For the purposes of this little exercise, we’re going to set aside whatever our opinions may be about Urban Meyer’s character and whether or not he should still be the coach at Ohio State, and we’re going to focus on Meyer’s skill as a football coach.
What I’m wondering is, How much does Ohio State really need Urban Meyer for its first three games?
Or any games, for that matter.
Ohio State has 19 assistant coaches on staff, if you include quality control and graduate assistants. That means there is one member of the coaching staff for every 4.5 scholarship players on the roster. One of those coaches, Greg Schiano, has been a head coach in college and in the NFL, but in any case it’s not like there is going to be any confusion about what techniques to teach and what offensive and defensive schemes to run.
The game plan is an area in which the head coach has tremendous influence, but I don’t see that being much of an issue, either. No offense to Ohio State’s first two opponents, Oregon State and Rutgers, but if game plan is the deciding factor in those games, something has gone horribly wrong. It is the third game, against No. 16 TCU, where the game plan could become a real factor. And I humbly submit that, regardless of what Meyer’s suspension says, if you think his fingerprints aren’t going to be all over that game plan, you have not been paying attention to Meyer’s career.
That leaves two other major areas of influence for the head coach: Preparation/motivation during the week and in-game strategy.
Without observing a great many Ohio State’s practices over a long period of time, it would be impossible to make a specific judgment about the team’s preparation with and without Meyer. You could ask players, but you couldn’t trust them to be honest. So all you can do, really, is say that Meyer has proven over his long career to be extremely good at coaching winning football teams, but after you’ve signed the players, trained the players, taught them the systems, managed their egos, and built your team around their strengths, how much of a difference does it make what you say to them this Wednesday?
I don’t know the answer, but my hunch is that it isn’t likely to make any difference at all. That whatever Meyer was going to say, interim head coach Ryan Day will pretty much also say, and whatever big calls Day makes will be about as likely to work out as whatever big calls Meyer would have made.
Ohio State has been down this road before, and not long ago. Former coach Jim Tressel was suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for an impermissible benefits scandal. That season was a disaster for the Buckeyes, who went 6-7, their first non-winning season in 12 years. But remember: Ohio State had five players (four of them starters) suspended for those fives games, too, including quarterback Terrell Pryor, so that situation really isn’t similar to this one.
That same year, former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was suspended one game for a drunk driving arrest. That suspension came at the end of the year, and Missouri beat Texas Tech anyway.
In 2012, Wyoming coach Dave Christensen was suspended one game for a verbal tirade against Air Force coach Troy Calhoun. Wyoming lost to Boise State that week, but Boise State was ranked 18th at the time, and Wyoming was 1-7.
In 2015, Rutgers suspended coach Kyle Flood three games for improper contact with a faculty member. Rutgers lost two of those three games on the way to a 4-8 season, but it’s hard to say what effect Flood’s suspension had because those losses were at Penn State and at home to No. 4 Michigan State, a game that was actually close. Also, there were all kinds of arrests and suspensions on that roster in August and September of that year, making it impossible to make a judgment on Flood’s suspension one way or another.
The anecdotal evidence, then, is inconclusive.
If the Buckeyes lose any of their first three games, this will be the biggest what-if of the 2018 season. Was it that the team was distracted and depressed by a scandal caused by its coach, or was it that the coach wasn’t there to make the right observation in the film room or the right call on third-and-7? There will be no way to know for sure.
On the other hand, if Ohio State wins its first three games, Meyer returns and the Buckeyes just keep on rolling all the way to the College Football Playoff, we’ll be able to say that Meyer’s suspension was an ideal punishment in that it punished and embarrassed the offender without any ill effect on innocent players and coaches, and we’ll have learned a little bit about what really makes a football team go.