In less than 24 hours, Ohio State went from favorites to fringe contenders to make the inaugural college football playoff.
But even with senior quarterback Braxton Miller's season-ending shoulder injury, the Buckeyes seem to have the inside track to the Big Ten championship.
Because even without its best player, coach Urban Meyer's squad is supposedly brimming with talent on both sides of the ball. Couple that with a relatively easy schedule and a watered-down conference and you've got why Ohio State may very well hoist a trophy inside of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in December.
BEASTS OF THE EAST
Ohio State's path to its first league title under Meyer starts with what looks to be the loaded Big Ten East. At the conference's Media Days in Chicago in late July, Meyer called the division one of most-competitive in the country.
“It’s one of the toughest divisions in college football,” he said.
It's why the Buckeyes, especially without Miller at the helm, are favorites to win the league -- not locks.
“I hope that happens, but that’s a tough road. It’s a rugged conference. We’re going to do our best to be prepared for it.”
Most notably in Ohio State's path is defending champion Michigan State, which knocked the Buckeyes off in the Big Ten Championship Game last year and snapped their 24-game winning streak. The two schools are set for a rematch in East Lansing in early November under the lights. This was going to be a challenging game for Ohio State before Miller's absence. Without him, this is probably its biggest hurdle during the regular season.
If you want to look at it glass half-empty, the Spartans and that vaunted defense are going to fluster redshirt freshman J.T Barrettt and an offense that doesn't have Carlos Hyde, four starting offensive lineman, and Corey "Philly" Brown as supporting cast members. On the contrary, playing Michigan State toward the end of the season gives the Buckeyes time to gel and build a level of offensive cohesion that it likely won't have for the first month of play.
Also, a nighttime trip to Penn State also could trip Ohio State up considering the weird things that tend to happen in State College under the lights. While the Nittany Lions still have notable personnel holes to fill and lack the depth to compete for a Big Ten title, they're going to be jacked up for this game. And with first-year coach James Franklin, who's infused what seemed to be a previously lost sense of excitement surrounding the program, Penn State has all the motivation in the world to upset Ohio State in late October.
There's also that big game or whatever against Michigan that tends to get people in Columbus riled up for some reason. Though Brady Hoke's squad doesn't look like it'll be much of a contender this season, the Wolverines always pose a real threat to play spoiler and vice versa. If this game was in Ann Arbor, I think the Buckeyes would have a real shot at getting upset (after all, it almost happened last season). But it's really hard to imagine a Michigan team dealing with so much turmoil coming to Ohio Stadium and taking down Ohio State in Columbus.
The rest of the East -- Maryland, Rutgers and Indiana -- shouldn't pose much of a threat to a Buckeye team that'll overmatch them athletically.
best of the west
The favorites in the West are Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa. By some scheduling wonder, Ohio State plays none of them.
The Badgers, which have become one of the biggest conference rivals for the Buckeyes, look to have the inside track in coach Gary Andersen's second year in Madison. It doesn't hurt, either, the West seems to be less competitive of the two Big Ten divisions. But don't tell Andersen that.
"We’re all going to put our helmets on and go out on play. That will define this year’s teams. So to sit here now and say this division is this and this division is that based off traditions of a school, I don't buy that," he said at Big Ten Media Days. "There’s tremendous tradition on both sides. We’ll all fight it out in the defining moment and we’ll see who’s who."
Nebraska and Iowa will challenge for the division title, too. The Cornhuskers have the talent to compete with any team in the conference, though fans in Lincoln have grown restless with coach Bo Pelini, whose sideline and press conference tantrums have gotten more play than any on-field action. Pelini's been successful, but he's failed to meet the sky-high expectations of the program's faithful. This year could be different if the Huskers can get past Michigan State and a non-conference bout against the Miami Hurricanes.
Iowa, which wasn't a pushover last season, finds itself with a veteran-laden group that should be able to make noise with a relatively easy schedule. Its hardest game of the year arguably doesn't come until a season-finale agains Nebraska.
Before he ever got hurt, the 2014 season seemed like it'd hinge on Miller, a Heisman candidate and the back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year.
Without him, the Buckeyes' chances among oddsmakers plummeted, home tickets sales have apparently seen a little, but noticeable, decrease, and national pundits near and far have written coach Urban Meyer's squad off.
Honestly, it's pretty much impossible to write something without having to note Miller's glaring absence. The Buckeyes, while not doomed, face a considerable mountain to climb if they want to make good on a season that was supposed to be about redemption after coming undone last year.
The Big Ten, however, remains very much winnable. Ohio State should be favored in just about every game it plays this season, sans for maybe the contest against Michigan State Games against Rutgers, Maryland and Illinois should be relatively easy wins for an Ohio State team that's going to be simply better on paper. The same goes for Penn State and Michigan, despite the natural intrigue those games offer. Really, the only team that looks like it could very legitimately knock the Buckeyes off is Mark Dantonio's squad. Even still, Ohio State probably has at worst a 40 percent chance of winning in Spartan Stadium.
Again, glass half-empty: there are no guaranteed wins for the Buckeyes without Braxton Miller, which seems more or less true. Glass half-full: if Ohio State can get through its regular season relatively unscathed, it will have already played and potentially beaten the best team it'll play all season.