When Urban Meyer took the Ohio State head coaching job in November 2011, he made the expectations for his coaching staff crystal clear.
“I think Ohio State deserves the best group of assistant coaches in America,” he said at his introductory press conference. “Some will be (from Luke Fickell’s 2011) staff. Some will be from anywhere in the country. The calls I’ve been getting and people of interest in this great university is overwhelming.”
Just to drive home the point, he added, “I’m going to go about and try to assemble the best coaching staff in college football.”
After a 49-20 implosion against unranked Purdue, and season-long struggles in the run game and on defense, it’s hard to argue that this year’s staff has lived up to that benchmark.
This year’s Ohio State football team is made up of recruiting classes that ranked 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 7th, and 3rd in the nation. It would be almost impossible to make a coherent argument that the Buckeyes faced a talent deficit against Purdue, whose comparable classes ranked 51st, 72nd, 80th, 67th, 70th.
Last year, it was Iowa who kicked in the Buckeyes’ faces with recruiting classes ranked 41st, 47th, 59th, 58th, 56th.
These weren’t fluky games loaded with bad bounces for one team and lucky breaks for the other. These were games where the Buckeyes looked totally overmatched and unprepared on both sides of the ball, and then seemed to quit.
College football teams will have down weeks. That’s part of the nature of the sport. But when an off-game strikes for a team loaded with 4-and-5 star recruits, they’re supposed to be able to escape with an uninspiring win over a team one made up of 3-stars. At worst, they generally suffer a close loss.
Clemson’s “bad week” in 2017 was a 27-24 loss to Syracuse. Oklahoma’s last fall came in a 38-31 defeat to Iowa State. Alabama slogged through an uninspiring 31-24 win at Mississippi State.
This year, Texas lost to Maryland, 34-29. It happens. Already this season, 125 out of the 130 FBS programs have at least one loss.
However, top-10 or top-5 programs almost never lose by four touchdowns, especially to unranked teams.
Here is a comprehensive list of Power 5 teams that have lost at least one game by 28+ points in the last three seasons. See if any of the names stick out as being unlike the others.
Complete list of P5 teams to lose a game by more than 28 points during the 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons:
• North Carolina
• Ole Miss
• Oregon State
• Ohio State
— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) October 21, 2018
Every single one of those programs has been in a down cycle recently. Except one.
Meyer’s teams don’t just slip on a banana peel like most programs of its caliber. They slip, fall through a department store display of expensive glassware, stagger bloody and dazed in front of horrified onlookers, and then plunge down an elevator shaft.
This doesn’t happen to Alabama. The Tide haven’t lost a game by three touchdowns or more since 2003.
It hasn’t happened to Clemson since 2014. They have only one 28+ point loss since 2011, and that was against a Jameis Winston-led Florida State team that won a national title.
But for some reason it keeps happening to the Buckeyes. And it keeps happening against teams that are destined for the Pinstripe Bowl, not the national title.
Everyone has a theory about why: It’s the game plan, it’s the team’s focus, it’s just that Ohio State gets everyone’s best shot.
Here’s a little secret: Teams are excited to play Alabama, too. There’s actually a whole meme about it. And teams want Clemson, too.
And yet the Tide and the Tigers somehow manage to stay out of that open elevator shaft year after year.
Here’s another little secret: whether it’s the game plan, the motivation of the team, or the players not responding to coaching, the issue is the same.
Ohio State has had issues at strong safety all season. Three different players have spent time at that position. In game one against Oregon State, it was a problem. In game eight against Purdue, it was a problem.
Ohio State has had issues at linebacker for two straight seasons. The run fits have been bad. Opposing running backs are open on passing routes. The tackling has been maybe okay at best.
Ohio State’s defense currently ranks 128th in the nation in success rate in S&P+. Basically, there are two teams in all of FBS who have been worse than OSU at stopping teams from consistently gaining yards.
The Buckeyes are all the way up to 114th in allowing explosive plays. They’re 126th against the run, and 120th against the pass. Again, there are only 130 teams in all of FBS.
They have not been able to run the ball consistently all season, especially in short yardage. Four of the six worst yards-per-carry performances of the Meyer era have happened in the last four weeks.
Every week after another closer-than-expected win over an inferior opponent, Buckeye players and coaches dutifully trot out to inform the media that their slow start was due to the fact that their opponent did some things they hadn’t seen on tape. But no worries – eventually, after the Buckeyes’ halftime adjustments and superior depth had a chance to take hold, they got it figured out.
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano is being paid $1.5 million this season, an $800,000 raise from a year ago.
Alex Grinch, who also serves as a defensive coordinator and safeties coach, is making $800,000 this year.
Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson, who share the offensive coordinator duties, were set to make $1.8 million this year before Day got a bump for his work as an interim head coach.
That’s $4.1 million, just in Buckeye coordinators. Purdue’s entire coaching staff makes $3.46 million.
Other teams are saving creative plays for you? Your players aren’t focused? Good news! You’re getting paid big bucks to figure those things out.
If you can’t do it, in the immortal words of Dan Hawkins: go play intramurals, brother.
This year’s OSU staff includes Schiano, who is one of Meyer’s long time friends. When he was hired, Meyer called him “someone I have known for quite some time now” and later “an elite friend.”
Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa worked with Meyer dating back to his first head coaching job at Bowling Green. Studrawa’s unit has struggled this season, with zero of his offensive linemen grading out as champions in the win over Indiana.
Linebackers coach Bill Davis was famously in Meyer’s wedding. He had spent 1992-2015 coaching in the NFL. When he was hired, his only college coaching experience was as a grad assistant at Michigan State in 1991.
More than a year and a half into his tenure, his unit has yet to perform consistently, despite having being loaded with highly-touted recruits. So was he the best man for the job? Or just the Best Man?
These three have all overseen areas which have not only been issues, but also been slow to improve this season.
Meyer himself has acknowledged that personal ties have colored the way he evaluates assistants. At the August 24 press conference announcing his three-game suspension, Meyer said, “As I reflect my loyalty to his grandfather Earle Bruce who was my mentor and like a father to me and likely impacted how I treated (fired wide receivers coach Zach Smith) over the years.”
Set aside Smith’s myriad off-field issues for a moment. He skipped recruiting trips and lied about it. And based on the growth suddenly shown by Buckeye wide receivers this season under Brian Hartline, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Smith was an even competent coach, let alone part of “the best group of assistant coaches in America.”
But he was an assistant coach at Ohio State for six full seasons.
A 29-point loss to a team that lost to Eastern Michigan is not normal for a program with the aspirations that Ohio State has. A 31-point loss to a team that went to the Pinstripe Bowl isn’t either. But they’re becoming an annual tradition in Columbus.
There have been eight weeks of promises that the coaching staff was addressing the Buckeyes’ shortcomings. At this point, whatever the real issues are, they might just not get fixed during the season.
There certainly aren’t going to be coaching staff changes right now, even with OSU on a bye week.
But at the end of the year, Urban Meyer is going to have to sit down and ask himself one question: Does Ohio State still deserve the best group of assistant coaches in America?