There wasn’t a ton of optimism at the start of 2014 that Ohio State would be National Championship contenders. Just before the season began, it was announced that Braxton Miller would need season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, thrusting a first-time starter in J.T. Barrett into the spotlight on short notice.
After one of the more forgettable games in Buckeye history — a 17-point win against Navy to open the new campaign — OSU fell at home by two scores to an unranked Virginia Tech squad in week two. Barrett was not good, completing just nine of his 29 pass attempts with three interceptions. Their leading rusher outside of Barrett, who ran for 70 yards on 24 carries, was Ezekiel Elliott, who finished with just eight carries for 32 yards.
Things looked bleak.
Ohio State would answer by beating up on a lowly Bowling Green team 66-0, following up with 50-plus point performances over Cincinnati, Maryland and Rutgers. After a crazy double-OT victory over Penn State on the road, they clobbered Illinois before picking up a huge road win against a No. 8 Michigan State team. They would win out the remainder of the year, but Barrett would suffer a season-ending leg injury in the team’s 42-24 victory over Michigan in the regular season finale.
Then it was Cardale Jones’ turn, and all he did in his very first game as a starter was help lead the Buckeyes to one of their most impressive 60-minute performances of all time in a 59-0 dismantling of No. 13 Wisconsin in the B1G title game. With that massive victory securing Ohio State a playoff spot, Jones would lead the Bucks past a nail-biter against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and later a rather easy National Championship victory over Oregon.
Ohio State was not ready to contend for a national title when the year began, but by the end of the season the defense was clicking on all cylinders, and Elliott had gone from the man tasked with filling Carlos Hyde’s shoes to one of the best running backs the program had seen. Both the offense and defense were loaded, and the best part was that nearly the entire team would be returning for the 2015 campaign.
While the next season began with incredibly high expectations, it also began with QB controversy. Urban Meyer was tasked with deciding whether to start Barrett, who lead his team through the regular season unbeaten after the Hokies mishap, or Jones, who dominated in three-straight postseason contests. Eventually, it was Jones who would earn the start in game one, helping lead the team to a revenge win over Virginia Tech at their place to open the year.
Things started off okay for the 2015 squad, and after defeating the Hokies they basically sleepwalked through a 38-0 win over Hawaii. However, the season turned quickly when the Buckeyes struggled to defeat Northern Illinois. Jones was benched after throwing two interceptions in the first half, and Barrett was not much better. The team would escape with a 20-13 victory, but it was a sign of things to come.
Jones would regain his starting spot, but something was still clearly not right with Ohio State. They defeated Western Michigan 38-12, but barely escaped Indiana the following week in a 34-27 road win. The Buckeyes ran through Maryland and Penn State, utilizing both quarterbacks in different packages, but by the time the Rutgers game came around, it was Barrett back at the helm.
It would not last, however, as Barrett would be suspended the next game against Minnesota for driving impaired. Jones and Elliott led Ohio State to an unimpressive 28-14 victory in the Horseshoe, and Barrett was back at the top of the depth chart the following week for the win over Illinois. The team then had their eyes set on their first ranked opponent of the season: No. 9 Michigan State.
On Nov. 21, 2015, on a rain-soaked afternoon in Columbus, the Buckeyes put together one of the worst offensive game plans ever seen from guys wearing Scarlet and Gray.
For some reason, in a scheme that seemingly came out of nowhere, Ohio State featured almost exclusively the QB rollout pass and QB option. Despite having one of the best running backs in college football, Ezekiel Elliott would touch the ball only 12 times. Barrett finished the game with only 46 yards passing, and the Buckeyes would see their playoff hopes come crashing down as a 41-yard field goal split the uprights as time expired and the Spartans shocked the nation in a 17-14 upset.
Ohio State would go on to destroy Michigan 42-13 in Ann Arbor, and easily defeated Notre Dame 44-28 in the Fiesta Bowl as the Bucks remembered that Elliott was on the roster, rushing for 214 yards and 149 yards in the two games, respectively. It was little consolation, however, as it made no sense why that Ohio State team should not have competed for a national title. I mean, just look at the roster:
With not only one but two healthy serviceable quarterbacks, the offense was comprised of guys like Elliott, Michael Thomas, Curtis Samuel, and even Braxton Miller at H-back. The offensive line contained multiple future NFL starters, including the likes of Taylor Decker, Billy Price and Pat Elflein. As talented as the offense was, the defense was even more ridiculous.
The other side of the ball was made up of an almost entirely starting NFL defense. Joey Bosa and Sam Hubbard lined up at the ends, with Jalyn Holmes and Tyquan Lewis also in the mix. Darron Lee, Raekwon McMillan and Joshua Perry made up the linebacker core, with Eli Apple, Gareon Conley and Vonn Bell all lighting it up in the secondary.
That Ohio State team was just too talented to lose, especially with the experience they had returning from a roster that just won the national title the previous year. The inability to have a firm grasp on a starting quarterback, and some massively questionable coaching decisions in the team’s biggest game, led to the Buckeyes’ downfall, and left them short of what should have been back-to-back National Championships.