On January 8, 2007, Urban Meyer ushered in the Southeastern Conference’s reign over the rest of college football.
The Ohio State Buckeyes absorbed a defeat that shook up the Big Ten for the next several years.
Eight years later, Meyer presided over another decisive national championship game victory, only this time, he led Ohio State back to the promised land in college football.
At the end of a season in which an SEC team didn’t contest the national title for the first time since the 2006 Rose Bowl (Texas-USC), Meyer was the last coach standing. He began the story of the SEC’s modern-day ascendance in January of 2007. After besting Alabama and — on Monday night — Oregon to claim the first College Football Playoff championship, Meyer closed that story by authoring his best season as a collegiate head coach.
That’s saying something, but under further examination, it’s hard to refute the claim.
Meyer led Utah to an unbeaten 2004 season. He guided Florida to the national title in just his second season in Gainesville, the other season which can compare with this one on Meyer’s gleaming resume. In 2008, Meyer won a national title with a loaded team, but it’s a team that lost at home to Ole Miss. In 2012, Ohio State went unbeaten, but the Buckeyes played a soft non-conference schedule. If you had to select Meyer’s best season as a coach, only 2006 could stay in the conversation with 2014.
In 2006, it’s true that Meyer took a flawed quarterback — Chris Leak — and worked around him to usher Florida to the championship thanks to a strong defense and timely special-teams plays, with just enough injections of offense to matter. What Meyer did with the 2014 Buckeyes exists on a higher plane.
Meyer didn’t just win a national title with three different quarterbacks; he dominated with them. He didn’t just “get by” or work around limited parts. He took inexperienced signal callers — in a sport which often savages the teams that have to use a second-string quarterback — and posted authoritative wins over good-to-very-good teams in three championship contests. Ohio State obliterated Wisconsin, cleanly outplayed Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, and decisively handled Oregon despite committing four turnovers. (No Buckeye turnovers would have turned this game into the 59-20 game Oregon put on Florida State in the Rose Bowl.)
Yes, Cardale Jones is a freak — Cam Newton lite — and sure, Ezekiel Elliott is a beast. Yet, Meyer had to put the pieces together in the face of injuries to enormously talented players: Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, and others.
Meyer, the coach who was burned out and verily needed a break from coaching in December of 2010 (Dick Vermeil needed decades, not just one year, to replenish himself before enjoying a Super Bowl-winning second act in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams in 1999), is now standing on the mountaintop at the end of the 2014 season. He has also given the college football community every reason to view him as the equal of Nick Saban on a larger historical scale.
Some will surely side with Saban in this debate (4-3 in national titles), and some will cite Meyer’s gameday agility and adaptability, not to mention the fresh example of the Sugar Bowl, in which Meyer and his staff clearly outmaneuvered Saban and his braintrust. However, the fairest and most reasonable verdict is to say that Meyer and Saban are — together — the masters of their craft, the two coaches who have towered over the rest of the sport since 2003, with Pete Carroll getting a word in edgewise.
Including LSU’s national crown in 2003, Saban and Meyer have won seven of the last 12 national titles in college football, a majority of the past dozen years. Moreover, Meyer produced two unbeaten teams in that span of time which did not even win the national crown — Utah because of its conference affiliation and the excellence of both USC and Auburn in 2004; Ohio State in 2012 because of postseason ineligibility. More to the point in 2012, had Ohio State been eligible for the postseason, Alabama and Saban wouldn’t have played Notre Dame for the BCS national championship. The national title tally between Saban and Meyer would have been 3-3, and Meyer might have gotten a chance to up his total to four.
Maybe you think Saban still deserves the nod as a coach because he’s done all he’s done in the SEC. However, Meyer’s case — while different in its contents — is not inferior. Meyer has joined Saban in winning titles at two different schools, but what makes his claim different is that he’s won a playoff title, in which his Buckeyes had to play 15 games and go through two top-tier opponents, not just the one primary foe a BCS champion had to beat. Meyer’s two unbeaten non-champions (2004 Utah, 2012 OSU) are also notches in the belt that Saban can’t match. These two men really are on the same level… the more one thinks about a comparison between them, the harder it is to definitively elevate one over the other.
What else about Monday night’s championship game needs to be included in an account of Ohio State’s emphatic triumph?
* First, while Ohio State demonstrated unquestioned superiority in the trenches, the early dropped passes by Oregon put the Buckeyes in position to dominate.
While it’s easy to view those dropped passes as critical because they deprived Oregon of points, they were significant for another reason: They kept the Ducks’ offense off the field and prevented Oregon from wearing down Ohio State with its speed-and-tempo approach. The lack of snaps from the Ducks throughout the course of the game, with very few sustained drives, is what hurt them as much as failing to score in the red zone.
* Second, Ohio State cemented its superiority in the second half by doing something very simple.
As much as Oregon hurt itself in the first half (more severely than anything Ohio State did to harm the Ducks), the Pac-12 champions really can’t make the argument that “if we had just done X, we would have won.” They can’t. Ohio State’s lopsided margin of victory (42-20) is significant not just in itself, but due to the way in which it was achieved. The Buckeyes ran a counter play the ESPN2 film room was diagnosing before almost every snap late in the third quarter. Oregon’s whole defense kept overrunning gaps. The Ducks kept getting gashed with a simple play, run repeatedly. That’s the essence of domination by the winner, and inferiority by the loser.
* Third, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich waved the white flag on this game with over eight minutes remaining in regulation.
Down 35-20, and with his exhausted defense getting trampled by Ohio State’s running game, Helfrich ordered a punt on fourth and six. What made him punt? It’s impossible to say, other than the dreaded “NFL mentality” which infects all too many college coaches. Nevertheless, the punt represented a concession speech. It was shocking to see Helfrich — as the inheritor (from Chip Kelly) of a program that regularly goes for it on fourth downs many other programs would punt on — to meekly submit to the reality of Ohio State’s greatness.
* Fourth, Ohio State certainly made very good use of having a practice-time advantage during the past week. This did not decide the game, but it’s the kind of competitive imbalance that should not be allowed to exist in future seasons.
* Fifth and finally, if you thought that the existence of a national championship game after just a 10-day layoff and two high-pressure semifinals was going to create a relaxed and noticeably cleaner contest, you were wrong.
(NOTE: I was very wrong.)
Know who wasn’t wrong?
The College Football Playoff Selection Committee.
The choice of Ohio State as the fourth and final team in the College Football Playoff became the event’s first champion. Would TCU love to play a plus-one? Sure it would. Yet, when you clearly outplay the champions of the two best conferences in college football this season — Alabama of the SEC and Oregon of the Pac-12 — there’s really no argument that you deserve to lift the thin and shiny new trophy created for college football this season:
Enjoy this, Ohio State and Urban Meyer. You took it with two hands, and left no doubt that you were the best in this four-team field. After 15 games, two of them in the month of January — a first-time occurrence in college football history — the Buckeyes and the Big Ten can bask in the sunshine of supremacy.
It’s a very different feeling compared to the last time Urban Meyer coached in a college football national championship game involving Ohio State, eight years earlier in the desert land of Arizona.
There’s no more desert wandering for Ohio State and the Big Ten. A thirst eight years in the making — a thirst caused by Urban Meyer — has been quenched by the same man in Arlington, Texas.