- College football reporter
- Joined ESPN.com in 2007
- Graduate of Indiana University
When former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow won the Heisman Trophy last year, a trio of former Ohio State Buckeyes called each other to celebrate.
Former quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Tim Beck was in Texas at the time, driving home from dinner with his wife and daughter, when Cardale Jones called him. Beck then added another former Ohio State quarterback, J.T. Barrett, to the conversation on speakerphone.
“Can you believe Joe just won the Heisman?!” Beck said to them.
Before he became the record-setting, cigar-smoking, cocky but cool transfer quarterback who led LSU to a stunning 42-25 national championship game win over Clemson last season, Burrow was a relatively unknown freshman at Ohio State in 2015. He was a rookie in an already-packed quarterback meeting room with Barrett and Jones, two starters who had just won the 2014 national title, along with a star-studded supporting cast that included Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Eli Apple, Taylor Decker, Darron Lee, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, Adolphus Washington, Nick Vannett and Joshua Perry.
If it reads like an NFL roster, that’s because it could have been — and Burrow, who is expected to be chosen first overall in the 2020 NFL draft, is about to be its exclamation point.
The 2015 Ohio State team (yes the one that didn’t go to the college football playoff) was so absurdly talented, it’s easy to forget that the unforgettable Burrow was on it too. He was an afterthought on a roster that featured five first-round NFL draft picks and that has had a profound impact at the sport’s highest level.
“That might have been as talented as any one we’ve had,” said former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.
The Buckeyes’ tally of 12 picks in the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL draft was the most in the common draft era (since 1967), but nationally, the 2015 team from which they came has seemingly been underappreciated — a slight that can be traced back to one inexplicable loss to a less talented Michigan State team on Nov. 21 as time expired. It’s hard to stake a claim as the best team in the country without a national title. It’s also not unusual for one program to produce at least a dozen draft picks in one year (it has happened 25 times), but the 2015 Buckeyes have cemented their place in history because of what rounds they were drafted in and what they continue to accomplish in the NFL.
They haven’t just made it — they’re dominating. Three players from that class have already been to multiple Pro Bowls: Thomas holds the NFL single-season receptions record with 149 in 2019, and no receiver has more receptions (470) or receiving yards (5,512) through his first four seasons; Elliott has the fourth-most rushing yards (5,405) in Cowboys history; and Bosa, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016, is tied for eighth in sacks (40) and third in pressures (58) since entering the league.
“It was pretty much like a college all-star team,” Vannett said.
Which is why Ohio State’s No. 7 finish in the final 2015 College Football Playoff ranking is one of the greatest mysteries of the CFP era — not because the selection committee left the Buckeyes out of the semifinals but because OSU never looked like the “all-star team” it was until it was too late. While the 12-1 finish should still be considered a remarkable season by most reasonable standards, it fell below the lofty expectations of winning a second straight national title with what now appears to be the most talented roster college football has seen.
“If they had won back-to-back, they without a shadow of a doubt would have been one of those top-of-the-pyramid teams in our history,” said Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith. “Even without that they still are, but they would have been celebrated even more.”
PART I: ‘SEEMINGLY NOTHING WAS WRONG’
Ohio State returned 15 starters from its 2014 national championship team and was the first unanimous preseason No. 1 ever in the 2015 Associated Press poll. But the Buckeyes had to replace offensive coordinator Tom Herman, who had recruited Burrow before leaving to become Houston’s head coach. Meyer hired Tim Beck as co-offensive coordinator to Ed Warinner, also the offensive line coach at the time.
Note: Titles used are from 2015.
Urban Meyer, head coach: You love the fight to get to the top of the mountain. When you’re on top of the mountain, it’s a little more difficult.
Luke Fickell, defensive coordinator: You go into the season, it’s undefeated or bust. That puts pressure, but I don’t think you would expect anything different.
Joshua Perry, linebacker: That offseason was a grind for us. Our coaches did not want us to feel like we were the almighty kings or whatever. They wanted us to grind the way we had done before.
Billy Price, offensive guard/center: We knew what the expectation was. We had every intention of being a back-to-back national champion.
