They have played a scrimmage in front of a record crowd of nearly a hundred thousand people. They have watched their head coach visit with David Letterman and land a $6.5 million per year contract extension. They have won a national championship and been picked by everyone to open next season ranked No. 1 too. They visited the White House to meet President Barack Obama (complete with his own Joey Bosa shrug) on Monday. Since the calendar turned to 2015, the Ohio State Buckeyes have repeatedly and justifiably been told how great they are, a sharp turn from the days of everyone piling on the Big Ten.
With all the praise, someone has to be there to tell them they're terrible to balance things out. Naturally, it's their own coach.
"We did not improve as a team," Urban Meyer said in his opening statement following Saturday's spring scrimmage. "That was not a good team out there. So we did not improve as a team. ... As a team that's much worse than what you saw in January, obviously. But we did individually get better. "
Of course, it is pretty difficult for a national championship team to improve, but nevertheless Meyer's message is obvious, as is the intended recipient of his message through the media: his team. Meyer is never really talking exclusively to the media when he's answering questions. That's not to say he's inauthentic, but like most other coaches, nearly everything he says doubles as a carefully calibrated message geared toward recruits (on Saturday at Penn State, James Franklin was more overt about it, answering a recruiting question by shouting "recruiting is a big priority" while looking up at all the people gathered in the recruiting lounge, which overlooks the media room). Or sometimes it's his current players.
Perhaps Meyer's public assessment of his team this spring is accurate. Maybe it was actually a lackluster set of 15 practices. But Meyer knows what Nick Saban knows, and he knows what John Calipari knows. Over the last few years, Saban in particular has often spoken about complacency, about young guys moving up to bigger roles for a recent national champion and not understanding the process of building the championship team, that signing a bunch of five-star talent doesn't automatically put a team in the playoff. It is a much different situation to be a clear No. 1 entering the season after a championship than to be chasing that first title.
So by getting the media to talk about how Meyer said the team was terrible in the spring -- with many of the key veterans sitting out or limited -- the message is obvious. Despite what everyone is writing about Ohio State being the preseason No. 1 team and an enormous favorite to repeat, the 2015 version of Ohio State hasn't actually won anything yet. The 2014 team did, and while many of the components are the same -- many more than usual for a national title team, making the Buckeyes such a decisive favorite -- it is still a different team, and you never know how it will react when trying to defend that championship.
One obvious example is Florida State last year, as the Seminoles spent the entire offseason anointed as a likely runaway national champion. They did go undefeated through the regular season, but they never actually played like a championship-caliber team, and indeed it all came unglued in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Winning a national title is hard, and successfully defending one is even harder. Even modern superpowers like 2001-02 Miami and 2004-05 USC came up just shy of back-to-back titles, as only Alabama (2011-12) has done it since Nebraska in 1994-95.
With a wealth of quarterback options returning, a veteran offensive line, a late-season breakout tailback in Ezekiel Elliott and several All-American caliber players on defense, there is little reason to believe Ohio State shouldn't open the season as No. 1 and be the favorite for the 2015 national championship, even if repeating is difficult, no matter the circumstances.
It's all a perfect recipe for an offseason of mind games from Meyer, who has proven time and time again to be a master motivator on top of his talent as a strategist.
With the caveat that few spring games are exciting or aesthetically pleasing, Ohio State's scrimmage actually was ugly, with the Cardale Jones-led Gray team winning 17-14 over Scarlet. There were six turnovers, and both Jones and fourth-string QB Stephen Collier (Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett sat out the spring while rehabbing their injuries) completed under 50 percent of their passes. Jones, of course, found plenty of room for success anyway despite getting intercepted twice. He still threw for 304 yards, highlighted by his 58-yard touchdown connection with Corey Smith as the Buckeyes continue to search for an adequate big-play replacement for Devin Smith.
Get used to this, folks: pic.twitter.com/tZ71zEeIp0— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) April 18, 2015
"Yeah, that wasn't a Cardale day," Meyer said. "He played behind a makeshift offensive line. I can give you a bunch of excuses, but he's got to be much sharper than that. For the spring, I'd give him a very good spring, though. You didn't necessarily see it [Saturday]."
Ohio State's spring was mostly about Meyer's battle against complacency, and also about giving a chance to some unfamiliar faces, while also accumulating some more experience for Jones, who's still started only three games -- all at neutral sites away from Ohio Stadium. Barrett continues to work back from the broken leg he suffered in November vs. Michigan. Miller is still recovering from his shoulder injury that sidelined him last August. Beyond the quarterbacks, Elliott had offseason wrist surgery and sat out spring ball. All-purpose back Dontre Wilson sat out after January foot surgery. Receiver Michael Thomas missed much of spring ball after undergoing hernia surgery.
After a championship, with a veteran team returning, Ohio State's spring was appropriately risk-averse. Hence the lack of improvement.
Meyer knows he has experienced championship-caliber talent returning, and right now the goal has been to build some depth -- he's particularly critical of the second-team offensive line -- and identify replacements for the few stars who were actually lost (Michael Bennett, Devin Smith, Doran Grant). In August, attention will shift back to the world's greatest problem as Meyer and offensive coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck attempt to solve their quarterback controversy that features three proven stars, with Barrett and Miller hopefully returning healthy.
College football offseasons are long, meaning the preseason debate and hype last forever. And for the next few months, coaches have to step back as players take leadership roles with informal workouts between spring and fall camp. There's a lot of noise about how great Ohio State is, and the attention will be non-stop all summer, with the coaches not able to be as involved.
Meyer, inevitably, will have the team's mindset right where he wants it anyway.