Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Ohio State Buckeyes held their collective breath earlier in the week after star quarterback Braxton Miller re-injured his right shoulder while attempting a short pass at practice.
The program's biggest fears were realized after learning that Miller would miss the entire 2014 season.
"My thoughts and prayers are with Braxton and his family," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. "This is an unfortunate injury to a young man who means so much to this program and Buckeye nation."
Miller had previously injured his throwing shoulder during the 2014 Orange Bowl. He appeared poised to bounce back 100 percent for his senior season after successful surgery in February, but now the Buckeyes, once the overwhelming favorites to win the Big Ten, will have to adjust to life without their leader under center just days before the start of the season.
Replacing Miller will be no easy task. Behind Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Miller was on the short list of Heisman favorites, pre-injury of course, and the case can be made that no player in the nation was tied more closely with his team's potential success than Miller.
Miller has been outstanding through three seasons, serving as one of the nation's most lethal dual-threat quarterbacks with 5,292 passing yards, 3,054 rushing yards and 84 total touchdowns. He is the two-time reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and is 26-8 as a starter.
Despite improving his passing numbers with each season -- he set career highs in completion percentage (.635), passing yards (2,094), passing touchdowns (24) and QB rating (158.1) in 2013 -- what the Buckeyes will miss most from Miller will be his dynamic rushing ability. He ran for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns a season ago, and with the running back depth chart littered with inexperienced rushers after the departures of Carlos Hyde (1,521 yards, 15 TDs) and Jordan Hall (536 yards, 8 TDs), the team was counting on Miller's prowess on the ground more than ever this season.
Although it was a devastating blow for the signal caller, who's within striking distance of nearly 20 school records, his spirits appear high as he uses his redshirt season in 2014 with the hopes of returning to the field next year.
"I love Ohio State and Buckeye nation, and my goal is to come back from this injury stronger and better than ever," Miller said. "I am on course to graduate in December and I want to attend graduate school, and then return to lead the Buckeyes next season. In the meantime, I want to give all the support I can to my coaches and teammates as they chase a championship this season."
Now the Buckeyes must turn to an unknown to steer the ship.
The squad was fortunate to have a veteran backup last season in Kenny Guiton, who shined with Miller out of the lineup with 14 touchdown passes on only 109 attempts, but with Guiton having graduated, Ohio State has to cross its fingers and hope for the best with its current crop of signal callers.
The favorite to take over as the starter is redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who's been taking the majority of the first-team practice reps since Miller's injury. Barrett has plenty of promise -- he was considered one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks coming out of high school in 2012, but he suffered a knee injury late in his senior year and spent his redshirt last season to recover.
"The best quarterbacks are great distributors," Meyer said after Wednesday's practice. "That's what my initial evaluation of J.T. is, he's very good at that."
Assuming his health, Barrett appears to be the most obvious fill-in, but the Buckeyes will be sure to give Cardale Jones a look as well. Jones is the only healthy quarterback on the roster with any game experience, seeing a total of 39 plays against Florida A&M, Penn State and Purdue last season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder completed just 1-of-2 passes for three yards, but did pick up 128 yards on the ground (7.5 ypc).
Fortunately for the new quarterbacks, Ohio State still has one of the Big Ten's most talented supporting casts to relieve some of the pressure. Wide receiver Devin Smith (44 receptions, 660 yards, 8 TDs) and tight end Jeff Heuerman (26 receptions, 466 yards, 4 TDs) are trusty pass-catching options, and while the running backs lack experience, Ezekiel Elliot (262 yards), Dontre Wilson (250 yards) and freshman Curtis Samuel are all supremely talented and could be poised for a breakout campaign.
With the team taking an unexpected new direction at quarterback, its outlook is difficult to predict. It should still be in the running for the Big Ten title considering its remaining talent, especially on a defense where eight starters return from a unit that allowed just 22.6 ppg a season ago. The schedule also looks to be easier than most major programs are expected to face, but now all of a sudden late-season matchups at Penn State, at Michigan State and versus Michigan appear much more daunting than they did a week ago.
Only time will tell how the Buckeyes overcome the adversity, but a coveted spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff that once seemed well within reach, is now anything but a certainty.