ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit: ‘Michigan State now is the team to beat in the Big Ten’

Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s season-ending injury will have an enormous effect on the Big Ten race and puts Michigan State in the driver’s seat.

That’s how ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit is interpreting the news out of Columbus, Ohio.

Miller is done for the season because of a shoulder injury. The senior needs surgery to repair a torn labrum.

Miller, a senior, is the two-time reigning Big Ten offensive player of the year. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is expected to move into the starting role.

“Obviously, just devastating news for Ohio State,” Herbstreit said on an ESPN conference call Tuesday. “You could argue Braxton Miller is as important to his team as any player in the sport of college football in 2014.

“To go from Braxton Miller to a couple quarterbacks who have hardly any experience, I think it opens up the conference, and it goes from Ohio State, in my opinion, being the favorite to win the Big Ten, to just overnight, Michigan State now is the team to beat in the Big Ten.”

The Buckeyes are ranked fifth in the preseason Associated Press poll released Sunday and Ohio State was expected to be in the national title conversation.

“Needless to say it would be bad news for Ohio State,” Big Ten Network analyst and former Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “It sure puts uncertainty in the offence because, arguably, Braxton Miller is the most dynamic single player for Ohio State and in this league. He’s one of those guys that can take a nothing play or a bad play and turn it into a great play because of his athleticism and his ability to make plays.”

Barrett was a blue-chip recruit out of Texas. But he has never taken a snap, and if Barrett can’t get the job done, the Buckeyes will be forced to turn to sophomore Cardale Jones, who has thrown one pass in his career.

It’s a far cry from the past two seasons when Kenny Guiton stepped in when Miller suffered various minor injuries. Last season, when Miller hurt his knee in the season opener and missed the next two games, Guiton shined.

That will be more difficult for the Buckeyes this time.

“When you look at an offense, on player handles the ball every single down and that is the quarterback,” Mason said. “Not only from a physical standpoint and a degree of difficulty with what they ask him to do, but the mental aspect of it in modern-day football and (coach) Urban Meyer’s offense, which has grown every year because Braxton Miller could adapt to it.

“They don’t have a seasoned veteran like Kenny Guiton and whoever takes his place will have a fraction of the experience that Braxton had.”

Meanwhile, Michigan, according to Herbstreit, should see offensive improvement with the staff addition of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who also coaches the quarterbacks. The Wolverines were 7-6 last season.

“It was really painful to watch their offense last year,” Herbstreit said. “I don’t know in my lifetime if I’ve ever seen a Michigan offense not be able to run the football. While most of the attention seemed to fall on (quarterback) Devin Gardner, watching that team week in and week out, I was mystified by the offensive line play and lack of difference makers at the tailback position.

“For my entire life, Michigan’s played great defense and been able to have a dominating offensive line and they’ve been able to run the football. I know they had a three-year run there with Rich Rod(Rodriguez) who changed the DNA and philosophy of recruiting, and I know it’s taken Brady (Hoke) a while to recruit the players to get him back to a little more of a pro-style offense. For Michigan to get back to Bo Schembechler, Lloyd Carr Michigan, to me it’s about getting their defense back to being a physical, athletic defense. Time will tell us if (defensive coordinator) Greg Mattison has a bunch that can do that. On paper, there’s a lot to like there.”

There’s plenty to like about Michigan State, Herbstreit added.

The Spartans, winners of the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl last season, have an enormous challenge at Oregon on Sept. 6, then have three of their “bigger” games, Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan, at home.

“Because very few people expect Michigan State to be able to go into that environment and get out of (Oregon) with a win, if they’re able to win that game and make a run through the Big Ten, it would be very hard to keep Michigan State out of the final four (playoff teams) based on what they’ve already established under Mark Dantonio,” Herbstreit said.

“I think they’re a very trendy, very kind of hot program right now. A big stage like they’re getting on Sept. 6, they’re probably going to be favored in every game after that. If they can hold serve the rest of the way I think there’s a legitimate shot they get in there (the playoff).”