballs at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. When Meyer came to Ohio State in 2012, he felt that the team did not have a clear directive on every play, which led to overthinking and under-performing athletes. Meyer wants players to react on instinct and play fast, getting from point A to point B before the opposition in four to six seconds, the average time of a play in college football.
Nine Strong. Power of the Unit. These mottos reference another pillar of Meyer’s culture machine. You see, there are nine position groups on the football team. Each has to play at its maximum capacity for the Buckeyes to reach their ultimate goal.
Prior to the 2013 season, Meyer enacted his most known and celebrated mantra to date. The Chase. After watching Alabama steamroll Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS Championship Game from the sidelines, Meyer realized that his program was not even close to the championship-caliber level of the Crimson Tide. The Chase was on.
Two years and five days later, Meyer and the Buckeyes captured the first ever College Football Playoff National Championship, trouncing Oregon in the final game just a week after gashing Nick Saban’s defense in the Sugar Bowlsemifinal. As the Scarlet and Grey soaked in the moment amidst the confetti-littered sky of Jerry World, Meyer made an almost predictable proclamation.
"The Chase is complete," he told ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi. "It’s done, it’s over."
But Meyer wasn’t finished at Ohio State. Neither was the core of the national championship team. With almost every key contributor returning, expectations were at an all-time high in Columbus.
Meyer knew what these expectations meant. In 2009 his Florida Gators returned essentially everyone from their 2008 national championship squad. As the Gators chased perfection, Meyer lost control of his health and his passion for coaching. His drive for a seemingly unattainable goal eventually drove him away from the sidelines in 2010, and he questioned if he would ever coach football again.
Ohio State entered the 2015 season as the AP's first ever unanimous top-ranked team. Almost unprecedented expectations surrounded the program. Meyer challenged his players to embrace the fact that they were the hunted in college football, and as such 2015 was decreed the year of The Grind. Unfortunately, this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the team and fans alike.
The undercurrent of the entire season was the debacle at quarterback, as Ohio State seemingly tried to prove the age-old saying, if you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. Cardale Jones never looked like the gunslinger who sliced through Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in that memorable postseason run. The play calling also suffered as Meyer attempted to integrate new quarterbacks' coach Tim Beck in the booth as Ed Warinner called plays from the sideline while also coaching the offensive line. At times it seemed as if the staff was calling a J.T. Barrett-game for Jones, asking the hulking QB to play outside of his skill set in the option run game while never finding a down-field threat to capitalize on his patented 12-gauge arm.
The team seemed to regain its championship form when Barrett supplanted Jones before the Rutgers game, one of the few times the Scarlet and Grey clicked offensively all year en route to a 49-7 drubbing of the Scarlet Knights. But the feeling of dread would soon return to the program, as Barrett was suspended for a DUI during the ensuing bye week
You all know the story from here. All of the Buckeyes’ flaws were exposed on a soggy November afternoon in the Horseshoe, as the offense managed a meager 132 yards against Michigan State in a 17-14 loss on senior day. Warinner was promptly moved to the press box a week later and the offense immediately appeared light-years better. OSU smashed Michigan in Ann Arbor and outscored Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, looking every bit like the best college team in America. But it was too late.
No national championship. No playoff. No conference title. Not even a divisional crown. And as twelve members of the 2015 team heard their names called during the first four rounds of last spring’s NFL Draft, Ohio State fans couldn’t help but to think what if. It can be argued that last year’s team was the most talented in school history. It could also be argued that last year was the least fun one-loss season in the history of sport.
As the smell of fresh cut grass and football fills the air, Ohio State fans count the days to the September 3rd opener against Bowling Green with guarded optimism. Sure, the Buckeyes return only six starters. But who thought Ezekiel Elliot would be better than Carlos Hyde when he took over running back duties in 2014? Why can’t Malik Hooker be better thanTyvis Powell at safety? He was a higher-ranked recruit, after all.
At quarterback there is no controversy, Barrett is the guy. In the booth there is clarity, with Warinner calling plays from up high from day one. There will still be pressure in Columbus, as is typical for any blue-blood program. But there won’t be an expectation to win every game by half a hundred points. And it won’t be disappointing if the young Bucks win tight games while displaying growing pains.
Meyer has dubbed this season the year of The Edge, which illustrates the line between being an average player and a great one. Ultimately, Ohio State’s ability to cross that line will determine whether this is a playoff-caliber team, or if this season will serve as a tune-up for a championship run in 2017.
Either way, the dark cloud of unreasonable expectations has faded in Central Ohio. The Buckeyes are no longer chasing perfection. The Grind is over, both literally and figuratively. It's OK to enjoy Ohio State football again.