Three years ago, Urban Meyer hoisted the inaugural College Football Playoff trophy through a downpour of confetti at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as Ohio State claimed its first national championship in 12 years. A string of three impressive postseason victories culminated in an eighth title for the Buckeyes.
A new dynasty dawned before our eyes.
That 2014 team — one that was initially perceived as a year away from climbing the beanstalk and competing with the giants — accomplished an unprecedented feat, and in striking fashion. Ohio State obliterated Wisconsin, posting a 59-0 win in the B1G Championship Game, a performance that ultimately granted the Buckeyes access to the final spot in the College Football Playoff.
In the national semifinal, they rolled the Crimson Tide, ousting Alabama from its throne atop the college football kingdom. A week later, Ohio State clobbered Oregon and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota 42-20 for the national title.
All of it accomplished by a team once believed to be too young and too inexperienced to hang with the elite. If the Buckeyes reached the pinnacle of the sport as sprouts, what could be accomplished when they finally blossomed?
Meyer assembled a powerhouse in three short seasons, one that could rival the conglomerate Nick Saban built at Alabama. Ohio State was on a path to become the next ruler of the college football landscape.
Somewhere along the way, though, the Buckeyes staggered off that trail. They eventually hit a dead end on Sunday, as the College Football Playoff selection committee opted to slip Alabama into the fourth and final spot instead of Ohio State. Any hopes of replicating Saban-type success in Columbus vanished when Meyer and Co. were left stranded in the cold.
Actually, it ended that first weekend in November when the Buckeyes were embarrassed by an average-at-best Iowa team in a 55-24 loss. Selection Sunday was just the final block that caused the Jenga tower to collapse.
Now, three years after Meyer raised his first — and only — national championship trophy in the scarlet and gray, Ohio State is left wondering what went wrong. There remains a slew of “what if” questions that will never be answered, all of which might have helped the program establish itself as the premier factory in the sport.
What if Meyer didn’t stubbornly refuse to feed Ezekiel Elliott in the 2015 matchup against Michigan State in Columbus? Elliott led the B1G in rushing that season but toted the ball just 12 times for 33 yards. The Spartans stole the game, a division, a conference championship and a Playoff berth along with it. The Buckeyes were stuck at home, unable to defend their national title.
What if those early drives in last year’s Fiesta Bowl didn’t stall? If Ohio State was able to get some points on the board in the first quarter against Clemson, maybe J.T. Barrett and the offense would’ve been able to ride that momentum through the game and have a real shot to knock off the Tigers. Instead, Tyler Durbin missed two field goals and Meyer suffered the first shutout of his career.
What if Mike Weber was at full strength earlier this season against Oklahoma? Sure, he played, but he wasn’t the same running back that slashed defenses left and right in 2016. Would a more dynamic backfield with Weber and J.K. Dobbins be an issue for the Sooners defense?
What if the Buckeyes actually showed up in Iowa City on Nov. 4, rather than cruise into Kinnick Stadium one week removed from defeating Penn State? Had they beaten Iowa — probably even played the Hawkeyes competitively — Ohio State would’ve been called as one of the participants in the College Football Playoff.
Columbus had the potential to become the Midwest’s version of Tuscaloosa, a factory with an assembly line dedicated to manufacturing championships. Meyer’s timing to replace Saban as the most dominant head coach the sport has ever known couldn’t have been more perfect. None of it ever came to fruition, though.
The last three seasons can hardly be labeled as a failure. Since the national championship run, the Buckeyes are 34-5, having won a second B1G title and having made another Playoff appearance. Meyer is one of just three coaches to lead his team to multiple appearances in a national semifinal (Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney are the other two).
Disappointing is a fair way to summarize the last three seasons at Ohio State. Despite the wealth of success, this program could have — should have — soared to unimaginable new heights.
Meyer brought in the second and third ranked recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014, bringing in a list of stars that would consume this entire page. Eight of which have been first-round selections in the NFL Draft since their time in Columbus.
How were defenses loaded with the likes of Joey Bosa, Malik Hooker, Marshon Lattimore, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell and others not enough to carry the Buckeyes to multiple titles? Why weren’t Elliott, J.T. Barrett, Curtis Samuel, Michael Thomas, Pat Elflein and Billy Price able to score at will even against the best defenses in the country?
Talent and opportunity were ripe in Columbus, but Ohio State was never able to capitalize.
It was almost appropriate how things ended for the Scarlet and Gray on Sunday, edged out of that last semifinal spot by the Crimson Tide, in part because of Saban’s impeccable track record. Had the Buckeyes not lost to Michigan State in 2015 or scored a few points last season against Clemson, maybe the committee would’ve given Meyer and Co. more consideration.
Instead, the message to Ohio State was pretty clear — it’s not Alabama. And until Ohio State can prove that it’s on the same level as Saban and the Crimson Tide, it isn’t going to receive the benefit of the doubt.
Meyer could still construct that Midwestern version of Tuscaloosa and eventually supersede the amount of success that Alabama has enjoyed throughout its decade of dominance. The Buckeyes brought in the nation’s second best recruiting class a year ago and are in the process of locking up the top class in 2018.
Perhaps 2018 and 2019 will be the time when college football’s next conglomerate begins to take shape.
If Ohio State couldn’t build a program that consistently throws punches with the likes of Alabama and Clemson over the past three years, with an overflowing well of talent, what evidence do we have that Meyer could ever engineer that type of success? When the Buckeyes were expected to deliver multiple national championships, they fell short of the mark.
Ohio State is still one of college football’s blueblood programs, that will never change. It had the chance to be untouchable, though.
It may not have that opportunity again.