Urban Meyer had low expectations for his 2014 Ohio State football team.
The previous year had seen OSU haul in a monster recruiting class that included Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott, and the 2013 Buckeyes extended their winning streak under Meyer to 24 games.
But the chance to play for the final Bowl Championship Series title game ended with a crushing 34-24 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship.
“Michigan State had a really good team, and I knew deep down we weren’t a great team,” Meyer said. “We had some really good players and worked really hard, but we still weren’t there yet.”
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After a second straight loss to end the 2013 season, 40-35 to Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Meyer knew he had to retool his coaching staff.
“We were very average on defense,” said Meyer, who soon hired Chris Ash as defensive co-coordinator to work with Luke Fickell.
In that Clemson game, quarterback Braxton Miller had suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, but the expectation was that he would be fine for the 2014 season. Even before training camp, though, Meyer wasn’t convinced his team was bound for greatness.
“I felt OK,” he said. “I didn’t feel great. I thought we were a year away because our team was so young. Zeke wasn’t Zeke yet. Mike Thomas was unheard of (after redshirting in 2013). We knew Bosa was good. But I had no idea what was coming.”
'I thought, ‘We are in major trouble.’
What came next was disaster. Miller was lost for the season when he re-injured his shoulder throwing a pass during training camp.
“That was a body blow,” Meyer said. “It happened right in front of me. Our best player by far and I realize what we have behind us is some unknown quarterback from Texas (coming off) an ACL (injury) and a third-string quarterback that had his issues.
“I thought, ‘We are in major trouble.’ I almost in my mind convinced myself it would be OK if we go 7-5 and build for the next year.”
That Texas quarterback was J.T. Barrett, and his backup was Cardale Jones, and the situation looked as dire as Meyer feared after visiting Virginia Tech flummoxed the Buckeyes’ offense in a 35-21 loss in the season’s second game.
Unlike past defeats at Florida, however, Meyer handled the Virginia Tech loss pretty well by his standards.
“I really felt we were just an average team and were going to get better with time,” he said. “But it’s going to take a year or two to get these young players where we want to get.”
Meyer was wrong. It would only take a couple months. Barrett improved game by game. The team’s coming-out party would be in East Lansing, where the Buckeyes throttled Michigan State 49-37 to avenge the previous year’s loss and establish themselves as contenders for the first College Football Playoff.
'My body froze': Tragedy shakes the Buckeyes
The weekend of the Michigan game would test Meyer and his team to the core. Two days before the game, walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, a beloved teammate, went missing, casting a pall over the game.
Ohio State led the Wolverines 28-21 when, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Barrett suffered a broken ankle. The Buckeyes would close out the win without Jones having to be more than a caretaker.
The next day, the team was at practice when Meyer saw police officers enter the Woody Hayes Athletic Center along with athletic director Gene Smith. He knew that was bad news. Karageorge’s body had been found in a campus-area trash bin, and he apparently had died by suicide.
“My body froze,” Meyer said. “I couldn’t even move.”
Yet he knew he had to somehow guide his team through the tragedy.
“I’ve never prayed so much in my life, (asking) what to say, give me wisdom, because I’m not equipped to handle that,” Meyer said. “I don’t think anyone is.”
The team attended Karageorge’s funeral amid preparation for playing Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. “It was surreal,” Meyer said.
The transformation of Cardale Jones
Ohio State was on the outside looking in at the playoff top four entering the weekend, and the four teams ahead of them, including one-loss TCU, won in routs before the Buckeyes’ game at night.
Ohio State was a four-point underdog to the Badgers, largely because Jones was so unproven. The third-year sophomore had been notoriously immature early in his career, more interested in video games than honing his considerable skills. But now that he had his shot, Jones did everything in his power to be ready.
Urban Meyer’s 2014 Season: Undisputed
“The transformation that Cardale made was instantaneous,” Meyer said.
Nobody expected what happened against Wisconsin. Jones and his teammates were close to perfect in a jaw-dropping 59-0 win. Meyer knew the Buckeyes needed massive style points to sway the CFP selection committee and jump TCU.
“In my mind, I kept playing the committee member in my mind in that third and fourth quarter,” he said. “What’s enough?”
Well, 59-0 was enough. The Buckeyes were the fourth and final team in the playoff.
The Chase and Alabama
And their opponent in the semifinal at the Sugar Bowl: Alabama, the object of The Chase that Meyer had obsessed over since the 2012 national title game.
“I thought we were going to swing (hard),” Meyer said. “I loved our players. I thought we were really good. But you start believing the hype about Alabama because they are that good.”
The Buckeyes got a lift a few hours before the Sugar Bowl when Wisconsin beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. The team that OSU had crushed in the Big Ten title game defeated an Auburn team that lost only 55-44 to Alabama. Maybe the Crimson Tide wasn’t so invincible after all.
Meyer described Wisconsin’s win as “the greatest pregame speech I’ve ever given. I didn’t say a word.”
Beating Alabama in the Sugar Bowl
From the start against the Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes showed they belonged. They outgained Alabama but had to settle for early field goals, and the Tide capitalized on turnovers to take a 21-6 lead. But OSU regained momentum with a memorable touchdown pass from Evan Spencer to Michael Thomas just before halftime.
When Meyer got to the locker room and approached the offensive linemen, they didn’t hold back.
The 2014 Buckeyes: 2014 team makes ex-Buckeyes proud
“They start yelling at me, respectfully, to run the ball. ‘Run the damn ball, coach. We’re kicking their ass,’ ” Meyer recalled.
Meyer heeded their wish. Elliott’s running, capped by his 85-yard touchdown run, along with Jones’ passing and an opportunistic defense, enabled the Buckeyes to win 42-35.
The Chase was over, but one game remained
The Chase, as Meyer originally envisioned it, was complete. But one more game remained, and Meyer worried how he’d be able to get his team to sustain its performance with a national championship on the line.
Against Oregon, the Buckeyes were again underdogs. The Ducks featured Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, who directed an offense predicated on exhausting defenses. Oregon averaged only 16 seconds between snaps.
Rob Oller on Cardale Jones: When Ohio State’s national title aspirations fell on an unprepared Cardale Jones
The Buckeyes emphasized conditioning in their preparation. Meyer placed timers throughout the practice facility with 16-second countdowns.
“If we could not let that impact us,” Meyer said of Oregon’s tempo, “I felt we were national champions.”
That’s exactly what happened. Oregon breezed down the field for an opening touchdown, but the Buckeyes eventually wore down the Ducks and rolled to a 41-20 victory for Meyer’s third national title.
“The first one, back in ’06, I had no idea how to react,” Meyer said of his Florida Gators’ upset of the Buckeyes. “The second one, I didn’t enjoy because it was expected and you’re worried about the third one.
“I’ll never forget this one. It’s like I almost trained myself that this was all going to be about the players. Seeing those faces after they do the illogical, I enjoyed every second of it.”
More on The Dispatch's Urban Meyer series
Editor’s note: Urban Meyer is now in Florida to begin the next chapter of his life as coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. AS he settles into his new job, he agreed to speak with The Dispatch’s Bill Rabinowitz about his seven years as Ohio State’s coach. With Meyer on the sideline, the Buckeyes went 83-9, including an undefeated 2012 season, a 2014 College Football Playoff championship, and a 7-0 record against Michigan. There were low moments as well, and Meyer candidly discusses them in this three-part series.