Braxton Miller's Injury Is Mariota's, Oregon's Gain
No doubt, the news of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller having to miss this season with a torn labrum in his shoulder produced nods of sad recognition and silent empathy from many. For Oregon football fans, it should also produce a slight rise of the eyebrow and a low “mmmm.”
The Ducks open their 2014 campaign slotted into one of the four playoff spots that will serve as the road to the national championship. Oregon is ranked fourth in the preseason USA Today Coaches' Poll and will certainly have a battle on its hands to hold onto a spot to reach the playoff. Miller’s injury likely has taken one of the other heavyweight contenders chasing the Ducks out of the hunt.
Yes, Ohio State's coaches are saying everything right about redshirt freshman JT Barrett and what the Buckeyes will try to do moving forward, but the honest truth here is that Ohio State is far less formidable a team – and a threat for a national championship playoff spot – without Miller under center. That benefits the Ducks mightily for a playoff spot.
On the surface, Oregon’s two main obstacles are a Week Two visit from Michigan State and the midseason battle with arch-nemesis Stanford. Yes, there are other potential slip-ups along the way, but those two games stand out as the keys to any Ducks' playoff run. However, even a loss to Michigan State gives Oregon ample time to gather itself and make an 11-game run at one of the four playoffs spots.
Make no mistake, Miller’s injury and absence will have an impact on the national title run. He threw for 2,094 yards and 24 touchdowns a year ago, adding 12 more scores on the ground. While Barrett will be asked to manage games, Miller was a dynamic run-pass option who could carry the Buckeyes during key moments or entire games. Barrett is not that kind of player and it’s hard to picture Ohio State making a run at the top four slots without Miller.
That takes out the Buckeyes as one of the key teams in the playoff battle. Truthfully, when you look at the USA Today poll, you immediately lock on six teams as very likely to occupy most, if not all, of the playoff spots at the end of the season. Florida State, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon, Auburn and Ohio State all seem like legitimate contenders. The teams that come next – UCLA, Michigan State, South Carolina and Baylor, Stanford, Georgia and LSU – do not. Yes, one of these teams, or some team that gets on a roll, could emerge as a title contender (Wisconsin or LSU?), but as we sit here now, with the season looming, it seemed like a six-horse race. With Miller out, you have to believe it’s down to a five-team race.
Oregon would seem to have all the ingredients to not only hold serve, but move up the ladder if one of the three teams ahead of them flounder. The Ducks have a marquee quarterback in Marcus Mariota, an effective running game, a defense that has the talent to be special, a coach who knows who and what this team is and plays to its strengths, and an overall confidence that they have the ability to be special. Trust Mariota and his coaches to find receivers who will make plays and Oregon would seem to have just about everything it needs to make the playoffs.
What also makes Oregon dangerous is that it is capable of putting up eye-catching performances that help the Ducks climb the rankings quicker than many teams. Oregon wins, and looks good doing it most of the time. That appeals to voters.
It’s unfortunate that the college football world will be deprived of a tremendous talent with Miller on the sidelines this season. It not only changes the offensive dynamics at Ohio State, making the Buckeyes far less dangerous, but also likely eliminates one of the leading contenders for a national playoff spot.
It’s hard to imagine Ohio State in the FBS Final Four without Miller, and that should benefit Oregon moving forward.