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College Football Preview 2021: 4. Ohio State Buckeyes

Garrett Wilson, Ohio State

 4. Ohio State Buckeyes

Even as the Buckeyes reload at QB and linebacker, their talent advantage keeps them as the clear Big Ten favorite

2020 Review
The Big Ten's late start to the 2020 season and COVID-19 problems resulted in Ohio State playing just five games during the regular season. They certainly impressed in those five, defeating tough tests from Penn State and Indiana before squeaking past Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game. There was plenty of controversy surrounding the CFB Playoff deciding to place the Buckeyes in the four-team field despite the short schedule, but Ohio State proved they belonged. They got vengeance against the Clemson team that had beaten them in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl and then gave Alabama a fight in the National Championship Game, until the mighty Crimson Tide eventually pulled away. Buckeye fans can't be upset about a National Runner-Up finish, but they're hopeful this team can now finish the job in 2021.

2021 Outlook
Offense: Justin Fields moves on to the NFL after two incredibly impressive seasons with the Buckeyes, leaving behind an inexperienced, but extremely talented, quarterback room. The quarterback competition has been the focus of the off-season for this offense, and got even more intriguing when the top QB in the 2022 Class, Quinn Ewers, reclassified and came to Columbus a year earlier than expected.

Even with the late addition of Ewers, C.J. Stroud is the favorite to handle starting duties right now. Stroud has yet to throw a pass in his college career, but he did have a long run in Ohio State's dismantling of Michigan State. He is hoping to fend off challengers Kyle McCord and Jack Miller, two guys who are talented, but have never thrown a pass at the FBS level. McCord came in during the spring and has caught the attention of the staff, but it won't be easy to come in as a true freshman and win the job.

No matter what happens at quarterback, Ohio State is absolutely loaded at the skill positions. Running back Trey Sermon moves on, but sophomore Master Teague appears ready to handle feature back duties. Teague has run for 1,409 yards over the past three seasons as a backup, including 514 in 2020. However, don't be shocked if highly touted newcomer TreVeyon Henderson seriously challenges for significant work. Henderson is widely considered to be the best true freshman tailback in the nation and has more explosiveness and burst in the open field than Teague. It seems highly likely that this Buckeye staff will end up using them as a tandem, with Henderson's role only increasing as the season wears on.

On the perimeter, Ohio State features the best receiver corps in the country. Veteran Chris Olave would be playing on Sundays had he decided to go pro, but he instead chose to stay put, giving them an All-American talent who will be in the Biletnikoff Award conversation. He is joined by rising star Garrett Wilson, who totaled 723 yards in 2020 and was All-Big Ten. Add in dynamic youngsters Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming, and it's hard to imagine any secondary being able to handle this group for an entire sixty minutes. There's also several true freshman who may find ways to contribute, namely Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Harrison had a huge spring game, while Egbuka is considered by many to be the top wide out in this Class.

Tight end is in good hands as well, as junior Jeremy Ruckert is back in town. Ruckert will end up playing more of a complementary role than anything else with what the Buckeyes bring back at wide out, but five of his 13 catches in 2020 went for scores. Cade Stover is likely his backup, as a former linebacker who made the switch to tight end prior to last season.

How impressive is Ohio State's talent on offense? Consider that they lost the Big Ten Offensive Linemen of the Year, Wyatt Davis, over the off-season and still are likely to feature one of the best offensive lines in the league. They will have to identify who takes over for Davis at right guard, with sophomore Harry Miller a real possibility after making five starts at left guard in 2020. However, both tackle positions are in great hands, with senior Thayer Munford handling the left side, while Nicholas Petit-Frere is on the right. Expect former five-star prospect Paris Johnson to fight for a starting gig after seeing five games as a true freshman. He's most natural at tackle, but there remains a chance he could move inside to play guard.

It's not often a program can lose three key figures like Fields, Sermon, and Davis and still be absolutely loaded on offense, but this is Ohio State at the end of the day. While quarterback remains an interesting question mark, their talent elsewhere ensures this group will once again play at an elite level. It also helps that OSU may have the best offensive staff in college football, with Ryan Day as head man and former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson entering his fifth year as offensive coordinator.

Defense: After a resurgent 2019 performance from their defense, Ohio State understandably had some growing pains during the 2020 season. With just four starters returning and serious inexperience in the secondary, big plays proved to be an issue. The prognosis for 2021 looks better, although they will have to replace all three starters at linebacker.

