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‘What If’ Ohio State didn’t lose to Michigan State in 2015?

If the Buckeyes ran Ezekiel Elliott a little more they likely would have made a second straight CFP.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

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 asking “What If?”. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”What If?” articles here.

Sports can be wildly unpredictable. After losing Braxton Miller to injury prior to the 2014 season, falling at home to Virginia Tech, and J.T. Barrett injuring his leg later in the year against Michigan, there felt like no chance Ohio State would go on to win the first College Football Playoff.

The following year, both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett returned, as did a ton of talent from the previous year’s championship team, as well as Braxton Miller, who moved to wide receiver. With so much returning from a national championship team the previous year, the Buckeyes were ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.

Even though Buckeye Nation was still on a high from winning it all the previous year, there was still one big question heading into the season: Who was going to start at quarterback for Ohio State?

At first it was looking like a three-way battle between Miller, Barrett, and Jones before Miller moved to wide receiver. The handling of who would start at quarterback for the Buckeyes by Urban Meyer was the first sign in a season that failed to live up to expectations.

How Meyer could have all spring and summer to decide on a starting quarterback and then to find out the team didn’t even know until right before kickoff of the season opener at Virginia Tech is living on the edge. Some of that is understandable since Barrett was unavailable for spring practice because of the injury he suffered against Michigan, but at some point you have to have some faith in your decision.

Ohio State v Virginia Tech Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Ohio State jumped out on the Hokies 14-0 in the first quarter before Virginia Tech took a 17-14 lead into halftime. The Buckeyes would eventually pull away in the second half to extract some revenge on Frank Beamer’s team. Even though Ohio State spent the first nine weeks of the season as the top-ranked team in the country, they weren’t all that impressive in their wins. The Buckeyes struggled at home against Northern Illinois, and couldn’t put any distance on Indiana in Bloomington.

On top of an inconsistent offense, in late October J.T. Barrett was charged with an OVI, leading to him being suspended for the Minnesota game. The suspension came after Barrett looked to have moved past Jones as the team’s starting quarterback. After Jones started the game against the Golden Gophers, Barrett returned to the role in a 28-3 victory over Illinois. There were so many questions about the Ohio State quarterbacks throughout the year, but the Buckeyes were still in prime position to return to the College Football Playoff.

It always seems like it is Michigan State that ruins seasons for Ohio State. 1998 and the Big Ten Championship Game in 2013 are two Spartan wins over the Buckeyes that come to mind.

It didn’t help matters that the 2015 game was played in a cold monsoon in Columbus. Even though Michigan State had one of the stingier defenses in the country, Ohio State had Ezekiel Elliott, one of the best running backs in the country. As if the odds didn’t seem like they were stacked enough against the Spartans, quarterback Connor Cook didn’t play in the game.

Some of the struggles from the Ohio State offense in 2015 can be attributed to the loss of offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who took over as head coach at Houston after the 2014 season. Even with the loss of Herman, it’s not the first time Meyer has had to replace a coordinator. For Meyer’s team to put up such a pathetic offensive performance in a game you entered 10-0 is inexcusable.

Elliott only carried the football 12 times in the game, while Barrett carried the football 15 times, and was 9-of-16 for 46 yards throwing the ball. It was the most frustrating game I’ve watched as an Ohio State fan.

Michigan State v Ohio State

What made it even worse was how the offense performed the following week at Michigan. Elliott carried the football 30 times for over 200 yards, which makes his performance and lack of the use the week before even more puzzling. While the loss to the Spartans likely loosened up a team that had been loaded with pressure all season, it only adds to the “what if” questions when looking at the 2015 season.

It’s not a given that Ohio State would have won back-to-back titles had they beaten Michigan State in 2015, but at least they would have had a chance. Ohio State would have had to go on to the Big Ten Championship Game, where they would have played Iowa, who entered the conference title game undefeated. Not that the Hawkeyes wouldn’t have given the Buckeyes a game, Ohio State would have just been a little too much for Iowa.

It was obvious with how they played against Michigan and Notre Dame to close out the year that the Buckeyes started to find the right formula on offense. Had Ohio State made it past Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, there would have been a really wild College Football Playoff.

Instead, Michigan State was shutout by Alabama, while Clemson beat Oklahoma 37-17 in the other semifinal. Ohio State would have certainly given Alabama more of a game than Michigan State did, and it would have been fun to get the rematch angle from the first CFP.

Even without Ohio State as part of the playoff, the title game was thrilling, with Alabama beating Clemson 45-40. There’s no reason to think we wouldn’t have had another classic game if the Buckeyes were playing for their second straight national title. Ohio State ended up seeing 12 players drafted a few months later in the 2016 NFL Draft, with five of those players being drafted in the first round.

Not that Urban Meyer and his staff had any trouble bringing top talent to Columbus, but it would have been even easier if he had led Ohio State to back-to-back national titles. Instead, while Barrett played for Ohio State for two more seasons, they weren’t quite as feared as they were heading into the 2015 season.

The Buckeyes were destroyed by Clemson in the 2016 College Football Playoff, and they failed to make the CFP in 2017. The seasons were still great by the standards of a lot of schools, but failed to reach Ohio State’s expectations. Maybe winning the first two editions of the College Football Playoff would have eased some of the frustration from Buckeye fans.