Notre Dame almost made it. Brian Kelly righted the ship, restoring luster to a program that had been struggling recently with an undefeated regular season. Then, the Crimson Tide poured in like a tidal wave, embarrassing the Fighting Irish in the national championship. SEC dominance continued. But what the Golden Domers outlined was a basic formula for non-SEC schools to match SEC squads.
Remember, Notre Dame was unranked for most of the previous season. A team with a better jumping-off point could show up at that final game with a shot to compete.
This is the recipe: You need a rabid fan base and tradition as an elite school, a coach who is both a savvy recruiter and a strong game manager, the ability to recruit on a national level, major conference competition to prepare for the postseason, and a pipeline into pro success.
Any college football fan realizes where Notre Dame comes up short. Without belonging to any conference, many of their toughest games were against foes that SEC schools would pummel. Two different schools took the Fighting Irish to overtime: Stanford, not a top tier team but a respectable foe, and Pittsburgh, a Big East school that finished the season with a losing record. They beat BYU and Purdue, both at home, by three points each. If you’re continually edging out mediocrity, that’s not going to cut it.
So who’s the team this year that has a chance to break the SEC stranglehold on collegiate gridiron glory? It’s a squad that meets all of the requisites of the previous paragraph, a team with a maverick workaholic of a coach, consistently top-tier recruiting classes, led by a stud quarterback, and a team who just so happened to go undefeated last year, under the radar.
Georgia, Texas, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, California, North Carolina, Mississippi. These are states that players ranked five and four-star recruits on Rivals are joining the Ohio State Buckeyes’ 2013 recruiting class from. Players from football hotbeds on both coasts and the South decided to journey up to Columbus, Ohio, and wear scarlet and gray for coach Urban Meyer. Ohio State has the number two ranked class of 2013–right after the Crimson Tide.
Ohio State has what Notre Dame didn’t—talent—signed with consistent continuity. Sounds hypocritical after a coaching change, but Jim Tressel wasn’t ousted for poor performance. Tressel recruited in the top tier and coached at the top tier, and the results during his years reflected it. He left a strong base at Ohio State of well-coached talent. So when a coach walks in, a few years removed from two national championships, and relentlessly recruits the top talent from all over the country, we’re going to see consistent success. It was a foundation that Kelly never had, from the bungled years of Willingham and Weis.
Meyer adds another wrinkle that Tressel-led teams never had: a prolific spread offense. The Buckeyes of Tressel’s time were actually very similar to last year’s Fighting Irish: offensively conservative teams who clamped down on defense and pulled off close victories. Unsurprisingly, most Ohio State postseasons ended in defeat, like when they were torched by Meyer’s Gators, a wide open attack pioneered by quarterbacking tandem Chris Leak and Tim Tebow that isolated the speed of the electric Percy Harvin. The BCS championship was a 41-14 defeat for the Buckeyes, a single point away from Notre Dame’s 42-12 bashing at the hands of the Crimson Tide.
This time, it’s Braxton Miller leading an exciting offense that’s paired with an athletic defense, particularly in the secondary. The SEC has shown that speed kills, so Ohio State went out and recruited it. The one game Alabama lost last season, they were haunted by the dual threat phenom Johnny Manziel, a guy who could scramble and keep plays alive, frustrating the pass rush. Though Texas A&M’s elite offensive tackles neutralized much of the Bama pass rush, it’s easy to see parallels between Miller and Manziel, and the Buckeye quarterback, in theory, should be able to confound the Crimson Tide front seven.
There’s no replacement for making it through the SEC gauntlet, but Ohio State will be more prepared after playing through its Big Ten schedule than Notre Dame was last season. Though they only have one fit nonconference opponent in the California Golden Bears, they host worthy challengers Wisconsin and Penn State, and venture into Ann Arbor for the climax of their season, a game the Buckeyes will certainly give a damn about if they’re undefeated headed into the Michigan clash. This year, they avoid Nebraska and Michigan State, averting potential threats to a perfect season. Everything else, barring a slip-up, should be easy enough for the Scarlet and Gray to win with gusto.
It was the sins of Meyer’s coaching forefather Tressel that made the Buckeyes bowl-ineligible and therefore irrelevant last season, as gratis tattoos are banned both biblically and in NCAA bylaws. Last season’s undefeated campaign wasn’t always pretty, but it saw Miller assert himself as a dangerous weapon, and groomed players to Meyer’s new system. This year, with another crop of elite talent and experience for returning starters, last season’s dress rehearsal could translate into another flawless record.
And that brings us to a potential title game. The SEC, as it stands, is enjoying a period of unchallenged dominance, boasting the most talented and pro-ready players, the stiffest competition in college sports. It’s been practically a super conference the last few years, a point best illustrated by the Alabama-LSU final to cap the 2011 season, two schools from the same conference vying for the ultimate prize. But by poaching talent from the fertile southern grounds and invigorating the offense of the Buckeyes, Meyer has created a team from the Midwest that can trade blows with these juggernauts. I’m not predicting that the Buckeyes will definitely unseat the SEC, but I think that it might be Scarlet against Crimson, and most importantly, it’ll be a close game. Could this be the season the tides turn?