The Buckeyes were forced to replace an absolute superstar in Chase Young last fall, so naturally their pass rushing numbers took a slight dip. They should be in good hands this year, with defensive end Zach Harrison as a serious breakout candidate and powerful veteran Haskell Garrett setting the tone at defensive tackle. Harrison played in all seven games in 2020 but is still looking for his breakthrough moment, as another former high-profile recruit. The likely starter opposite of him is another proven veteran in Tyreke Smith, although five-star newcomer Jack Sawyer had a monster spring and could vie for immediate snaps. It should also be interesting to see whether J.T. Tuimoloau sees much action as yet another five-star addition. Tuimoloau committed later than most in the Class of 2021, pledging to the Buckeyes in early June, but he's extremely talented.

There is concern at linebacker, where Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Baron Browning, and Justin Hilliard all move on. There is still plenty of talent at the position group, but a serious lack of proven experience. Junior Dallas Gant is likely to play a leading role, as is the favorite to take over at middle linebacker. It's unclear who will join him, as several different Buckeyes are competing for the two outside linebacker spots. Juniors Teradja Mitchel and K'Vaughan Pope, as well as freshmen Cody Simon and Kourt Williams are all in the mix. This defensive staff is hoping this unit grows up quick, but growing pains are to be expected.

The OSU secondary had serious growing pains in 2020, ranking last in the Big Ten in pass defense and 122nd nationally. They have a chance to be significantly better this fall, even with Shaun Wade moving on. Nearly every other piece is returning, including junior corner Sevyn Banks, who should be in store for a big 2021. Banks struggled mightily in the National Championship Game loss, but started all eight games for the Buckeyes and played well down the stretch. Taking over for Wade at the other corner spot is likely to be either Cameron Brown, Ryan Watts, or Lejond Cavazos. There's also a chance one of the freshmen from the Class of 2021 will see extended looks, such as Jakailin Johnson or Jordan Hancock. Johnson has received plenty of attention throughout spring and into fall camp and be one of the more impactful young pieces on this roster.

Both safety spots are in good hands, with junior Josh Proctor and Marcus Williamson returning. Proctor started three games in 2020 but will look to play more of a leadership role this fall, while Williamson is looking to become more consistent. Marcus Hooker, the younger brother of former Buckeye star Malik, is also back after splitting time with Proctor a year ago. He's not quite the big-play threat his older brother was, but he's proven he can make plays.

Even as the linebacker corps undergoes a rebuild, Ohio State's defense should be ready for an improved year. There's no shortage of talent, but also an improvement in depth and experience throughout. It has a chance to be one of, if not the best, defenses in the conference.

Special Teams: Blake Haubeil, Jake Seibert and Dominic DiMaccio split placekicking duties for Ohio State in 2020. Haubeil moves on after hitting 5 of 7 field goals a season ago, meaning that Seibert is likely the favorite to handle starting duties. Punter is a more pressing concern, with Drue Chrisman moving on after a legendary Buckeye career, where he was All-Conference three times.

Bottom Line: All Ryan Day has done since taking over for the legendary Urban Meyer in Columbus is make two consecutive Playoff appearances, lost zero regular season games, and stacked multiple historical recruiting classes on top of each other. However, after coming up short in last year's National Championship Game, the goal for 2021 is to finish the job. This team certainly has the talent and elite collection of playmakers to do so, but several things may stand in their way. For one, the Big Ten East as a whole looks like it may be quite improved this fall, with Indiana still looking dangerous and Penn State and Michigan expected to have resurgent campaigns. Additionally, the Buckeye schedule includes a tough date with Oregon, widely expected to be the top team in the Pac-12 early on in the season. Then there's the obvious fact nobody has thrown a pass on this roster, no matter how highly touted this QB room is. Ohio State should still be a good bet to win the Big Ten and challenge for another Playoff bid, but they may still be just a year or two away from claiming their first National Title since 2014.

Further Breakdown
Team Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (9-0 Big Ten, Win Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: WR Chris Olave
Defensive MVP: DE Zach Harrison
Breakout Player of the Year: OL Paris Johnson
Impact Freshman: RB TreVeyon Henderson

Recruiting Breakdown
If not for Alabama casually going out and landing the best recruiting class in the history of college football, Ohio State would have easily landed the best group in the Class of 2021. Seven five-star recruits arrive in Columbus, including several who have already flashed during the spring, such as Jack Sawyer, as well as late arrivals, such as Quinn Ewers and J.T. Tuimoloau. Other names to highlight include wide receiver Emeka Egbuka, offensive linemen Donovan Jackson and corner Jakailin Johnson, who all good see playing time this fall, even with how stacked the depth chart is in front of them. Punter Jesse Mirco may be the most underrated addition of the Class. With Chrisman graduated, Mirco may be able to come in and contribute right away, as the No. 6 punter in his cycle.

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