COLUMBUS — This is how high the standards have become in Ohio State football.
As co-defensive coordinator/new Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell talked about the last five years with Urban Meyer as the Buckeyes’ coach on Thursday, he referred to 2013 as “a bad year.”
OSU won its 12 regular-season games that year, was upset by Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game and lost 40-35 to Clemson in a game that the Tigers didn’t put away until the final minute.
The 2013 season was the only time in Meyer’s five seasons at Ohio State the Buckeyes have lost more than one game. And the fact they were expected to play for a national championship, similar to last season’s expectations, goes a long way toward explaining why a 12-2 record can seem like a bad season.
OSU, 61-5 in Meyer’s five seasons, has played in the College Football Playoff twice in the three years of its existence.
And like 2014, when Ohio State won it all by beating Alabama and Oregon, this year’s trip to the playoff came a season earlier than many people would have predicted.
No. 3 OSU (11-1) will have 16 first-year starters on the field when it plays No. 2 Clemson (12-1) on New Year’s Eve in one of the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Even Meyer said he doesn’t have a good explanation for how this year’s team got so good so fast.
“My closest confidant, my wife Shelley, said, ‘How are we going to be this year?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I think next year’s the year,’ ” he said on Thursday at Ohio State’s bowl media day at the Woody Hayes Center.
Ohio State has recruited well enough during Meyer’s tenure that it didn’t exactly have to hang up “Help Wanted” signs to replace 16 starters this season.
But it was not just a matter of quantity. There was also great quality in the departing group – nine underclassmen declared for the NFL draft, 12 Buckeyes overall were picked in the draft and two others signed as undrafted free agents.
First-year starters like defensive end Sam Hubbard, linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker, safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and others played like seasoned veterans.
“We kind of hit it right because a lot of those kids were ready to play when they got here,” Meyer said.
Since the day he arrived at OSU, Meyer has preached that if a player is ready to play he will use him and not redshirt him.
Co-defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said Ohio State players know they have to grow up in a hurry because early departures to the NFL have become an annual occurrence.
“You know you can’t stay young around here,” Schiano said. “We have made it a habit of guys getting a call from the NFL early.”
Hooker leads Ohio State with six interceptions and has returned three of them for touchdowns. Lattimore has four interceptions. Baker is second on the team in tackles with 79.
“If you get better every day, hopefully at the end you’re playing for it all,” Schiano said. “Just keep recruiting great players. If you keep bringing them in and develop them, they’ll be in intense competition for every one of those starting spots.”
• Gibson update: Meyer said wide receiver Torrance Gibson spoke with him before signing a letter of intent with Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College on Tuesday.
Gibson was suspended for the season in August by the university, a decision Meyer said at the time did not come from him or the athletic department.
It was assumed Gibson’s decision meant his career at Ohio State was over, but Meyer said, “I don’t think there is anything finalized.”
“I love Torrance. It’s very unfortunate, the whole situation. I can assure you, as we always do, we are doing what is in the best interest of the student-athlete,” he said.
• Coaches to be announced: Kerry Coombs and Schiano will have expanded roles, with Fickell leaving to become Cincinnati’s head coach. But Meyer said he wasn’t ready to offer details on how he might rearrange the defensive staff.
“I’m not finalized with all that yet,” he said. “I can tell you Kerry Coombs will have an expanded role in the pass defense department. He has earned that right. Also, there will be an even more expanded role for Greg (Schiano). He needs that. But as far as what’s going to happen down the road, I haven’t made any decisions yet.”
• Playoff expansion?: Meyer said if the College Football Playoff were ever expanded to eight teams, some adjustments would have to be made to how college football is set up.
He thinks 15 games should be the limit for a season and with an eight-team playoff, the two finalists would play 16 games if they had played in a conference championship game.
“I know after doing it and going 14-1, if they had said we had one more game, that would be a tough one. Especially when you start playing who you’re playing at the end. I think the whole college model would have to change,” Meyer said.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.