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College Football Preview 2022: 1. Ohio State Buckeyes

C.J. Stroud, Ohio State

1. Ohio State Buckeyes

The nation's best offense and a reinforced defense will help the Buckeyes secure their first National Title in nearly a decade

2021 Review
Ohio State opened up their 2021 season with a difficult two-game stretch, traveling to Minneapolis to face a feisty Minnesota team before welcoming 12th-ranked Oregon to Columbus. After falling behind to the Gophers, the Buckeyes came out on top, 45-31, but their defensive issues in the opener continued on into the Oregon game. Ohio State surrendered 35 points to a Ducks offense that was mediocre the rest of the year, resulting in a fairly surprising upset loss to a team they were favored against by two touchdowns. The Buckeyes didn't let the early loss derail their entire season, as they beat up on a soft schedule in the coming weeks before a tricky late season stretch that included Penn State, Purdue, and Michigan State. After pounding Michigan State 56-7, OSU was ranked second in the country and C.J. Stroud was in the driver's seat for the Heisman Trophy before a rough showing against arch-rival Michigan, their first loss to the Wolverines in a decade. The Buckeyes stormed back to win the Rose Bowl against Utah, but anytime this program doesn't win a Big Ten Title or play in the CFB Playoff, it comes off disappointing. That should provide plenty of motivation for the Buckeyes as they look ahead to 2022.

2022 Outlook
Offense: Stroud emerged from a crowded quarterback room to lead the Buckeye offense in 2021 and he did not disappoint. He threw for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns, earning All-American recognition for his performance. Considering he played his best ball down the stretch and is surrounded by playmakers, it's fair to assume another huge year for the talented signal-caller. He begins 2022 as a frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy and should have plenty of opportunities to earn votes.

The quarterback room around Stroud thinned over the offseason, with Jack Miller off to Florid and Quinn Ewers heading to Texas, but it's important to note that Kyle McCord remained in Columbus. McCord made one start in 2021 and finished the year with 416 yards. He provides the Buckeyes with a super talented backup in case anything were to happen to Stroud this season.

There were lofty expectations for TreVeyon Henderson entering 2021 and yet, he may have exceeded them. The true freshman tailback was one of the best in the entire country, with 1,248 yards on the ground and 312 more as a receiver. Henderson averaged nearly seven yards per carry and was a dynamic force, always a threat to bust open a big play. He enters 2022 as an All-American candidate and shouldn't be overshadowed by Stroud.

Sophomore Miyan Williams provides a capable change-of-pace to Henderson after notching 508 yards a season ago, but the depth behind him isn't there in the same way it was last fall. Redshirt freshman Evan Pryor is expected to be sidelined for most, if not all, of the 2022 season after coming down with a knee injury. Williams and Henderson are one heck of a 1-2 punch, but could the lack of depth hurt Ohio State down the stretch?

Ohio State had two receivers selected within the first 11 picks of the 2022 NFL Draft and still boast the top receiver group in the nation. That isn't a slight against Garrett Wilson or Chris Olave, but more of a recognition of receivers coach Brian Hartline, who continues to load up at the position as a recruiter.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba smashed records en route to a 2021 in which he had 95 receptions for 1,606 yards and nine touchdowns. Now, he's a favorite for the Biletnikoff Award and the betting pick to be the top receiver taken in next spring's NFL Draft. He'll be the headliner, but as defenses focus on him, they leaves themselves open to being gashed by the other talented Buckeyes on the perimeter. That includes Marvin Harrison Jr., Julian Fleming, and Emeka Egbuka, a trio of former high-profile prospects who could all breakout this fall. Harrison may be the best bet, a well-built freak athlete who has the bloodline to be great, but don't overlook Fleming, the nation's top receiver coming out of high school who has battled nagging injuries.

With all the talent at receiver, it's no surprise tight end Jeremy Ruckert was buried, but he was a solid element of this offense. Now that's he off to the NFL, Ohio State turns to Cade Stover, who has had flashes of brilliance but is still putting it all together. Stover isn't quite as polished as Ruckert, but is a better athlete with a higher ceiling.

The Buckeyes lose a pair of longtime contributors in Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere, but it's unlikely they'll take a significant step back up front. Paris Johnson emerged as a legit All-Big Ten blocker a season ago, but may be asked to slide across the line to replace Petit-Frere at left tackle. Right tackle is in good hands with the return of junior Dawand Jones, while sophomore center Luke Wypler is a great breakout candidate.

Elite talent may be the norm in Columbus, but the trio of Stroud, Henderson, and Smith-Njigba has the chance to go down as one of the best groups in program history. They'll rack up the accolades all season long and pave the way for a National Title. Pair that with a strong offensive line and one of the game's brightest offensive minds on the sideline in Ryan Day, and this should be far and away the nation's best offense. 

Defense: The Buckeyes had pronounced defensive struggles during the 2021 campaign, cycling between two coordinators, Kerry Combs and Matt Barnes. Ryan Day is hopeful he's found the solution in the form of Jim Knowles, who comes over from Oklahoma State as defensive coordinator.

Since Chase Young left town, the Buckeyes have lacked a true elite pass rusher. They're hopeful one emerges in 2022, and there are several candidates. Zach Harrison enters his junior season with Ohio State, still looking for his long awaited breakthrough. He earned All-Big Ten honors a year ago, but has the talent to be even more. The better bet off the edge may be either J.T. Tuimoloau or Jack Sawyer, a pair of highly touted defensive ends who flashed in 2021, but have the potential to really breakout this fall. Tuimoloau is formerly the nation's top-ranked high school prospect, who made two starts last season.

