Ohio State, Auburn, Notre Dame need to go back to the drawing board

ByMark Schlabach ESPN logo
Monday, September 11, 2017

Auburnfans can measure their disappointment on Saturday by counting the amount of times Jarrett Stidham was sacked. (They need more than two hands.)

Notre Damefans can count the failed third-down conversions or one-possession losses they've endured in the past two seasons.

Ohio Statefans need only to point to an opposing quarterback planting a crimson-and-cream flag at midfield in the Horseshoe.

After two weeks of the 2017 season, Auburn, Notre Dame and Ohio State are among the biggest disappointments in college football.

It's not because Auburn lost to defending national champion Clemsonon the road or because Notre Dame fell to Georgiaby a point or because Ohio State was steamrolled by Oklahomain the second half at home.

No, these traditional bluebloods have been disappointments in the first two weeks because after an offseason filled with significant changes and declarations about how deficiencies have been corrected, the Tigers, Fighting Irish and Buckeyes look a lot like they did last season.

And that's not a good thing.

Ohio State wasn't a bad team in 2016, at least not until it played Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal. The Tigers clobbered the Buckeyes 31-0, which was the first time an Urban Meyer-coached team was ever shut out.

Following that embarrassment, Meyer replaced his co-offensive coordinators with Kevin Wilson, who was forced to resign as coach at Indiana in December following allegations of mistreatment of Hoosiers players.

Wilson, who was regarded as one of the sport's best offensive minds when he was Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, was hired to inject new life into OSU's offense, and quarterback J.T. Barrett was supposed to flourish in his fourth season as a starter.

The early results have been alarming: Ohio State scored 13 points in the first half of a 49-21 win at Indiana on opening night, and then scored only a field goal in the first half of a 31-16 loss at home to Oklahoma.

The team that was supposed to contend for a Big Ten title and yet another CFP appearance suddenly looks like the third-best team in its division -- behind defending Big Ten champion Penn Stateand rival Michigan.

"[Our] offense was bad," Meyer told reporters Saturday night. "So we're going to do what we do, and that's go back to work as hard as we possibly can, starting somewhat tonight and tomorrow, and figure this thing out."

Where do the Buckeyes begin? Not with a quarterback change. Meyer remains committed to Barrett, a fifth-year senior, who is 27-5 as a starter and was voted OSU's first three-time captain. Barrett's struggles in the passing game go back to last season, when he failed to throw for 150 yards in a 30-27 win over Michigan in two overtimes and again in the loss to Clemson in the CFP. In fact, he has thrown for fewer than 200 yards in four of the past five games.

Barrett has been criticized for flourishing in games against overmatched Big Ten foes such asRutgersand Marylandbut struggling in games against more formidable opponents.

Meyer admitted that Barrett is going to receive a lot of the criticism for the offense's early struggles but was adamant he isn't considering a change.

"A lot of it is going to be on him," Meyer said. "But a lot of it, until I watch the tape, that's just the nature of the beast. Last week, we threw the ball decently and had 300 yards passing, and this week we did not. I'm never going to point a finger at a quarterback.

"I'm going to make it perfectly clear, there's not a bull's-eye on J.T. Barrett. It's part of the system and a group that have to get better."

In fairness, Barrett isn't the only one to blame. In Meyer's first 64 games at Ohio State, the Buckeyes averaged 41.9 points and failed to score 20 only twice, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the past five games, OSU is averaging 22.4 points and failed to score 20 three times.

As bad as Ohio State's offense has looked, Auburn's has performed worse, which isn't good for head coach Gus Malzahn. After the Tigers lost five games or more in each of the past three seasons, Malzahn turned over the offense to new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who transferred fromBaylorlast year.

After a 41-7 victory over Georgia Southern in the opener in which Auburn's offense still looked discombobulated at times, it imploded in a 14-6 loss at Clemson. Stidham was sacked 11 times and held to only 79 passing yards. Auburn averaged .52 yards per play in the second half and had only 117 yards of offense.

Auburn has allowed 14 sacks in two games, and Lindsey attributes some of them to poor offensive line play, missed blocks by running backs and Stidham's holding the ball too long. The Tigers have new starters at left tackle and right guard.

"We don't hit our quarterbacks in practice," Lindsey said, "so those guys get the comfort of sitting back there and holding the ball."

The Tigers have lost their past four games away from home and seven straight against AP top-three opponents.

"Anytime you have a performance like this, we're going to evaluate everything and get the best plan moving forward," Malzahn said. "We're going to be a good offense before this is all said and done. I promise you that. We will get better, just like we did last year."

Don't ask Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about close losses. The Fighting Irish fell to Georgia 20-19 on Saturday, their eighth one-possession loss since the start of the 2016 season, which is most among FBS teams (Texasis the next-closest with five).

The Fighting Irish had the ball in the final minute, but Bulldogs linebacker Davin Bellamy sacked quarterback Brandon Wimbush and forced him to fumble. Linebacker Lorenzo Carter recovered the ball to seal the victory for Georgia, which overcame 12 penalties, two turnovers and was starting a freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, for the first time.

It was a disappointing outcome for the Irish, who went 4-8 in 2016, which led Kelly to completely overhaul his program. He hired offensive coordinator Chip Long from Memphis, defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Wake Forestand former Nevadacoach Brian Polian to oversee special teams. Kelly hired 17 new staff members, including a strength and conditioning coordinator.

Kelly turned over the play calling to Long and vowed to spend more time in the day-to-day oversight of the program. He also promised to be less abrasive and show more of his warm-and-fuzzy side.

Yet, when a reporter asked Kelly on Saturday night about how he would handle another close loss, he repeatedly cut her off and pointed out it wasn't a one-possession loss against Georgia. It was only a one-point loss.

Apparently, that's considered improvement at Notre Dame these days.

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