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Ohio State in 2018 looks a lot like Florida in 2010

Could the Buckeyes be headed for a similar fate?

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Graphic by Patrick Mayhorn
Photos by Kevin C. Cox/Christian Petersen Getty Images

Urban Meyer faced a difficult offseason; he had lost a longtime starting quarterback who had essentially carried his offense for years. In addition, several key position coaches and coordinators had left for either head coaching jobs or coordinating jobs elsewhere, which meant that he had to bring new faces into his already tight circle of staff. On top of that, recent hires hadn’t panned out so well, but because of Meyer’s commitment to never “firing” an assistant, there was little that he could do to address those problems.

However, Meyer was still the face of a major program; one that had national championship expectations every season, a football-crazed fanbase, and increasing questions about on-field decisions that led to the disappointment of a national title-caliber team settle for a dominant bowl win instead.

Oh, and he also had a massive media storm to manage after offseason drama brought a national spotlight to a program that already had more than its fair share of attention.

And, believe it or not, this was not the first time that he’s had to go through that type of offseason. All of that, from the coaching issues, the loss of a veteran quarterback, coming off of a disappointing season, and offseason scandal obviously apply to what Ohio State and its head coach were dealing with leading into the 2018 season, and still are now — eight games in and coming off of a blowout loss to a mid-level Big Ten team, and scraping by against a 2-win conference foe. However, everything that Meyer is dealing with now can also be said, almost identically, to have been part of the offseason leading into the 2010 season for the Florida Gators.

2009 Florida

For those who either don’t remember, or just didn’t follow Florida under Urban Meyer all that closely, the Gators seemed to be on the precipice of a dynasty in the late 2000s. With two titles under his belt in his first four seasons after being hired away from Utah, Meyer seemed destined to run the SEC alongside Nick Saban for years to come. He was recruiting at an incredible clip, landing top-three classes every season, and bringing more talent to Gainesville than anyone ever had.

After their title in 2008, Florida was widely expected to repeat in 2009, as they expanded from excellent program to full-on dynasty. The Gators started the season in the top spot in just about every poll, and they returned nearly every major contributor from the 2008 title team that many thought arrived a year earlier than expected (not the comparison I’m trying to make, but that sounds a lot like Ohio State in 2014).

Loaded with talent and led by Tim Tebow, Florida won every game on their schedule, and headed into the SEC title game against number-two ranked Alabama with the national title berth on the line. Florida lost, of course, 32-13. Meyer resigned, citing his recent hospitalization for chest pains, though he reversed course and coached Florida in their bowl game, and returned full time in March.

2017 Ohio State

While the comparisons to Ohio State’s 2017 team — and the offseason that we saw unfold this past summer aren’t perfect — they are there. The 2017 Buckeyes were supremely talented, led by an awesome defense and a veteran quarterback, but ultimately fell short. Their losses came at different times, but that Iowa loss was every bit as soul crushing as Florida’s to Alabama in 2009. The following offseason, of course, was overshadowed by a controversy that kept Urban Meyer out of Ohio State’s locker room for a significant amount of time. Obviously the Zach Smith scandal is significantly different from Meyer’s medical scare, but both were a serious point of stress for Meyer, and led to time away from his team.

However, despite those subtle similarities, the biggest connection between those teams isn’t in the final season results, or even in the following offseason issues. The biggest connection is what actually was happening on the field during the 2009 and 2017 seasons, and a growing problem in each program that was being masked by the significant talent on each roster.

Florida may have gone nearly wire-to-wire in the top spot in 2009. They may have won every regular season game, but there were serious issues with that team.

Coaching problems arise

Those issues, of course, were coaching-based. Meyer had lost his right hand man, Dan Mullen, after 2008, and replaced him with Steve Addazio. The current Boston College head coach wasn’t (and isn’t) a bad coach by any means, but he wasn’t Mullen. The offense was nearly eight points worse in 2009 than it was in 2008. The Gators won five games in 2009 by ten or fewer points, after beating every team they played in the 2008 regular season by at least 23, save for their one baffling loss to Ole Miss.

To simplify that a bit, the 2008 Florida team was crushing everyone they played. The 2009 team let those teams stick around, and very nearly lost several games because of it. The Gators beat Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee team by ten. They beat LSU by ten three weeks later. The Gators needed a Jeff Demps fourth quarter touchdown to tie, and a last second field goal to beat an Arkansas team that finished 8-5 and didn’t once see the top 25.

