Four weeks ago, Urban Meyer took the podium at Big Ten Media Days, anticipating questions about Braxton Miller’s throwing shoulder, and worked quickly to ease concerns.
“It’s been a very good summer,” the third-year Ohio State coach said. “Our quarterback — I know we’ll get asked that question — is ready to go. He’s full-speed, in the best shape of his life.”
Meyer stressed other concerns. The offensive line must replace four starters. The pass defense got torched in last season’s final three games. Several other key players are gone from last year’s 12-2 team, including running back Carlos Hyde, linebacker Ryan Shazier and offensive lineman Jack Mewhort.
The newly configured Big Ten East appeared to be, at the time, a two-team race between Ohio State and Michigan State. Miller was healthy, and he was going to make the Buckeyes go. Nineteen of 29 sportswriters covering the Big Ten picked Ohio State to win the conference title in Cleveland.com’s annual poll.
So when the Big Ten’s two-time offensive player of the year reinjured his shoulder last week, ending his season, it threw Ohio State’s best-laid plans into the Olentangy River.
The Spartans now are the clear favorites, but upon closer inspection, maybe it should have been that way all along.
The Spartans went 13-1 last year, beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and outmuscling Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Michigan State won all eight of its conference games by at least 10 points. Its only loss was a four-point tossup at Notre Dame.
This year, the Spartans could be even better. They might not be the only Big Ten team with a shot to reach the four-team College Football Playoff, but they’re probably the best equipped to win it.
In July, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wasn’t shy when asked how the Spartans would have fared if the four-team playoff format had been installed last season.
“I thought we would have been national champions, to be perfectly honest with you,” Dantonio told reporters. “I think we would have had a shot to do that, because I thought at the end of the season, we were playing great football, and we were believing in ourselves.”
Too bad Michigan State didn’t get that chance because the Big Ten’s national perception continued to take a beating last year. Even after knocking off the undefeated Buckeyes in the conference title game, the Spartans entered the Rose Bowl as 6 ½-point underdogs. Doubts lingered until Connor Cook took control in that 24-20 victory over Stanford.
“I feel like we represented our conference pretty well,” Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond said. “We tried making a statement. Whether or not it worked on people, we’ve just got to handle our business.”
Some good players graduated, including defensive standouts Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough and Denicos Allen. But several decorated stars return, including Cook, 1,400-yard rusher Jeremy Langford and Shilique Calhoun, the reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year.
The Spartans need to fill holes at linebacker, but otherwise there’s no apparent weakness. They are deep at receiver, and the offensive line is perhaps the strongest of Dantonio’s eight-year tenure.
The Spartans have ranked in the nation’s top 10 in scoring defense the past three years. Recruits such as defensive tackle Malik McDowell, the No. 1 ranked player in Michigan, have lined up to play in defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi’s system.
That’s why it should be a fascinating matchup Sept. 6, when the Spartans face Marcus Mariota and the explosive Oregon offense. A victory in Eugene, Ore., would position Michigan State well for a playoff berth. A loss wouldn’t end its chances if it can run the Big Ten table again.
“One way or the other, win or lose, we need to gain experience from that game and be able to push through and into the conference,” Dantonio said. “We have a great home schedule, so we need to continue to win at home.”
That’s the other reason Michigan State should be so tough. Most of its biggest Big Ten tests — Nebraska (Oct. 4), Michigan (Oct. 25) and Ohio State (Nov. 8) — all come in East Lansing.
Many have circled the Ohio State-Michigan State as the de-facto Big Ten East championship game, and it could play out that way.
Ohio State usually reloads. Its defensive line will be one of the best in the country. Miller’s replacement is redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, a four-star recruit from Texas. Sophomore receiver Dontre Wilson will be a constant big-play threat.
Questions abound for the rest of the division. Michigan has gone backward the past three years under Brady Hoke, and the Wolverines will need to revamp a rushing attack that ranked 102nd in the nation last year.
Penn State has some spring in its step with new coach James Franklin reeling in recruits, but the Nittany Lions still have scholarship limitations and a bowl ban from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Indiana has yet to show it can play defense under fourth-year coach Kevin Wilson. Of the two Big Ten newcomers, Maryland looks much more suited to compete than Rutgers, but neither team is expected to finish too far from the East’s cellar.
“I think it’s one of the toughest divisions in college football,” Meyer said. “You just have to look at the recruiting that takes place at the schools, and then the style of defense and offense.”
But those words came before Miller’s injury. Suddenly, Ohio State no longer looks as dangerous.
Cleveland.com polled the same Big Ten writers again after Miller’s injury, and 22 of 25 respondents picked Michigan State.