From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about players to watch this upcoming season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”What If?” articles here.
Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.
In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.
This week’s topic: ‘What If’ this player’s Ohio State career had gone differently?
With this being What If week on LGHL, Gene and I knew there would be (and will be) a bunch of great “takes” on the topic, from all the site’s contributors. So we tried to come up with something unique for our weekly installment of You’re Nuts, and ultimately settled on an individual approach. As in: What if individual Player A or Player B’s career had gone differently in Columbus? What if he or she received playing time and/or never transferred? What if he or she remained healthy? Or, what if this highly coveted recruit actually reached his or her ceiling? That’s a lot of what ifs.
When I started thinking about a past or present Buckeye whose career just didn’t play out the way it should have, one name immediately stood out. Like, egregiously so. Because this former football player is still considered one of the all-time greats. And his career was full of accolades, achievements, and highlights. But it ended under odd, unfortunate circumstances.
This player was essentially robbed of his senior season — despite playing all 13 games of his senior season. He started and was featured as part of a dynamic offense (as a senior), but received a fraction of the touches he had grown accustomed to in previous seasons. And he was forced to watch others play or takeover his position. A position that he never lost via camp battle or due to ineffectiveness. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I have to question your Ohio State fandom. I am of course talking about the one, the only, Braxton Miller.
Miller was a dynamic running, throwing, and scoring machine for the Buckeyes, setting all sorts of OSU and Big Ten records from 2011-2013. He was a 2x Big Ten MVP, 2x B1G Offensive Player of the Year, and 2x Griese-Brees award winner as the conference’s best quarterback. But that QB career was cut short due to injury, which eventually forced a move to H-back/wide receiver.
Miller still ended his Ohio State career with records, awards, and even a national championship, but it will always feel incomplete (to me) due to the injury. So I have often wondered — and still do to this day — What if Braxton Miller never injured his throwing shoulder prior to the 2014 football season?
There are so many ways one could go with this, because Miller’s injury had an insanely unique butterfly effect. J.T. Barrett takes over at QB, Ezekiel Elliott goes bananas, the Buckeyes win the natty, they have an odd 2015 season, and so on. So what if Miller had remained the QB? Would things have happened much differently?
Well, Gene... I tend to think the answer is “no”. At least from a team perspective. Miller may have added more individual accolades, records, and perhaps even a Heisman Trophy, but I believe things ultimately shake out similarly in Columbus. Call me crazy, but I have been called much, much worse. So indulge me, if you will.
OSU had a legendary roster in 2014, and Miller’s presence would not have made it worse. Elliott was always going to be a star, Michael Thomas showed out for the first time, Devin Smith was a known commodity for Miller, the offensive line was ruthless, and we’re talking about adding one of the most dynamic playmakers to ever set foot in The Shoe!? And that was just the offense. Ohio State’s defense was just as important to the 2014 team’s success, if not more so. Miller’s presence surely does not change anything on that side of the ball. Having him involved (in general) only makes a great team greater, in my opinion.
And that is not throwing shade at Barrett and/or Cardale Jones, both of whom helped the Buckeyes win the natty. But some people forget that Miller had just gone 24-2 as a starter in 2012 and 2013. He was The Man, while the other QBs were battling for garbage time snaps. Miller was also progressing as a passer, having finished the 2013 season with 24 TD and 7 INT, to go with a 64% completion rate. Barrett, as the primary starter, put up very similar numbers in ‘14. So it’s not like the Buckeyes went from an option QB to Patrick Mahomes.
If you look at the OSU schedule and results from 2014, I don’t really see much changing with Miller in the lineup. And in the postseason, when it really mattered, I think the Buckeyes still run all over Wisconsin, show up against Alabama, and impose their will on a slightly overrated Oregon team. Again, kudos to Jones, but he did not exactly light the world on fire during that postseason run. He was clutch, he was timely, but Braxton freaking Miller was the far superior football player.
I guess my what if is ultimately more of a selfish I wish, because I just loved watching Miller play. He was legitimately breathtaking. And I do wonder how a healthy version (of him) would have influenced Ohio State’s 2014 season. Maybe it would have been truly legendary, up there with the greatest seasons of all-time. I know what I think, and I would never trade a championship-winning memory/season for the unknown, but...
I really like Josh’s selection here of Braxton Miller. For me, I distinctly remember hearing the news that Miller would be out for the entirety of the 2014 season before the year had even started, because it was that very year that I enrolled as a freshman at Ohio State. My first ever game in the Horseshoe was witnessing the Buckeyes lose a horrific game to Virginia Tech, and I thought that my initial experience of a college football season was down the tubes immediately. However, we all know how that season turned out...
Nonetheless, I thought of a number of different ways I could go with this one. There are so many ‘What Ifs’ in college football on a year in and year out basis that it is hard to narrow it down to just one. You could drive yourself mad thinking about ‘What If’ on any individual play that led to your team losing a big game or any significant injury to an important player that may have altered the outcome of a season. There is also the question of ‘What If’ when it comes to personnel, whether it be a player Ohio State whiffed on in recruiting or a guy who left to pursue greener pastures elsewhere through the transfer portal.
My mind immediately went to some of the big names the Buckeyes missed on the recruiting trail that seemed at one point to be locks to end up in Columbus, but looking back it isn’t entirely clear whether those players, as good as they may have turned out to be, wouldn’t had enough of an individual impact at Ohio State to warrant the attention of an entire article.
One of the bigger misses in recent years was running back Bijan Robinson, and while he was a stud at Texas, the Buckeyes haven’t exactly been hurting at the RB position. Corner Clark Phillips III was another huge whiff, but one DB wouldn’t have been enough to fix some recent OSU secondaries. The one that casuals love to claim was another mistake by Ohio State was choosing Dwayne Haskins over Joe Burrow, but his 4,800 yards and 50 TDs that year were certainly more than adequate — and the correct choice at the time.
No, instead I want to look at a much more recent happening. A player that Ohio State was without for basically the entirety of a season that could have been the difference in them winning a national title even despite some glaring flaws at other positions. I am referring to Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and ‘What If’ the top receiver in the 2023 NFL Draft had actually gotten to play for the Buckeyes in his final collegiate season?
The 2022 edition of Ohio State was far from perfect, and many of their issues that cropped up at points throughout the year came to a nasty head in the 45-23 loss to Michigan in the season finale. Still, the Buckeyes snuck their way into the College Football Playoff, and even held a 38-27 lead at the end of the third quarter against Georgia in the Peach Bowl. As we know all too well, Ohio State would muster just a field goal the rest of the way in what resulted in a 42-41 season-ending loss.
The Buckeyes were able to put up 41 points on one of if not the best defense in the entire country. They were able to do so largely in part to the efforts of one Marvin Harrison Jr., as the stud receiver hauled in five catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns before exiting the game on what should’ve been a clear targeting penalty in the end zone in the second half. Without Harrison on the field, Ohio State’s offense slowed to a halt. Had JSN been on the field, I find it hard to imagine it would’ve have been enough to hold on the rest of the way — or have had an even bigger lead in the first place before the Harrison Jr. injury.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba missing the entire season is a glaring indictment of the entire Ohio State strength and conditioning staff, which will be another topic of mine later this week as part of our ‘What If’ Theme Week content. The way that the Buckeyes both handled the injury in terms of bringing him back too soon and the way his rehab was manage cost the nation’s best pass-catcher the whole campaign — and held Ohio State back from competing for a national title.