More fourth quarter heroics saved them from a loss to Mullen in his first year at Mississippi State. A bad South Carolina team kept their matchup with Florida close until a Tebow run early in the fourth quarter. LSU was the only one of those teams to finish ranked in 2009.

Florida was nearly missing layups. The sloppiness that Urban Meyer worked so hard to fix when he arrived in Gainesville was back, and it was completely out of his control. It was obvious that he was more stressed than ever, and that almost certainly contributed to his eventual hospitalization.

To get a better idea of what was actually causing those close games, I talked to SBNation reporter Richard Johnson, a longtime Florida fan who covered the team from 2013 to 2015. He said:

A lot of people will tell you that that [2009] team was just not fun to watch. There was nothing fun about it. It was one of those things where your heart would kind of palpitate game in game out, and it was, “Oh God I hope they win, I hope they win… okay they won let’s move on.”

They weren’t demonstrative in a ton of the games they played. The game against Mississippi State was terrible, the Arkansas game was pulled out, the LSU game where Tebow had a concussion was a slog, though obviously that LSU team was pretty good.

They beat [South] Carolina by ten points. They took a slight step back [from 2008]. Charlie [Strong] had the defense rolling but Scot Loeffler… is not a fan favorite in a lot of places. I think Steve Addazio is a great offensive line coach, I think he’s a pretty good head coach, I don’t know about him as a strict offensive coordinator and it’s pretty clear that it didn’t work with him in Gainesville.”

That probably sounds familiar to Buckeye fans, because, well, it’s the same thing we’ve been saying since 2015. After Ohio State’s title run in 2014, and as silly as it feels to say when you look at the records, Ohio State under Urban Meyer has underachieved and disappointed.

They’ve let bad teams stick around, and made games that should’ve been easy wins cause serious stress. With how often it has afflicted his teams, it almost seems that winning ugly is less of a bug in the Urban Meyer experience, and more of a feature.

Speaking of features of the Urban Meyer experience, the one that he may be most well known for, and the thing that actually got him the Ohio State job, is the incredible things he does with talent acquisition.

Meyer has been, for the better half of the last century, a top two recruiter in the country, and because of that, those late stage Florida teams — as well as Ohio State now — are some of the most talented teams in the history of college football.

Meyer leans on that quite a bit, which may explain the issues both Florida and now Ohio State experienced with a lack of preparation at times. I don’t know what goes on in that locker room, but it seems like Meyer and his staff sometimes feel they can win purely on talent. Usually, they can. But that seems like a likely cause of those close games.

“A majority of their schedule wasn’t talented enough to make their problems truly matter,” Johnson said. “That team could roll the ball out and ‘out-talent’ ten teams on the schedule, maybe almost all of the teams on that schedule. Obviously against Alabama they ran into an issue, they ran into a problem, and it came back to bite them.”

Obviously Ohio State in 2018 is not by any means at the point Florida was in 2010. The 2010 Gators were a train wreck, and Ohio State is currently an 8-1 team that could absolutely still win the Big Ten and compete for a playoff spot.

However, wins and losses aren’t the only things that matter in football, and when you look deeper at the problems that Florida was having in 2010, they sound all too familiar to the modern day Buckeyes.

No running game

Without a quarterback capable of buoying the rushing attack, 2010 Florida was completely unable to run the ball. They tried to shift to a more pass-heavy scheme to fit new starter John Brantley, and in the process, lost the ability to run the ball with any consistency.

The Gators rushing yards per game fell from 222 in 2009 to 166 in 2010. The per play average dropped from 5.6 to 4.3. The Gators were dreadful in the red zone, and despite three very talented backs in Jeff Demps, Mike Gillislee and Emmanuel Moody, Florida just couldn’t get going. In their five losses, they averaged just 113 yards per game on the ground.

“There are times when Urban Meyer’s offense does not maximize its running backs,” Johnson said, “and I think that really came to a head in that 2010 season, because the guys that they had, Emmanuel Moody, a transfer from USC, didn’t really pan out. Mike Gillislee would really show his work a little bit later in a bit of a different offense that was a little more running back based.” -Richard Johnson

With a similar situation at Ohio State now (though Dwayne Haskins is significantly better than Brantley was), and just one scrambler (Tate Martell) on the team in the near future, it’s fair to ask if Urban is well suited to manage pass first quarterbacks after what happened with Brantley.

Also like Florida, Ohio State’s rushing problems have hurt them more in the red zone than anywhere else. We saw it against Purdue, and will likely to continue to see it unless there are changes, either to personnel or scheme. Looking at Meyer’s history, the likely answer will be personnel.

