By now, the backup quarterbacks at Ohio State are no strangers to scrutiny or speculation: They've know for six months now that one of them would be filling in for starter Terrelle Pryor at the start of the upcoming season, and spent the spring in a closely watched, four-way duel for the honor. None of them have taken a college snap in an actual game with the outcome in serious doubt.
Before Tuesday, though, the job didn't exactly require the candidates to slay any dragons: The five-game stretch they were applying for opens with a pair of in-state gimmes (overmatched MAC-rifices Akron and Toledo), demands only one road trip (at Miami) and includes only one conference game (Michigan State), in Columbus. With the permanent end of Pryor's college career, the job description suddenly got a little steeper. Now, it's a full-time position, requiring road trips to Lincoln, Champaign and Ann Arbor, with visits from Wisconsin and Penn State in between. Instead of one game to get off on the right foot, the new starter bears the burden of managing an entire Big Ten title race with little margin for error. Instead of navigating a bumpy detour for a team still sitting on top of most preseason polls as the odds-on conference favorite, he inherits a full-blown rebuilding year.
Even with the persistent foreshadowing since last Christmas, the complexion of the Buckeyes' entire season has changed dramatically in the span of a little over a week. Here's what you need to know about the short-term scramble to fill the new void left by their star quarterback's sudden absence:
• The offense is a blank slate. Deposed head coach Jim Tressel and Pryor both personified the offense in their own way, one as the architect and gameday play-caller, the other as the explosive talent that slowly drew Tressel out of his ultra-conservative shell over three years. Now, the initial phase of the rebuild likely falls into the hands of offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Jim Bollman, who's spent the last decade as one of Tressel's right-hand men in Columbus and 15 years under the Senator altogether. Accordingly, he's considered a leading apostle of the ultra-conservative shell — the major advantage of which is that it doesn't require a freak of nature to be taking the snaps.
That was memorably proved in 2002 by the patron saint of the Church of Tressel Ball, Craig Krenzel, who managed to keep the Buckeyes out of the 'L' column en route to the becoming the lowest-scoring champions of the BCS era. Five years later, Todd Boeckman picked up Krenzel's torch in 2007 as the unheralded successor to the prolific Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. From there, 235-pound thumper Beanie Wells carried a Herculean load for a plodding attack that found itself in the BCS Championship Game despite finishing ninth in the Big Ten in total offense.
But that approach is given certain conditions in the backfield and on the defense that the current lineup doesn't necessarily meet: The rest of the team around the quarterback in 2011 looks nothing like it did in 2002 or 2007. The '02 defense was loaded with veteran stars, a dozen of whom were snapped up in the NFL Draft over the next two years, and the '07 D (stacked with seven future draft picks itself) led the nation in both yards and points per game allowed. The '11 edition brings back just four of last year's top dozen tacklers, and shipped out all five of last year's All-Big Ten picks. Even with Herron in the lineup, there's no proven Maurice Clarett/Beanie Wells-esque workhorse who'll carry it 30 times at Wisconsin or 39 times at Michigan, which may force the quarterback to do more than avoid interceptions.
• Joe Bauserman is basically Todd Boeckman. Actually, quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano compared him to Trent Dilfer during the Baltimore Ravens' unlikely 2000 run to the Super Bowl, but the concept is the same: He's the "Tressel Ball" candidate, sans Tressel. This is not an insult.
Physically, Bauserman is in the Krenzel/Boeckman mold, a heady, within-the-offense type with NFL-ready size (if not an NFL-ready arm) and more than enough experience in the system — Krenzel and Boeckman both took over a fourth-year juniors; Bauserman, a former pro baseball player, is a 23-year-old fifth-year senior — to at least keep everything from spiraling out of control. The only regular starter in the conference who passed less often than Boeckman in 2007, or for fewer yards, was Illinois' Juice Williams, and it took almost no time at all for Boeckman to be scuttled to the bench in favor of then-freshman Pryor the following September. But the fact remains: As a full-time, first-year starter with limited talent, Todd Boeckman had an attrition-ravaged, allegedly rebuilding Ohio State within grasp of another national championship. That's the guy Bauserman wants to be, if the supporting cast will allow it.
• Braxton Miller is the future. Miller is a local, a touted athlete in the Troy Smith mold (at 6-foot-2, Miller is slightly taller and rangier), and was given every opportunity to establish himself in the spring as the Next Big Thing in Pryor's absence. The five-game window to start the season offered him a perfect opportunity to grow into the role and take a few lumps in the warmup games without the overwhelming pressure of putting a Big Ten frontrunner on his shoulders in the process of keeping a veteran starter's seat warm.
In that scenario, though, Miller didn't have to assume the full burden of a Big Ten title run, which includes at least six games that could conceivably come down a single mistake. Where the prospect of Pryor's quick return might have allowed the freshman to get his feet wet before the stakes got too high, now the idea of Miller as the full-time starter seems more like throwing him in the deep end.
• Taylor Graham is slow, but can still win the race. Graham is far less experienced than Bauserman and far less hyped than Miller. But he's the son of former Buckeye/NFL starter Kent Graham, was a solid four-star prospect in his own right in 2009 and held his own in the spring despite taking five sacks (including three straight at one point) in the spring game. He also showed off his arm on the longest play of the scrimmage, a 68-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Williams, the only play all afternoon (run or pass) that covered more than 20 yards.
• It's a fluid situation. If Miller manages to work his way into the opening day lineup, it's a good bet he'll remain the starter for the entire season — even if things go poorly, the struggles can be chalked up to "growing pains" that will pay off in the long run. For the veterans, the pressure to succeed is more immediate: If the season begins to slip away, it will be increasingly difficult to keep the heir apparent on the bench.
• Brace yourself for Bauserman. Miller may have the best odds of finishing the season as the top guy, and will almost certainly see the field in some capacity right away. But first crack belongs to the veteran, Bauserman, who is by far the most experienced despite having never taken a really meaningful snap in a game (the longest shot for the job, Kenny Guiton, also saw some very limited time last year in the grisliest blowouts) and the most prepared at age 23 to hold a badly fractured unit in one piece.
Frankly, he may also the most "expendable" in what could turn out to be an expendable season: With an interim coach and a possible bowl ban looming, the steady fifth-year senior is just the guy you want to get the ship through the storm in one piece before a fresh crew comes aboard to chart a new course.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.