The 2013 season began with one fundamental message about the hierarchy of teams in the Big Ten: Ohio State was the best. Everyone else – from Michigan to Wisconsin to Northwestern, and on down the line – were a notch below. Popular sentiment has not changed. The Buckeyes remain the best team in the conference by a wide margin. But when they take on Northwestern Saturday, they will not be the same team as they were at the beginning of the season.
Not without starting safety Christian Bryant, who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the waning moments of the Buckeyes’ 31-24 win over Wisconsin Saturday.
After diving at the legs of Wisconsin ballcarrier James White, Bryant tumbled on the ground just before a teammate, defensive back Doran Grant, landed on his ankle. You can see Bryant hopping away from the scene, unable to put any weight on his left leg. He wouldn't make it to the sideline under his own power.
How big of a loss is Bryant? When coach Urban Meyer spoke to the media after the game, moments after Bryant was loaded into an ambulance, the first thing he did, before mentioning anything about getting past the toughest opponent on the schedule, was address Bryant’s injury. Meyer was so distraught over the news that Bryant had broken his ankle, he slammed the podium with his right hand.
"We lost our captain," Meyer told reporters. "He has a broken ankle, and it's just tough news. It's the hardest part of this whole job, man.
There is no shortage of replacements for Bryant: Ohio State will insert sophomore Ron Tanner, senior Corey Brown or freshman Vonn Bell at safety. The Buckeyes have the talent and athleticism to reload. But that was never the biggest concern with losing Bryant; hearing Meyer talk about it, the senior safety’s intangibles are what his team will miss most.
When a reporter asked Meyer what concerned him about the upcoming game at Northwestern, he replied, “My leader, our leader, is in an ambulance right now. That’s the concerning part. He’s our leader.”
From what I can gather, losing Bryant is basically the Northwestern equivalent of losing Ibraheim Campbell – only Ohio State has the depth to reload. But could losing an emotional leader have negative effects beyond sheer roster attrition? Do the things Bryant – or a similar player – does that don’t show up on the box score matter? I’d argue yes. By Saturday night, we should have a pretty good idea.