Preseason Top 25: No. 2 Ohio State has expectations beyond another College Football Playoff berth

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Preseason Top 25: No. 2 Ohio State has expectations beyond another College Football Playoff berth

Ryan Day’s first season at Ohio State went rather well. Day took over following the unexpected resignation of Urban Meyer and led the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship and a College Football Playoff berth. Ohio State was also tantalizingly close to playing for the title but fell short against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, losing 29-23.

How will things look in Year 2 under Day? You could argue that he stepped into an envious position at Ohio State with a ready-made program already equipped to compete for national titles. What’s his plan for an encore, and what should the expectations be for Ohio State in 2020? It has one of the best quarterbacks in the country returning but loses a lot of key players from last year’s Big Ten champions.

Let’s take a closer look.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 3 in CBS Sports 130 | Achievements: Big Ten champions, College Football Playoff berth

Ohio State’s 2019 season wasn’t all that different than the two that preceded it as far as winning the Big Ten. The Buckeyes took their third consecutive conference crown after beating Wisconsin, 34-21.. What was different was that the Buckeyes didn’t experience a loss before winning the league. In 2018, it was the shocking 49-20 loss on the road against Purdue. The year before, it was a 55-24 loss at Iowa. Those losses ultimately kept the Buckeyes out of the College Football Playoff despite the Big Ten title.

Without them, the Buckeyes finished the regular season with a 13-0 record and at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff Rankings. Their return to the playoff wouldn’t last long, however, as they lost to No. 3 Clemson — controversially in the eyes of many Buckeyes — 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl. A disappointing finish for sure but still a season that most teams in the nation would envy.

Key departures

  • DE Chase Young: He continued the Ohio State tradition of having a superhuman in disguise as an edge-rusher. Young led the nation with 16.5 sacks last year, and Big Ten quarterbacks were all thrilled to see him go to the Washington Redskins with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.
  • RB J.K. Dobbins: He was one of the most productive running backs in Ohio State history, and it’s not like Ohio State has a shortage of great backs. Dobbins left with 4,459 career rushing yards, trailing only Archie Griffin’s 5,589 yards for the most in program history.
  • DBs Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller: Okudah was the biggest name, and considering he was the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft, he’s seen as the biggest talent of the three as well. Arnette was a first-round pick as well, however, going 19th to the Las Vegas Raiders. Fuller had to wait until the sixth round for the Los Angeles Rams to take him. Either way, these are three starters from Ohio State’s secondary who won’t be back next year. Three players who combined for six interceptions and 21 passes broken up. They were also a key reason why Ohio State led the nation in QBR against (58.17) as well as yards per attempt against (5.54) last year.
  • LB Malik Harrison: Ohio State’s linebackers flowed freely to the ball all last season, but nobody got there as often as Harrison. His 75 tackles led the team, and he chipped in with 16.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as well. He joins Dobbins in Baltimore after being chosen by the Ravens in the third round.
  • WR K.J. Hill: No player in Ohio State history has caught more passes than Hill did during his time in the scarlet and grey. Hill caught 201 passes for 2,332 yards and 20 touchdowns. He’ll now be catching passes for the Los Angeles Chargers after going in the seventh round.
  • DLs Davon Hamilton and Jashon Cornell: While Young got most of the attention, Hamilton and Cornell were a big part of his success. Offensive lines couldn’t ignore them to take care of Young, and the duo combined for 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss. Hamilton was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round, while Cornell went to the Detroit Lions to reunite with Okudah in the seventh.
  • Defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley: He spent only a season as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator, but as you can see above, it was a successful season. Hafley will try to replicate that success as the new man in charge at Boston College.
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Who’s back?

  • QB Justin Fields: If you’re going to lose a lot of important players to graduation and the NFL, it’s always nice to have one of the best quarterbacks in the country returning. That’s precisely what the Buckeyes have in Fields, who was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year thanks to his 51 total touchdowns and 3,757 total yards. Imagine what he might be capable of in his second season in the offense.
  • WRs Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson: Olave emerged as Ohio State’s big-play threat as a sophomore. He led Ohio State in receiving yards with 849 (17.33 per reception), and his 12 touchdown grabs were more than anybody else. Wilson was impressive as a freshman as well, catching 30 passes for 432 yards and five touchdowns. Both players will take on larger roles in 2020.
  • RB Master Teague III: He was an excellent change-of-pace back to pair with Dobbins. Teague was also effective, rushing for 789 yards and four touchdowns on 135 carries. He enters his sophomore season looking to take a larger share of the carries.
  • CB Shaun Wade: Ohio State lost one top-10 pick in its secondary in Okudah, but no worries, it might have another one still around. That’s the kind of talent Wade has flashed. He finished last season with only one interception but broke up eight passes and had a couple of sacks.
  • LBs Pete Werner and Tuf Borland: Werner and Borland finished second and fourth on the team in tackles, respectively, combining for 119. They’ll be the leaders of the defense in 2020.
  • DE Zach Harrison: Though he didn’t take on a significant role in 2020 as a freshman, the five-star prospect showed the world why he was rated so highly when he did see the field. He finished the season with 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. If you’re looking for the next guy to become Ohio State’s pass-rushing death factory, this is an excellent place to start.

