As the preseason Big Ten favorite, Ohio State had hopes of reaching the four-team College Football Playoff.
But with quarterback Braxton Miller out for the season, the Buckeyes won't even win their Big Ten division, much less the conference title, and hopes of reaching the playoff become a pipe dream.
Miller is as indispensable as any college player in the nation. Ohio State has questions at tailback (is there a true feature back on the roster?), wide receiver (is there a true go-to guy?) and along the offensive line (there will be four new starters, and the one guy returning is moving from right tackle to left tackle). But Miller mitigated those concerns.
Miller isn't an elite NFL quarterback prospect, but he is an elite college quarterback, a guy who fits perfectly into his coach's offensive scheme. A play could break down, but Miller's sheer presence meant Ohio State had hope of salvaging the play -- and indeed of making a big gain. That won't be the case with J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, inexperienced players who were vying to be the Buckeyes' No. 2 quarterback. Barrett, a redshirt freshman, looks to have the inside track for the backup job, and not so coincidentally because he is more like Miller than Jones is.
With Miller, a perfect season was within reach for Ohio State. Without him, even though the schedule isn't overly tough, this looks like a two- or even three-loss team. He means that much to this team. Not having Miller in the backfield exacerbates the issues at tailback, receiver and along the line, and not even the nation's best defensive line will be able to overcome that. It is folly to think Barrett or Jones can make as many key plays as Miller. Each has an upside, but even Miller as a young player made a ton of mistakes.
So, who benefits from Miller's absence? Let's take a look.
» Michigan State: If Miller is on the sideline, the Spartans become the prohibitive Big Ten East Division favorite as well as the overall league favorite. There is a huge non-conference game Sept. 6 at Oregon, and a win there might stamp Michigan State as the Big Ten favorite even if Miller were healthy. But take away Miller from Ohio State, and Michigan State becomes a somewhat easy pick to beat the Buckeyes in East Lansing on Nov. 8. Michigan State's talent level is better than that of every league team except Ohio State. The question is this: Can a one-loss Michigan State team make the College Football Playoff? It obviously depends on a lot of factors, but removing Ohio State from the picture is good for the Spartans.
» Oklahoma and Baylor: These appear to be the top two teams in the Big 12, by a large margin. Both play easy non-conference schedules (OU's toughest non-conference game is Tennessee; Baylor's is SMU -- seriously), and their Nov. 8 game in Norman should determine the Big 12 title. Thing is, a one-loss Big 12 team is going to have a tough time making the playoff field because of the conference's relative lack of strength unless there are some two-loss conference champs. Taking Ohio State out of the equation is huge for the Big 12.
» The Pac-12 and SEC as a whole: The SEC is going to be the best league this fall, and the Pac-12 will be a close second. Indeed, the gap between first and second will be a lot less than the gap between second and third. In short, it could be difficult for a Pac-12 team or an SEC team to escape the season unscathed. Removing what could be an unbeaten Ohio State team from the mix certainly will make things easier for one-loss (and maybe even two-loss) Pac-12 and SEC teams to make the playoff.