Ohio State's linebacker corps was also a bit underwhelming last season, but the returns of Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg make it a strength. Chambers is a converted running back who made the transition to defense last fall and displayed real potential. He's still learning the ins and outs of the position, but has the physical tools to be an All-Conference linebacker. Reinforcing the unit is former USC  transfer Palaie Gaoteote IV, yet another big-name recruit who appeared in 20 games over his USC career. The cousin of now-departed defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, Gaoteote should be more comfortable in this defense this year and is a good fit in Knowles' scheme. 

The secondary appears to be the position group with the least amount of questions looking ahead to 2022. Veteran corner Cameron Brown and rising sophomore Denzel Burke should handle cornerback duties this fall, giving the Buckeyes a fearsome combo to lead the defense. Burke had 12 pass deflections last year and should be even better this time around.

Ohio State missed safety Josh Proctor last year, who was lost for the season just two weeks in. He's set to be 100 percent this season and should play a leadership role on the back-end. Joining him will be Ronnie Hickman, who finished as the team leader in tackles in 2021, hitting the century mark. Add in Oklahoma State transfer Tanner McCalister, who started 16 games for Knowles while in Stillwater, and this secondary should be among the best in the Big Ten.

Talent is never a question on the Buckeye defense, but the lack of playmakers really crippled this group a year ago. It likely won't be a super quick fix under Knowles, but OSU is healthier at every level and has breakout candidates galore. In fact, with several of the other top Big Ten defenses replacing key pieces, this has a chance to be among the best in the league.

Special Teams: Special teams will be a strength in Columbus, as OSU returns both kicker Noah Ruggles and punter Jesse Mirco. Ruggles is one of the most underrated in the entire country and a legit Lou Groza candidate, hitting 20 of 21 field goals last season. The return game should also be good, even with punt returner Garrett Wilson moving on, as the Buckeyes are hopeful Emeka Egbuka can continue to improve.

Bottom Line: Since taking over for legendary head coach Urban Meyer, Day has arguably elevated Ohio State and has checked off box after box on his resume. However, one major item remains unchecked: the elusive first National Title. The Buckeyes have been close on several occasions now, but last year was a bit of a step-back for the program. Looking ahead to 2022, things set up beautifully for Day and the Buckeyes to get back over the hump and bring a crown back to Columbus. They have a terrifying offense headlined by a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, and a defense loaded with potential that could better as the season wears on. Even the schedule seems to work out better for the Buckeyes this fall; Notre Dame isn't exactly a fun way to begin the year, but Ohio State should be favored in every regular season game and have a chance to take advantage of both Michigan schools likely to take a step backwards. A decade between National Titles doesn't seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but here at Ohio State? It's felt like forever. That will change this season, with the Buckeyes ruling the college football world for the first time since third-string Cardale Jones led them all the way in 2014.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
It's been an impressive rise through the world of coaching for Ryan Day, who enters his fourth year as head coach at Ohio State. He had several pit stops in the college and NFL ranks before earning a spot as co-OC and QB coach with the Buckeyes in 2017. After serving as acting head coach during Urban's suspension in 2018, he was handed the keys to the program in 2019 and hasn't looked back, going 34-4 overall. Former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson is back to once again help run the offense, serving as offensive coordinator since 2017. While his dismissal at Indiana was an ugly divorce, there's no denying he's helped elevate Ohio State offensively, as they've averaged nearly 524 yards per game since he arrived. On defense, the Buckeyes are hopeful Jim Knowles can be the catalyst for a major turnaround. Knowles is a Cornell alum who coached at his alma mater for six seasons before joining Duke's staff. He left Duke for Oklahoma State in 2018 and after turning around the defense for Mike Gundy, takes over one of the most high-profile assistant jobs in the nation.

Recruiting Breakdown
Ohio State brought in the No. 4 group in the 247Sports Composite, coming in behind SEC big boys Texas A&M, Alabama, and Georgia. There's a bunch of defensive talent coming in that could contribute right from the get-go, including linebacker C.J. Hicks, safety Sonny Styles, and defensive end Kenyatta Jackson. Hicks is a Top 10 prospect nationally who the Buckeyes managed to keep in-state from the Dayton area. Considering how underwhelming OSU was at linebacker a season ago, his arrival comes at the perfect time. On offense, quarterback Devin Brown is the highest-ranked newcomer, but he's likely to be buried on the depth chart for at least a year or two. Brown, originally from the state of Utah, was a one-time USC commit who changed his pledge to Ohio State. He has incredibly polished mechanics for someone of his age and could step in right away if absolutely necessary. Receivers Kiyon Graves and Caleb Burton continue the rich tradition of elite wide outs the Buckeyes have bringing in for some time now. Both are likely to redshirt in 2022 considering they're a bit undersized at the moment, but they have the upside to be difference-makers down the line.

2022 X-Factor: J.T. Tuimoloau, DE
Ohio State would love if this is the year Zach Harrison finally puts it all together and becomes the disruptive force off the edge he was projected to be. Harrison hasn't been bad by any means, but projects more as an average starter than anything more at this point in this career. That leaves J.T. Tuimoloau as the best bet to evolve into an elite pass rusher on this roster (although Jack Sawyer isn't far behind). Tuimoloau was once the highest-rated player in the country but committed to Ohio State late in the process. He still managed to make two starts for the Buckeyes last year and impressed with his blend of size and power on the edge. The physical gifts are unquestioned, but is it too early to project big things for Tuimoloau? If he can emerge, this entire Ohio State defense, and team, becomes much, much scarier.

Five-Year Trend

2022 Projections
Projected Record: 13-0 (9-0 Big Ten, Win Big Ten Championship Game)
Offensive MVP: QB C.J. Stroud
Defensive MVP: S Ronnie Hickman
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
Impact Freshman: LB C..J. Hicks

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