The alligator is an appropriate animal by which to draw an analogy between coach Urban Meyer and the clock ticking 26 games into his tenure at Ohio State.
Meyer, like the thick-skinned reptile, is a man of rough and tough exterior. Highly effective in his core approach, outwardly he is not as smooth as his vested predecessor, by whom Meyer’s success at OSU still is being measured.
Jim Tressel won a Bowl Championship Series national title in his 26th game at Ohio State. Meyer’s 26th game was a loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl. To be fair, in 2012, Meyer helped guide the Buckeyes to a 12-0 season, which might have ended with a national title, except that Ohio State never got a chance to prove itself during the postseason. The NCAA punished the program with a one-year bowl ban, based largely on Tressel’s transgressions during the tattoo and memorabilia scandal. The Buckeyes also were ineligible to play in the Big Ten championship game, meaning a spotless 12-0 did not include a conference championship.
So Meyer, 49, still lacks a championship in Columbus. Of this, he is patently aware, so much so that he hunts a national title like the alligator in Peter Pan — OK, so it was a crocodile — that pursues Hook. Like that hungry lizard with a clock in its belly, Meyer hungers for a championship under constant reminder that time never stops.
Then there is this: as a Florida Gator, Meyer won his first national championship in, yes, his 26th game (by defeating Ohio State, no less).
Ohio State’s history is dotted with coaches who played for national championships early in their tenure. In his first season, Earle Bruce — who has served as Meyer’s mentor of sorts — took his top-ranked team to the Rose Bowl (but lost to Southern California), and Paul Brown won a national championship only 18 games into his three-year career.
But as the Buckeyes open spring practice today, Meyer is following more the path of Woody Hayes, who after 26 games confronted mostly unmet expectations. Then, entering his fourth season — and beginning with his 28th game — Hayes turned it around. The Buckeyes went 10-0 in 1954 and won the school’s second national title.
Meyer’s first 26 games, which included a school-record 24-game winning streak, were more effective than Hayes’, although it must be pointed out that Ohio State played only two teams (Michigan State and Clemson) ranked in the top 15 — and lost to both.
Entering Meyer’s third season, it is hard to know if 2014 will be the year the Buckeyes get over the hump, or whether it is a transition period.
Both scenarios are viable. Braxton Miller returns at quarterback, and although he might miss all of spring practice while recovering from shoulder surgery, he should be ready by the Aug. 30 opener against Navy in Baltimore. The senior might not be among the nation’s best pure passers, but he is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks, which makes the Buckeyes a title threat.
The schedule, however, is beefier than last season’s weakling. The Buckeyes travel to Michigan State and Penn State, and if still undefeated after Michigan, would need to win the Big Ten championship game to potentially earn a spot in the new four-team playoff.
More immediate, spring practice will shine light on such pressing issues as whether Meyer’s recruiting prowess has paid dividends. On defense, and particularly at linebacker, where Ryan Shazier and his 143 tackles have departed, younger players need to revive what has become a position in need of resuscitation. Offensively, running back Carlos Hyde is gone. Is Ezekiel Elliott up to the task? And how to replace the four starting offensive linemen who graduated?
Starting today, those questions begin to get answered. Meyer is ravenous for a championship. And the clock keeps ticking.
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.