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When Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2014, his replacement — then-redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett — felt like the second coming in many ways. Barrett had, by all statistical counts, an insane season — by the end of it, he had accounted for 45 touchdowns with a 64.6 percent completion rate and had led the team to an 11-1 record in games he started.
Barrett’s name will rightfully be remembered among OSU fans as one of the program’s great quarterbacks. He holds dozens of program and conference records, and he led the Buckeyes to some major victories in his time as quarterback.
But none of this changes the fact that if he had not missed the playoffs, the Buckeyes would not have won the title for the 2014 season.
Yes, Buckeye fans, I’m here today to tell you that Barrett’s broken ankle in the 2014 Michigan game was the best thing to have happened to Ohio State football in recent memory.
For those who need a refresher, with the Buckeyes up 28-21 in the fourth quarter, Barrett went down on a run, breaking his right ankle as he was tackled. Then-sophomore Cardale Jones, the Buckeyes’ third-string quarterback who had attempted only 14 passes that season, replaced Barrett and led the Bucks to a Big Ten Championship, a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and ultimately to a national title over Oregon.
Despite Barrett’s strong start to the season, I have my doubts about whether he would have finished the job.
For starters, despite his dominant season under center, four of Barrett’s wins that season were close. On a good day, Barrett was a legitimate contender for the Heisman. On an off day, he eked by at best.
He didn’t have a particularly accurate arm, and though he was a true dual-threat quarterback, OSU often used predictable, conservative play calling to ensure Barrett would hit his targets. His inconsistency continued well into the 2017 season (I hope you have all blocked the 2017 Iowa game from your mind more effectively than I have).
Conversely, when Jones took over, he fired on all cylinders and never looked back.
He steamrolled over a very good Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship, absolutely demolishing them 59-0. For comparison, Barrett’s only comparable margin of victory was against Kent State, not exactly the powerhouse the Badgers are. Even with Jones’ massive margin of victory, there were still doubts about whether Ohio State would be selected for the playoffs. Imagine if the game had been closer, as it presumably would have been under Barrett.
Next, Jones was able to keep a heavily-favored Alabama team off-balance in the semifinal (and admirably kept his head on straight in the face of a lot … and I mean a LOT … of haters, doubters, and general trash-talkers leading up to the game). Throwing for 243 yards with one touchdown and one interception, Jones held his own against the No. 1 team in the country.
Assuming Barrett would have finished the job against Wisconsin, this is arguably where he would have fallen short. I fully believe he would have come away with a win against Oregon in the championship. The problem is, I don’t believe he would have beat Alabama to get to the championship in the first place.
Let’s be clear - to state that Cardale Jones singlehandedly won the championship fails to give credit to key players like star running back Ezekiel Elliott, along with a solid OSU defense. It also fails to credit Barrett for leading the team during the regular season and positioning them for their championship berth in the first place.
But Jones was able to keep his composure in a back-and-forth game, and he was able to come up with big plays when the Buckeyes needed them most. And it’s hard to know for sure, but I have my doubts about whether Zeke would have been given the same room to run without the threat of Jones’ arm.
It’s all speculative, of course, but had Barrett started against Alabama, that Sugar Bowl could have looked a lot like the 2016 matchup against Clemson, which was, in a word, humiliating. The Oregon game becomes irrelevant if OSU can’t get past Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide.
I would never wish injury on anyway, and it broke my heart to see Barrett get injured in that Michigan game, especially after the season he was having. But ultimately, that injury opened the door for OSU to finish that season as National Champions.