Fresh faces

  • RB Trey Sermon: He transferred into Ohio State from Oklahoma and appears set to see time in the backfield. Sermon saw his snaps diminish with the Sooners last season, but in 37 games with the team, he rushed for 2,076 yards and 22 touchdowns while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. Sermon also caught 36 passes for 391 yards and three scores.
  • CBs Sevyn Banks and Cam Brown: Both Banks and Brown appear set to take on much larger roles in 2020 as the Buckeyes are forced to replace most of their secondary. They each appeared in all 14 games last season and were highly-rated recruits out of high school. (Brown came to town as a wide receiver before moving to the defensive side of the ball.)
  • WRs Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba: Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class had plenty of top recruits, but of the incoming five-star phenoms, the path to playing time seems clearest for Fleming and Smith-Njigba. We should keep our eyes out for fellow freshmen Gee Scott and Mookie Cooper as well. Ohio State’s receiving corps in 2020 will be young but talented.
  • Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs: He isn’t new to Ohio State, but Coombs is new to the current staff. He had been on Meyer’s original staff at Ohio State but spent the last two years as the defensive backs coach with the Tennessee Titans on former Buckeye Mike Vrabel’s staff. Now, he returns to take over the defense following the departure of Jeff Hafley.
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Critical games

Sept. 12 at Oregon: It’s the biggest nonconference game on Ohio State’s schedule. While there’s never a “good” time to be going on the road to play in an environment as hostile as Autzen Stadium, there are worse times than this one. I’d rather face Oregon early in the season while it’s still breaking in a new QB and other players than later in the year. Particularly when I have a veteran QB of my own like Justin Fields.

Oct. 17 at Michigan State: I am skeptical about how good Michigan State will be in 2020 given the late start for Mel Tucker just before everything was shut down. Still, this game is in a tricky spot for the Buckeyes. It comes the week after a home game against Iowa and a week before what might be the most difficult game of the season …

Oct. 24 at Penn State: … and that game would be a road trip to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. Beaver Stadium has posed problems for the Buckeyes in recent trips. They won there in 2014 and 2018, but both wins were close, including a 27-26 victory in 2018. Then there was the 2016 game that Penn State won 24-21. While you can’t rule out other teams in the division, based on recent trends, this is the game that could decide the Big Ten East.

Nov. 28 vs. vs. Michigan: Notice how I called the Penn State game the “most difficult” and not the biggest? That’s because no game on Ohio State’s schedule can ever be bigger than the Michigan game. The Buckeyes have won eight straight in the series, and a ninth would match the longest winning streak for either team in the history of the series. Michigan once won nine straight from 1901-09. I’m going to play the odds and say that nobody reading this was alive to see that streak.

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2020 outlook

Ohio State begins the season at No. 2 in our Preseason CBS Sports 130, which tells you a few things right off the bat. The first is that this team is elite, and the expectations for it reflect that. When you dig deeper, however, you realize that the only other Big Ten program in our top 10 is Penn State, and it snuck in at No. 9. Based on our rankings, a fourth consecutive Big Ten title is the expectation for the Buckeyes.

The larger objective given the ranking is that this team shouldn’t just reach the College Football Playoff. No, that No. 2 says this is a team that should be playing for the national title. Now, those are lofty expectations for any program, but they are expectations well within reach.

It’s hard to reach the playoff, and it’s harder to reach the title game. Winning it all is unachievable for 99.2% of the teams striving for it every season. Ohio State is one of the few teams with a realistic chance for doing so thanks in large part to the collection of talent it possesses.

One of the main reasons Ohio State has been able to create separation between itself and the rest of the Big Ten is what it began to do on the recruiting trail once Meyer arrived. It hasn’t just recruited on a higher level than the conference, but nearly every other program in the country. From 2012-20, the average national ranking of Ohio State’s recruiting classes, according to the 247Sports Composite, has been 4.9. The worst class it had was its 2019 class, which ranked 14th. This was thanks in large part to the turnover from Meyer to Day (as well as it being a class of only 17 players). Well, Day’s 2020 class finished fifth in the nation, and the 2021 class is currently ranked first. It seems the hesitation about Ohio State from the perspective of recruits was fleeting.

For context, let’s compare the average ranking of Ohio State’s last nine recruiting classes to those of its biggest challengers in the Big Ten on the field and on the recruiting trail.

Ohio State

4.9

Michigan

13.8

Penn State

20.7

Now, it’s important to point out that Jim Harbaugh didn’t come to Michigan until 2015, and James Franklin wasn’t at Penn State until 2014. Recruiting at both schools has improved under them, but this gives us an idea of the gap that had opened. A gap that isn’t getting any easier to close.

All of which is why it’s difficult for me to have too many concerns about Ohio State heading into 2020. Yes, it has a lot of key players to replace at pivotal positions. But it’s Ohio State, and it’s had those problems before. It also has a QB in Fields who might be the best Ohio State’s ever had take the field. He’s one hell of an ace in the hole that can help overcome possible deficiencies elsewhere.

Plus, while Ohio State has questions, so does everybody else in the Big Ten and in the country. Few are as capable of answering them as easily as Ohio State can. Frankly, anything short of a Big Ten title and a playoff berth for this team in 2020 should be considered a disaster.