COLUMBUS: In Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer’s mind, the Mason-Dixon Line is a myth.
He sees no reason he can’t use the blueprint from his two national championship teams at Florida and reconstruct them in Ohio’s heartland. He sees no reason why Ohio State shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath with Southeastern Conference powerhouse Alabama.
He’s convinced his staff that the Buckeyes need not play second fiddle to ’Bama and the rest of the SEC’s elite.
“We’re recruiting to get on a national stage,” running backs coach Stan Drayton said. “We’re not just locked on the SEC. We’re locked on that crystal ball.”
That crystal ball is the national championship trophy. The pressure to bring Ohio State its first national title since 2002 has been there since the day Ohio State hired Meyer in November 2011. A 12-0 record in a bowl-banned 2012 season only added to those expectations.
After Wednesday’s signing-day gold mine left Ohio State’s 24-man class ranked among the top three in the nation, with the Crimson Tide No. 1 and the Florida Gators No. 2 on ESPN.com’s list, it’s crystal ball or bust.
Meyer found his Percy Harvin in running back/receiver Dontre Wilson of DeSoto, Texas.
He signed a hard-hitting enforcer in safety Vonn Bell of Rossville, Ga. A five-star recruit rated as high as No. 25 in the country by Scout.com, Bell was the MVP of the Buckeyes’ camp in June and reportedly Meyer’s top priority.
Meyer filled a glaring need for speed, including Wilson, receiver James Clark of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and home-run hitting running back Ezekiel Elliott of St. Louis.
Meyer said he’d been uncertain of Bell, Wilson and Clark when he went to bed Tuesday. Meyer was so worried about winning what he called “a street fight” for Bell that he hopped on the treadmill Wednesday morning to take his mind off the wait.
Then in a 5 p.m. news conference, Meyer hung onto his “tailback of the future,” as he called Elliott, who stuck with his April 1 commitment to OSU.
With a Heisman Trophy candidate returning at quarterback in junior-to-be Braxton Miller, Buckeye hysteria will consume the next 11 months.
Meyer tried to downplay the SEC angle, even as the media tried to play it up. Asked if he was “declaring war on Alabama today,” Meyer replied, “No, absolutely not. We have one rival, and that rival was dictated many, many years ago. And they had a good recruiting class as well, by the way.
“I think anytime you’re in SEC country to recruit, I think any time teams start talking about who is the king of the hill right now, those words might come out of people’s mouths, including mine once in a while. But no, make it real clear there’s one person we’re going after, and that’s our rival.”
Michigan might have been on his mind for more than a few minutes since the Wolverines’ Class of 2013 included nine Ohioans.
“That school’s always had great Ohio players, a Heisman Trophy winner, too,” Meyer said, forgetting either Cleveland’s Desmond Howard or Fremont’s Charles Woodson.
But Meyer’s focus on that school up north won’t stop fans’ obsession with Alabama and coach Nick Saban, who has won three of the past four crystal balls. Privately, Meyer must long to replicate Saban’s success, even though Meyer was well on the way with two national titles in three years at Florida until stress sent him into a one-year sabbatical.
That’s what made the Buckeyes’ forays into the South so satisfying. The scent of ribs and cornbread was in the air after they signed three top players from Texas and seven from the Southeast.
Assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers, who landed Bell from the Chattanooga, Tenn., area, said he found a new barbecue place and a new barber, Chris, there.
“Ohio State, that name resonates nationally,” Withers said. “Not only does it resonate in Columbus, Ohio, it resonates in different small towns in Georgia. I’ve run into more OH-IO on the road in the South than anywhere. I get off the plane in Chattanooga, Tenn., and the guy at the security gate was saying, ‘OH’ to me. When we go down there we have a presence. We’re not just shooting in the dark.”
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman had just as difficult a task in Texas and still pulled a last-minute rabbit out of a 10-gallon hat in Wilson. Drayton said Wilson’s clockings on the track are “national times” worthy of an All-American in that sport. Meyer sees Wilson as a “hybrid” player in the mold of ex-Gator Harvin, now with the Minnesota Vikings.
“It’s not challenging when you go 12-0 and Urban Meyer is your head coach and I get to wear the Block O on my shirt every day walking into high schools,” Herman said. “Were we behind the 8-ball? Yeah. But recruiting is about relationships and it’s about developing that over a period of time.
“At the same time we are fortunate enough to be as coach Meyer puts it, ‘A little bit of the flavor of the month.’ You don’t want to live in that position every year, but if you have to go get a guy a little later in the game than you would like, you still have confidence.”
That feeling comes from their leader Meyer, sure that his resume is far from complete. Now, armed with more weapons to complete his spread offense, Meyer sets out to prove the South is not going to do it again.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.