Nick Vannett, tight end: I always tell people that our toughest opponent was ourselves in practice. When I’m on offense, you have Joey Bosa, Darron Lee, Josh Perry, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, I mean the whole defense is in the league almost, and I’m going against that every day in practice. Practice was always way harder than the games were.
Warinner, Beck and Meyer had to choose among three talented quarterbacks with different strengths: fifth-year senior Braxton Miller, who missed 2014 with a shoulder injury and was eventually converted to receiver; J.T. Barrett, who put up Heisman Trophy-worthy numbers as a freshman before injuring his ankle in the final regular-season game of 2014; and redshirt junior Cardale Jones, who led Ohio State in three postseason games. It seemed like a good problem to have.
Urban Meyer: That was a very difficult situation, because you had one guy that was a leader that really did a great job as a freshman, J.T., then you had Cardale Jones, who came in and did something that really no other player in college football history did, lead a team as a third-string quarterback to a national title and play outstanding. Cardale won the starting job, but J.T. really made a push during training camp. We played them both, a little like I did with Tebow and Chris Leak [at Florida], and then we just settled in on J.T.
Ohio State started the season as most had expected, with back-to-back dominant wins against Virginia Tech and Hawaii, but the No. 1 Buckeyes got a scare on Sept. 19, when they were tied at 10 at home with Northern Illinois. Jones threw two interceptions, and Barrett finished the game in the 20-13 win. Ohio State had five turnovers and averaged only 4.5 yards per play.
Rod Carey, former NIU coach and now coach at Temple: We thought they had made a huge mistake playing [Cardale]. We thought, well, as long as that kid plays, we’ve got a chance. That proved right, and then in our game they pulled him and put in J.T. Barrett.
They were dysfunctional on offense, and defensively they were ridiculous. We had a whole game plan that revolved around [Bosa], and that let their linebackers roam free, so that hurt us offensively a little bit. It was a sinking feeling at times on offense, I can tell you that.
Two weeks later, undefeated Ohio State was in a similar position, this time trailing 10-6 in the first half at 4-0 Indiana.
Kevin Wilson, former Indiana coach: It was calm [in the locker room at the half]. Nobody was celebrating or screaming “We got ’em.” Zeke scored a couple of touchdowns where he should have been dead in the hole and tackled, and he made some guys miss and he went 55, 65 and 75 on three of those touchdowns.
One week after their slow start at Indiana, the top-ranked Buckeyes again showed some flaws, this time at home against 2-4 Maryland, which had been outscored 73-6 in the previous two games. The Terps took a 7-0 lead after the Buckeyes punted on their first drive. It wasn’t until the second half that Ohio State asserted itself as the better team and won 49-28.
Tyvis Powell, safety: The turning point was Maryland. No way in the world we should’ve been struggling with Maryland. That was the game we realized, man, the offense is really kind of struggling this year.
Nick Vannett: We weren’t as explosive on offense. We weren’t able to put up as many points as we did the year before, and it didn’t really make sense why. We still had the same guys, but I think a lot of it had to do with our offensive coordinator. I hate to blame the coaches, but you’ve gotta call a spade a spade.
Ed Warriner, offensive coordinator: Game plans were done by committee, and plays were called by committee. They involved a group of people: myself, Tim Beck, Urban Meyer and even [receivers coach] Zach Smith. We all had responsibilities and game plan preparation and we all worked together to try to produce the best product we could.
Tim Beck, co-offensive coordinator: We weren’t as explosive; we weren’t as in rhythm as they were the year before, and there were a lot of the same players. Those facts are all true. What’s to blame? I don’t know that there’s any one particular thing that probably caused Ohio State in 2015 not to be as explosive. I just don’t feel like there was a great rhythm for us offensively.
Joshua Perry: Heading into 2015, we had to manufacture the adversity because seemingly nothing was wrong. Everybody was healthy and ready to roll. That feeling that we weren’t truly united all the time I feel like had a little bit to do with that misstep we had against Michigan State.
