COLUMBUS — Ohio State coach Urban Meyer agitated with uncertainty as he braced for last season’s opener.
He was working with eight of his nine assistants for the first time, several key players continued to resist the new era, and don’t get him started on the product on the field. Privately, Meyer figured a team that went 6-7 in 2011 would maybe improve to 8-4.
“This time last year, it was terrible,” he said. “It was awful.”
“I just can’t wait to play football,” he said Monday.
It is the difference a year makes — often across college football, usually at Ohio State, and always for Meyer.
A season after OSU improbably rallied to perfection, a team now unchained by the NCAA expects to contend for everything in Meyer’s second season.
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History has set the bar. At each of Meyer’s first three stops, his teams in Year 2 have benefited from circumstances similar to those in place for the 2013 Buckeyes: Staff continuity, a returning quarterback leading a veteran offense, a sense of uncompleted business, and — of course — a natural progression.
Meyer’s teams jumped from 8-3 in his debut season at Bowling Green State University to 9-3 in his second, from 10-2 to 12-0 and a Fiesta Bowl win at Utah, and from 9-3 to 13-1 and a national championship at Florida.
His latest lab to test the Year 2 phenomenon is fitting. Paul Brown won a national title in his second year at OSU, and Jim Tressel did the same in his encore season in 2002, while all but one Buckeyes coach since 1945 has enjoyed greater success in Year 2.
There are exceptions — Earle Bruce was never able to match the success of his 11-1 debut season in 1979 — the same way there are nationally. But on the whole ...
“Teams just tend to be much better in their second year, if you have the players,” Meyer said this week.
And Meyer believes he has the players. Heisman favorite quarterback Braxton Miller is one of nine returning starters from an offense that averaged a Big Ten-high 37.2 points per game last season, All-American candidates Bradley Roby at cornerback and Ryan Shazier at linebacker anchor a rebuilt defense, and one of the nation’s top freshman classes adds needed speed at the skill positions.
Not to be overlooked, either, is the lack of staff turnover. The same way Meyer’s entire staff stayed aboard for Year 2 at BG and Florida, OSU is one of nine teams nationally to return all nine assistant coaches.
Meyer made it clear when he was hired that Ohio State needed to supersize its commitment to attracting and retaining assistants, and so far the school has kept its word. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, offensive coordinator Tom Herman, and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers all bank more than $500,000 annually while OSU’s $7.6 million total payout to Meyer and the staff last year ranked fourth nationally, behind only Alabama, Texas, and LSU.
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Meyer called the stability a “blessing.”
“You look at the most successful college football programs across the country, and one of the big pieces of that puzzle is staff continuity,” Herman said. “We take a lot of pride in that. I don’t know of a better place to work than Ohio State, so it’s easy for us assistants to stick around. But I do think that has a lot to do with the direction that we’re heading.”
So can Meyer and the Buckeyes pull out another Year 2 conquest? Can they really be perfect one year and achieve more the next?
If OSU is to indeed earn a berth in the title game and begin the Meyer era 25-0, it will have to defy history and complacency. The Buckeyes have never had back-to-back perfect seasons or more than 22 straight victories — a streak spanning from 1967 to their stunning loss at 17-point underdog Michigan in 1969.
But this year it counts, and the Buckeyes insist they are ready.
“We’re going into this season with more of a chip on our shoulders,” senior safety Christian Bryant said. “We haven’t competed for a Big Ten championship or a national championship, so that’s something we’re still trying to accomplish.”