May 12, 2016
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It hasn’t taken long for the hype to build for Michigan as it spends its second straight offseason in the spotlight thanks to Jim Harbaugh.
But with J.T. Barrett returning for his third season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, the road to the Big Ten title—and in effect, the College Football Playoff—will once again run through Columbus.
Yet, as preseason polls have begun to pop up with fewer than four months to go until the start of the 2016 season, the Wolverines have found themselves a popular prediction to crash the College Football Playoff—an even trendier pick than their archrival Buckeyes.
The logic? After a 10-3 debut season under Harbaugh, Michigan not only appears to be ahead of schedule, but it returns several key pieces—and 2017 NFL draft prospects—on both sides of the ball.
“In between his Twitter wars with other coaches, recruiting extravaganzas and spring break trips, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is quickly building a playoff contender,” ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach wrote in this week’s “Way-Too-Early Top 25,” which ranked the Wolverines third.
Approximately 190 miles south of Ann Arbor, Ohio State can’t claim the same carryover and consistency the Wolverines are about to enjoy—not with what the Buckeyes saw walk out the door during last month’s NFL draft. Altogether, Urban Meyer finds himself replacing 16 starters, including 12 NFL draft picks and five first-rounders in a crop of players predominately responsible for his 50-4 start as Ohio State’s head coach.
“We have a lot of momentum here at Ohio State right now,” Meyer said, whose team Schlabach ranked 10th in his recent poll. “We can’t lose it just because we lost some great players.”
Even with all that the Buckeyes are losing, that seems unlikely to happen—and not necessarily because of the blue chip-filled recruiting classes that will be replenishing Meyer’s roster (although those doesn’t hurt either).
Of the six players who find themselves in the rare position of returning starters on this 2016 Ohio State team, Barrett remains the Big Ten’s best offensive player, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate capable of single-handedly maintaining national relevancy for his team.
“No, it’s not his last game,” Meyer assured with a smile following the Buckeyes’ Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame in January.
And if Barrett’s last game performance was any indication, the Wichita Falls, Texas, native isn’t just back; he’s back. After a season-long quarterback competition with Cardale Jones resulted in mixed results for both signal-callers, Barrett finally seemed to find his groove in the final two games of the 2015 season, totaling a combined 559 yards and five touchdowns in wins over Michigan and the Fighting Irish.
Barrett’s barrage to close his sophomore campaign was reminiscent of his breakthrough freshman season, which saw him break the Buckeyes’ single-season total offense record (3,772 yards) and the Big Ten’s total touchdown mark (45) before finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting.
If Barrett can remain on that trajectory, Meyer believes that he—along with center Pat Elflein—can help negate the loss of what was 78 percent of Ohio State’s offensive production from 2015 that just walked out the door, according to SBNation’s Bill Connelly.
“The fact that these two guys are back, we have a shot,” Meyer said. “I think we have a decent shot of being good on offense, and it’s mostly due to those two guys coming back.”
“A shot” might be all Meyer is willing to concede to his offense right now, with just three starters returning from last year’s team and an inexperienced crop of skill players now at Barrett’s disposal. At times this spring, the Buckeyes offense looked admittedly disjointed, as Barrett’s timing with predominantly first- and second-year players wasn’t nearly as cohesive as it was with Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall the past two years.
That, however, will only increase the value of a player who’s consistently been lauded for his leadership since he arrived in Columbus as a true freshman in 2013. Named a captain a year ago, despite starting the season as Jones’ backup while in the midst of an unprecedented quarterback controversy, Barrett has already been given the same title this offseason in an effort to help overcome the OSU offense’s obvious inexperience.
“His value is more than running and throwing,” Meyer said of Barrett this spring. “His value is he’s one of the best leaders we’ve ever had.”
The running and throwing sure don’t hurt either, and as a result, the Buckeyes should have more than just “a shot” on offense in 2016. Barrett has already proven capable of carrying the load for a national championship-caliber offense, having done so as a redshirt freshman two years ago, before a broken ankle prevented him from playing in the postseason.
Elsewhere in the vaunted Big Ten East, defending champ Michigan State finds itself replacing an experienced quarterback of its own in Connor Cook, Penn State is doing the same with Christian Hackenberg and still appears at least a year away from contending under James Franklin, and Michigan is currently in the midst of what has thus far been an uninspiring quarterback battle between John O’Korn and Wilton Speight.
It’s also worth noting the Nov. 26 showdown between the Buckeyes and Wolverines will be played at Ohio Stadium.
So perhaps literally, the road to the Big Ten title will once again travel through Columbus.
“It’s a really special place right now,” Meyer said of his program. “We’ve played at a high level for two years and now—are we going to drop?”
As long as J.T. Barrett’s behind center, that seems unlikely, regardless of what the preseason polls say.
Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report’s Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Recruit rankings and info courtesy of 247Sports.
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