PART II: ‘IT WAS LIKE SOMEONE DIED’
On Nov. 21, No. 9 Michigan State came to Columbus on a rainy, windy day as a 13-point underdog without injured starting quarterback Connor Cook. The score was tied 7-7 at the half, but Barrett threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Jalin Marshall in the third quarter for the 14-7 lead. That would be it for the Buckeyes’ scoring, though, and they finished with just 132 total yards. The Spartans completed just one pass in the second half but ran for 203 yards and gave field goal kicker Michael Geiger — who had missed from 43 yards in the first half — a shot to win the game with three seconds left. His 41-yard field goal found its mark, and the Spartans beat the Buckeyes 17-14, ending No. 3 Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak.
After the game, Elliott questioned the playcalling and announced that it would be his last home game as a Buckeye. He ran 12 times for just 33 yards — a stat line in a loss that still baffles some Buckeyes.
Tyvis Powell: It actually is a great topic of conversation. It still gets brought up today because nobody has the answer as to why that happened.
Nick Vannett: I get salty every time thinking about it.
Urban Meyer: We couldn’t throw the ball; we had a hard time running the ball as well. We didn’t get the ball to Zeke enough. That was frustrating for everybody because the players and everybody knew what kind of talent we had on that team.
Tim Beck: It was cold, and it was icing. We struggled to throw the ball. We weren’t staying on the field; we weren’t collecting a lot of first downs. There were a lot of punts. We never got in a rhythm offensively to establish really anything in the game.
I don’t know why [Elliott didn’t get the ball more]. When you lose, it’s easy to second-guess. I don’t think we went into that game with a specific plan of how many carries a guy is getting. That wasn’t the case at all. We just never established anything, never got in a rhythm.
Billy Price: Zeke was very mad. Game, game plan, conditions, everything was for the worst. A lot of guys still hold that near and dear to their heart.
Tyvis Powell: We usually do the “Carmen Ohio” after the game, and I remember security stopping us like, “Y’all stop, we still got to do ‘Carmen Ohio,'” and we were so hot, we’re like, “Man, forget ‘Carmen Ohio’; we’re done,” and we walked into the locker room.
Luke Fickell: I remember the locker room afterward, how difficult it was, how stunned Coach was. I thought that’s where I probably gained as much respect for Zeke Elliott as ever, just because he was the one guy who stepped up afterward. I know he got a lot of flak in the press conference afterward, but the reality was he didn’t act like that in front of the team.
Chris Ash, co-defensive coordinator: Everyone’s in the locker room like, “Did this really just happen?” It was a shock. Michigan State had a good team but not an elite team that year. To lose at home, it was just really disbelief.
Nick Vannett: There’s just no reason we should’ve lost that game at all. It was senior night. The weather conditions were terrible, but both teams were going through that, so you can’t say we had a disadvantage. I think we were just getting away from what we were really good at — that was running the ball, that was getting the ball to our playmakers like Mike Thomas, Braxton Miller, Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson and many more. … We had so many weapons on offense, it’s like, “What are we doing?”
Urban Meyer: I remember the week of practice, it took us until Wednesday to get over that loss. It was like someone died in that facility.
Chris Ash: I think the guys, they bounced back as the week went on. I think it was more the coaches, the head coach specifically. I remember it; probably it wasn’t until Friday before the next game where you felt like Coach Meyer was back to himself. He took that one really hard. It wasn’t until the pregame team meeting where I felt like, “Yeah, he’s back.”
Joshua Perry: Me being one of the captains, those guys, the leaders on the team came together and said, “You know what? F this. We might’ve lost that game, but we’ve still got our rival; that’s a lot to play for right there. We might not be out of this playoff run still.”
Tim Beck: These guys have been through a lot. They weren’t going to let one stubbing of the toe take away from all the things they’ve done together. They weren’t going to lose to the Team Up North.
PART III: ‘CLICKING ON ALL CYLINDERS’
Ohio State sank five spots to No. 8 in the CFP rankings heading into the regular-season finale at rival Michigan. Elliott ran for 214 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-13 win over the No. 10 Wolverines.