That, of course, means that the Buckeyes may start using Martell in the red zone. This isn’t new to Meyer as his history with non-conventional runners was a feature of that 2010 team, as Jordan Reed and Trey Burton both tried to serve as the Tebow replacement in the power run game. Obviously it didn’t work, because, well, the Gators stunk in 2010.

They certainly weren’t without talent though. That 2010 team, while young, was probably Meyer’s most talented roster at Florida in terms of recruiting production, however, he just wasn’t able to piece the talent together into a competent team.

At times in 2018 (and even before this season) Ohio State has felt like a collection of elite talent rather than a team, but thankfully, these Buckeyes have an elite quarterback in Haskins to cover some of their most glaring deficiencies, which that Florida team didn’t have.

Defensive woes

Haskins, unfortunately, feels like the only thing keeping Ohio State from a Florida-esque slide right now. While the offense struggles to run, another Ohio State stalwart, the defense, has also fallen off.

Just like Florida in 2010, the Buckeye defense is talented, but misused by an overly aggressive NFL-oriented coordinator. That shows itself in the big plays that Ohio State allows, the blown coverages, the missed tackles. All of that hampered Florida in 2010, as the Gators jumped to 21 points allowed per game, up from 12 the year prior.

Ohio State’s jump isn’t as extreme (22 this year, 19 last year), but their NFL-style coordinator was hired back in 2016, and the group has gotten worse every year under him.

That point about talent being misused, or not living up to its full potential, may be the strongest bond between Ohio State now and Florida then. With Luke Fickell at the helm of the defense, it always felt like Ohio State’s D was playing up to their ability, and it was the same thing at Florida with Charlie Strong. However, when Fickell was replaced by Greg Schiano, and Strong by Teryl Austin, the issues of underperforming started to creep in.

“When they players on that team [2010] and the personalities on that team were loyal to a coach or a coordinator, you were really able to get the best out of them, and Teryl Austin was not able to get the best out of that unit,” Johnson said.

Six of the starters on that Florida defense went on to play in the NFL. When looking at Ohio State in 2018, it’s pretty easy to see at least six starters on this current defense playing at the next level, even with the loss of Nick Bosa. That makes the general ineptitude we’ve seen this season even more frustrating, and makes the comparisons to Florida even more apt.

Meyer’s health

The thing hanging over all of this, the biggest comparison to be made between Urban Meyer’s final years at Florida, and his current situation at Ohio State is, of course, Meyer’s health problems. At Florida, those problems revolved around chest pains that hospitalized the head coach several times, and ultimately forced him into resignation after the 2010 season.

Now, Meyer is dealing with have another health scare. The coach collapsed on the sidelines in Ohio State’s game against Indiana with what was later described as a significant headache. He’s looked visibly uncomfortable all season long, and seems to be lacking the energy he usually brings to his work. On top of that, he’s now revealed that the impact of this brain cyst that he received surgery for in 2014 are not improving.

While Urban said that he wants to coach for as long as he can, and claimed that he would be back next season, this all feels so familiar. The on-field struggles. The elite recruits not playing up to potential. The offseason scandal. It’s hard to shake the thought that Meyer may be gone from Ohio State sooner rather than later.

When he says that he wants to coach for as long as he can, there’s no way of knowing how sustainable that is. There’s no way of knowing if his condition will continue to get worse, which would in turn impact his ability to coach, as well as, more importantly, put him in potentially serious danger.

None of this is new. Meyer’s approach to football has always been so high energy, so high intensity. He throws himself fully into a job, and spends more time than almost anyone else trying to make everything in his program perfect. The hours spent recruiting, the hours spent watching film, the pressure he brings upon himself with the level of play he expects from his teams, it all adds up to an amount of stress that I’m not sure anyone can handle.

It all came crashing down at Florida, because Meyer stayed too long and tried to fix problems all at once that would’ve taken (and did take) several years to address.

With that in mind, and with Meyer’s history as it is, maybe a retirement at the end of the season wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for Meyer or for Ohio State. He’s done excellent things in Columbus. He brought the Buckeyes a title, and one of the most enjoyable postseason runs I can remember. He’s won more games in a shorter amount of time than any Buckeye coach ever has. His legacy will forever live on in Columbus as one of the best coaches in school history.

However, no matter how great the coach, everyone has a time. Everyone has to move on eventually. With his grip on the team seemingly slipping, the growing pile of missed hires on the coaching staff, and a less than impressive recruiting class this year, it feels like we’ve seen this story before, and that Meyer’s time at Ohio State just might be coming to an end.