There's a reason Ohio State was able to win the first-ever College Football Playoff with a third-string quarterback last season. His name is Ezekiel Elliott.
It was Elliott who carried the Buckeyes to the national championship with 696 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in three postseason games, and Elliott begins the 2015 season as the Heisman Trophy favorite whether he's taking handoffs from Cardale Jones or J.T. Barrett.
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The sheer firepower the Buckeyes showed in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, a 42-35 Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and a 42-20 rout of Oregon in the CFP championship prompted Associated Press poll voters to make them the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in history. During that stretch, Elliott had 220 yards and two TDs against the Badgers, 230 and two TDs to upset the Crimson Tide and 246 and four TDs to batter the Ducks and Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota.
When Barrett, the second-stringer who led the Buckeyes in the regular season after a preseason injury to Braxton Miller, went down in the season finale at Michigan and was replaced by Jones, coach Urban Meyer put the ball in Elliott's hands.
"The way coach Meyer runs the offense is that, whenever you have the hot foot, he's going to keep feeding you the rock," Elliott said. "I just got hot at the end of the season, and the O-line was blocking everything very well."
The defining moment of the season came with Ohio State clinging to a 34-28 lead and pinned at its 15-yard line with 3:37 left in the Sugar Bowl. Elliott found a crack behind left guard Billy Price and exploded 85 yards for a TD after a block by wide receiver Evan Spencer wiped out the inside linebacker.
"If you watch the play on tape -- I've seen it 5,000 times -- there was no hole there," Elliott said. "Then you see Evan Spencer crack down on the linebacker and Billy Price blocked the safety and the hole just opened right before my eyes. I didn't think the play was going to go for 85 yards. I was going to put my head down and get 2. It was me trusting my blocking scheme and them doing all the work.
It truly was one of those plays for the ages, the kind that gets you remembered.
"I think Buckeye Nation feels that play is somewhat iconic for the season," Elliott said. "I've seen it so much because every time I get on Twitter, I see in my notifications that somebody is tweeting that video at me. I can't go a day without watching it. I think that was a special moment."
Since the Buckeyes' surprise title victory, national attention has centered on the competition between Barrett and Jones, and Meyer has warned his players to keep their focus as one team.
"The way coach Meyer recruits is that there's depth at every position and competition all year for playing time," Elliott said. "Because both of them performed so well last year, people are trying to hype it up more, but we have battles at every position. It's a normal thing. I don't think it's a big deal who plays quarterback."
The most important thing, Elliott said, is for the Buckeyes to hit the ground running in their opener at Virginia Tech, the only team to beat them last year, then to negotiate a Big Ten schedule that includes their toughest games at home against Penn State and Michigan State.
Elliott, who had surgery on his left wrist two weeks before last season and again in January, said it "isn't 100 percent" but is far stronger than last season. He's focused on team goals but knows what a Heisman Trophy would mean to his parents, Stacy and Dawn, who were star athletes at Missouri in football and track.
"It would be a true testament to everything my family has sacrificed for me growing up, all those times with Mom and Dad driving me on those long road trips we made to track meets and basketball tournaments," Elliott said. "It would mean everything to have that moment with my parents and my sisters."