Tyvis Powell: The next week, everybody was wondering, how are they going to respond? I remember it was in Ann Arbor, and Coach Meyer gave an excellent pregame speech, as he always does.
Urban Meyer: It wasn’t me. They got together and said let’s finish this thing right.
Gene Smith: Even though it was at Michigan, I do remember they were in a different mindset. I felt good because our talent was better anyway, but they were on a mission. That game could’ve been 60 points.
Tyvis Powell: Zeke went crazy.
Billy Price: That man is a game-time player, he’s a baller, he’s a great running back, incredible work ethic and a guy who really loves the game. And it’s pretty easy when you’ve got really good offensive linemen opening up holes that you could drive a Mack truck through, so he did his magic.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back (after the game): I regret everything I said.
Tyvis Powell: The offense finally looked like the offense we had been waiting on all year. I don’t know who was calling the plays for the Team Up North or the Notre Dame game, but whoever it was should’ve been calling the plays all year. They did an outstanding job. The offense was clicking on all cylinders all game.
Tim Beck: Some games we had it — specifically at the end of the year, Michigan, Notre Dame. Why did those change? Why did all of a sudden we call good games then? I don’t know.
Luke Fickell: I’d like to tell you I knew we were going to do that. … I told the guys you’ll know a lot more about yourself and your brothers after this game because how everybody is going to handle it will be a big deal. There’s a reason they’re having success at the next level too, because they were able to put that aside and continue to move forward.
It happened twice. Without a spot in the Big Ten championship game, Ohio State would face No. 8 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes were relentless, hammering the Irish in a 44-28 win.
Tyvis Powell: Nobody was really looking for fame. We was doing it because the person next to us depended on us to do our job. Once we got that, that’s when we became untouchable. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize, how close that team really was. Even to this day, a lot of people are close.
Joshua Perry: You look at the season as a whole, and it was a great season, save for one game, but you look at those last two games, and I think that’s more indicative of what we were as a team.
Nick Vannett: At the end of the season, we were the best team in the country. We just didn’t get a chance to show that.
Luke Fickell: The tough thing in college football is it has a lot to do with when that hiccup comes. We won the national championship in ’14, but the hiccup came early and we had a chance to rebound. The thing about that [in 2015] was when it came, the second-to-last game of the year. To me it made it that much more impressive to see how he got us to finish the last regular-season game of the year and the bowl game.
PART IV: ‘FROM KIDS TO MEN’
Last July, Thomas agreed to a five-year deal worth as much as $100 million with the New Orleans Saints. A little more than a month later, Elliott settled on a six-year extension with the Cowboys that brought his total contract to eight years and $103 million. Bosa is in the midst of a four-year, $25.9 million contract with the Chargers, who exercised their fifth-year option with him. While schools often produce multiple draft picks and NFL players, few have had an impact on the league like that of Ohio State’s 2016 draft class.
Urban Meyer: Why are those players doing so well? They’re competitors. Not just talented guys but elite competitors.
Nick Vannett: Yeah, they’re the best at what they do in the league, but to me, that’s my boys. We went through hell together in college, we had a lot of good times together. Whenever we cross paths, we catch up. Whenever I play Dallas, me and Zeke catch up like old times. That’s cool to hold on to that.
Luke Fickell: I have a routine that every Sunday night before I go to bed, my last 15 minutes, I pull up all of those games and go through the stats just to keep tabs on guys you coach, and guys you had an opportunity to be on a team or program with. The most gratifying ones are some of those ones where you knew where they came from.
Billy Price: Every game that you play you get to see old teammates. It’s pretty cool. I remember last year, we played the Saints, and there’s six Ohio State guys on the other side, there’s four on the Cincy side. We had 10 players of significance and playing crucial positions. It was like going back to spring ball in 2015, going against some of those guys.
Chris Ash: When you look at it now, when you have an opportunity four or five years later to really reflect on it, wow, that team was loaded. It’s really incredible.
Gene Smith: They set the tone for where we are today. They really set it and did a great job on all levels. They set a standard for how you prepare. Obviously it was Urban and how he recruited. He recruited great players, but those guys who came in after those guys, they saw how you competed at that level.
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