ARLINGTON, Tex. — A schedule item can cause a yawn, a schedule item can cause a smile, and a schedule item can wreak a chill that takes a rapid little tour of the spine.
That latter and rare category goes to the schedule item for Monday, Sept. 7, 2015, the opener for both teams: Ohio State at Virginia Tech.
This harrowing arrangement will boast a defending national champion that will not figure to tote a champion’s complacency. No, this will be that rare national champion bringing along the orneriness of the peeved, given that the lone blemish on Ohio State’s 14-1 record came from Virginia Tech last Sept. 6 in Columbus. No, worst yet, this will be that occasional defending national champion with a curious twist: It wasn’t supposed to finish blossoming into a title threat until the season after it already won the title.
It’s Ohio State at No. 1 for next late summer.
Put TCU at No. 2 1/2.
Start everybody else at No. 4.
“I’m leaving behind some incredible, incredible football players who love each other and will do anything in the world for each other,” said Evan Spencer, the senior Ohio State wide receiver. “When you combine that, watch out.”
Their quarterback situation alone could be the subject of fine offseason drama. They had big-time quarterbacks strewn all over the floor of Jerry Jones’s spaceship on Monday night. There was the injured one whose possible transfer plans have spawned a little guessing game, and he’s Braxton Miller. There was the injured one who literally rolled amid festive teammates into the stadium tunnel, using a cart designed for one leg. He’s J.T. Barrett.
And there was the one in the scarlet No. 12 uniform making both some throws only the few can make and some Richter Scale scrambles into poor, poor secondaries. He’s Cardale Jones, and he’s the subject of one crazy-but-sane question: Could he take his three-game stint as college starting quarterback hurriedly into the NFL?
“I mean, it’s very odd,” Jones said Tuesday morning, soon adding, “In my personal opinion, I’m not ready for that level yet.”
In three closing games with 17 Ohio State offensive touchdowns and 143 Ohio State points, against the steepest competition available, Jones completed 46 of 75 passes for 742 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, neither his fault.
“He’s not a third-string quarterback on any other team,” center Jacoby Boren said.
Boren said that in a merry late-night locker room in which one Ohio State player after another, when prompted by the curious, expressed gratitude at not being the person who’ll have to make the quarterback decision. By Tuesday morning, the one who will, Coach Urban Meyer, gently postponed that conversation with, “We’re still reveling in the win and no sleep.”
Where the chill keeps roaming, though, is with what’s behind the quarterback. There will stand, again, true sophomore Ezekiel Elliott, the charismatic running back whom, because of the NFL’s draft eligibility rules, opposing college students must continue trying to tackle. This seems only somewhat fair. He’s a one-man cause for mass hydrotherapy who appears he could bruise entire college towns. And he just finished one considerable high-brow progression.
When he arrived for the Big Ten championship game of Dec. 6 in Indianapolis, the St. Louis native had 1,182 rushing yards, an excellent but Big Ten honorable-mention kind of total. By the time he finished getting 230 against Wisconsin, 220 against Alabama and 246 against Oregon on Monday night, he had 1,878 yards and the zany American mantle of preseason Heisman Trophy front-runner.
He seemed to wear that as he seems to wear everything else: beautifully.
“I’m not going to change,” he said. “I’m going to keep grinding.”
“He’s just the most selfless player you could ever find,” offensive tackle Darryl Baldwin said. “He plays even harder without the ball. That’s all you can ask.”
“He loves to play football,” Spencer said.
That could sustain a chill here or there or in Blacksburg, Va., but Ohio State will remain coached by Meyer, and it’s important to note that, among other things, Meyer’s front-seven speed-upgrade project did work. For all the fine chatter about Oregon’s speed and Ohio State’s physicality, which did matter, the fact is that Alabama’s speed and Oregon’s speed certainly didn’t trump Ohio State’s defensive speed, not anymore.
So eras shifted. Someday did come. One marvelous young team from Ohio that was supposed to contend next year wound up shoving aside the Southeastern Conference’s nine-year hegemony. It rendered the SEC as still the best conference through-and-through but no longer the national despot. It lured the center of the sport back to the Big Ten.
It also made next Sept. 7 a matter of potential vengeance and possible foreboding.
“Well, I think we’ll be very good,” Meyer said Tuesday. “I think we have to watch for complacency in the program, and we’re going to watch that very closely.”
Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech is one proud program. It will go through with that scheduled game. People might admire it for that.
More from the National Championship