ARLINGTON, Texas — The future has finally arrived.
Ohio State put it off as long as possible, riding J.T. Barrett for one more record, one more victory and one more Offensive MVP trophy before the confetti fell on his shoulder pads.
The scarlet and gray jersey was finally peeled off in the locker room at AT&T Stadium. He offered a final postgame inspirational speech and thanked his teammates. He wrapped up his last press conference with the Buckeyes.
Then the most prolific career in Big Ten history was over. And Ohio State moved directly into perhaps the most fascinating quarterback situation in the country as they transition to life without No. 16.
“He was an elite leader that raised the level of those around him,” coach Urban Meyer said. “Raises the level of toughness, of will to win, of the practice habits, the human spirit. … He’s got a skill set that I haven’t come across very often.
“And the cool thing is that your dream is to come into a place and leave it a little better than when you came here — and he did.”
There is simply no understating how pivotal the Texan’s decision to leave home and sign with Ohio State was for the program. And as he celebrated his record-setting 38th and final victory, it’s impossible to argue that he didn’t elevate the level of the program along the way. Now the question is what comes next when the old, veteran security blanket is gone.
Fair or not, Barrett’s on-field legacy will probably always be debated in Columbus. But it’s what he’s helped build as a mentor to Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow and Tate Martell that really matters as the Buckeyes start turning their attention to 2018 and another bid to return to the College Football Playoff.
And there is already no shortage of intrigue about each of those candidates waiting to take the torch from the school’s only three-time captain and newly-crowned Cotton Bowl champion.
“Yeah, obviously he’s give more to this program than just about anybody else who has come through here,” Burrow said. “He’s one of my best friends and someone I turn to when I’m low, when I’m high, when I’m even. He’s just been a great friend, a great teammate and a great leader.
“But somebody has got to [replace him], and the competition will be fierce in the spring no matter who is here.”
There’s a possibility Burrow might not be one of those guys as he weighs his options as a graduate transfer. He indicated that he’s currently “leaning towards staying” at Ohio State in a celebratory locker room after the game, but he’s aiming to firm up his plans in the next couple weeks either way.
That decision will be the first that will impact the depth chart at the most important position on the field, and it could wind up narrowing Ohio State’s options. No matter what, Haskins is likely going to enter spring practice as the odds-on favorite to win the job after backing up Barrett and coming off the bench to lead the Buckeyes to a win in The Game at Michigan. But Burrow has experience, dual-threat playmaking ability and familiarity with Ohio State’s system, which could allow him to be a factor if he winds up staying.
Both of them will have to contend with Martell, who more than ever appears destined for some sort of role next season given the versatility, athleticism and improved maturity he showed as his redshirt season progressed. In some form or fashion, maybe the safest bet of all at the moment is that Ohio State is going to carve out a role for Martell even if he’s not the current heir apparent as the starter.
“I guess you could just base it off who moves the ball, really,” Martell said. “You’ll figure it out when the time comes, how the offense moves [depending] on who is in there. The coaches know what they’re doing with each one of us, and we all move the ball down the field when we’re at practice.
“We’ll see how it goes.”
The Buckeyes can also throw signee Matthew Baldwin into that mix if his injured knee doesn’t keep him from competing after he enrolls early next month, adding yet another arm to track in spring practice.
It’s been five long years since Barrett wasn’t involved in that quarterback discussion in some capacity, and it’s almost certainly going to feel a little weird for Ohio State to not have him around anymore.
But as the senior pulled on his championship hat, walked into the tunnel on the way to the locker room and put one finger in the air, the realization started to sink in for the Buckeyes.