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College Football Preview 2023: 5. Ohio State Buckeyes

TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State

5. Ohio State Buckeyes

It's only a matter of time before Ryan Day wins a National Title, but as the Buckeyes break in a new quarterback this fall, 2024 should be the goal

2022 Review
For the sixth straight year, Ohio State entered 2022 as a preseason Top 5 team and got an opportunity to bolster their CFB Playoff resume quickly, welcoming Notre Dame to Columbus in the opener. Although the Buckeyes didn't blow out the Irish, they still left with a 21-10 victory that seemed to set the stage for a successful campaign. Over the next month-and-half, Ohio State breezed through a weak remainder of their non-conference and early Big Ten slate. In fact, it wasn't until they traveled to Happy Valley to face off with Penn State that they faced another ranked foe. The Nittany Lions did give them some difficulties but Ohio State found a way to outlast their East rival, and then proceeded to pound Northwestern, Indiana, and Maryland in succession. The Buckeyes entered the final week of the regular locked in at No. 2 in the nation, with a chance to avenge their loss to arch-rival Michigan from 2021. Instead, they didn't seem ready to handle the physical nature of the Wolverines and a pair of long runs from Michigan sealed their second consecutive win in the series. Fortunately, Ohio State watched USC come up short in the Pac-12 Championship Game, allowing them to back into their third Playoff in four years. To Ohio State's credit, they proved they belonged, jumping out to a lead against Georgia and outplaying the eventual National Champion nearly the whole game. With the game on the line, kicker Noah Ruggles went wide left with just seconds left on the clock, a deflating loss just after midnight on New Year's. Although the season ultimately ended in disappointment, Ohio State should feel good about what they accomplished in 2022 and the fact that they gave Georgia such a scare. As Ryan Day prepares for his sixth season, the goal remains the same, a National Title, but feels as close as ever before.

2023 Outlook
Offense: There are some notable offensive changes for Ohio State heading into 2023, but there's little doubt this group will remain a potent one. First off, Kevin Wilson's departure to take the Tulsa head coaching job means that Brian Hartline will take over as offensive coordinator. Hartline, a Buckeye alum who has been on staff since 2017, has proven himself as an elite recruiter and should be ready to handle a larger role. It helps that this offense is blessed with a staggering amount of skill position talent, including arguably the nation's best receiver corps.

That receiver corps is led by Marvin Harrison Jr., the top wide receiver in college football and a likely Top 5 selection in the 2024 NFL Draft. The son of an NFL great, Harrison Jr. has been as good as advertised after coming to Ohio State, including a 2023 in which he went for 77 receptions, 1,263 yards, and 14 touchdowns. It's rare to see a player with his skill set at this age; from route running, to footwork, to his vertical speed, he is the total package. Yet, he shouldn't completely overshadow all the other talent back in the receiver room, including slot receiver Emeka Egbuka, junior Julian Fleming, and a pair of highly touted newcomers, Carnell Tate and Brandon Inniss. This pass-catchers group even boasts a John Mackey Award candidate at tight end, as Cade Stover is back after earning All-Big Ten recognition a season ago.

Yet, that receiver corps will have to make do with a new quarterback getting them the ball, as the other significant change to this offense over the offseason was the departure of C.J. Stroud. There's no sugarcoating it, he is a major loss, finishing his Ohio State career as the program's No. 2 all-time passer. That's particularly impressive when you consider that he was really only starter for two seasons, and yet still rewrote record books.

With Stroud gone, Ryan Day and Hartline will oversee a two-man quarterback competition between sophomore Kyle McCord and redshirt frosh Devin Brown. McCord seems to be on the inside track, as he's been in the program for multiple years now and was even considered a potential starting candidate before Stroud took the job prior to 2021. With that being said, Brown is an interesting piece, a dual-threat who seems to have a bright future ahead of him in Columbus. It wouldn't be a shock if see some playing time for him in unique packages. 

Although the quarterback position is still up in the air as we stand today, the backfield is bolstered by a dominant 1-2 punch in TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams. I'm picking Henderson to have a huge bounce-back year and see him winning the Doak Walker; he just wasn't 100 percent throughout 2022 but is much better than what we saw. Williams could start on about 100 different FBS programs nationally and should play a large role and even the depth behind the pair is impressive. Third-stringer Dallan Hayden made the most of his opportunities a year ago and has the chance to continue progressing.

Losing three starters to the NFL along the offensive line is a concern, although this is a program that reloads rather than rebuilds up front. Veterans Matthew Jones and Donovan Jackson should keep the run game chugging along on the interior, and there's potential at tackle. San Diego State transfer Josh Simmons should start right away, while junior Josh Fryer looks to be the leader at one of the starting spots.

Even with several major changes, it's hard to imagine this offense not remaining one of the best anywhere in the country. McCord is supremely talented and has loads to work with, and I think this ground game should rebound after a down 2022. Match last year's 44.2 points per game is a tall order, but completely within the realm of possibility.

Defense: Veteran defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was brought on prior to turn around a group that struggled in 2021, and he did just that. The Buckeyes' numbers improved across the board and beyond that, they just looked more prepared and competent. Now that he's had another full offseason in charge, I suspect there will be continued improvement.

The biggest change we saw last season from Ohio State was an improved pass rush, after a couple of down years. As we prepare for 2023, this has a chance to be a truly special unit, as defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer could be the nation's top combo. Tuimoloau in particular is a superstar; he earned All-Big Ten honors in 2022 and was the best player on the field in the Penn State win. He should have another big season before becoming a first-rounder in the NFL Draft next spring.

The interior D-Line doesn't have the star-power of the outside, but Michael Hall was impressive as a freshman last season and should be even better, while Ty Hamilton has seen a healthy amount of action over his first two seasons on campus. There's also Ole Miss transfer Tywone Malone, who wasn't able to quite break through in Oxford, but brings plenty of upside.

Just as important as the improved pass rush was a linebacker corps that improved by leaps and bounds from 2021 to 2022. Central to their success was Tommy Eichenberg, the latest in a long line of elite Buckeye inside linebackers. Eichenberg notched 120 tackles last fall and should be all over the field once again. He looks to be a frontrunner for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.

Converted running back Steele Chambers will reprise his role alongside Eichenberg after making a major leap last year, and the depth behind those two is impressive. C.J. Hicks and Cody Simon may still be rotational pieces in 2023, but are two proven commodities who should keep this position group fresh deep into the fall.

Rounding out the defense will be a secondary that returns nearly all its big names, with the notable exception being safety Ronnie Hickman. Although, the safety spots should remain a strength, as Lathan Ransom, Josh Proctor, and rising sophomore Sonny Styles are back. Styles is a player I'm watching with a very close eye; he's going to make plays all over the field and the 6'4", 215-pounder has the build to impact the game in a variety of ways.

At cornerback, look for Denzel Burke to be the top player at the position after making 24 starts in the last two years. He's not known for his playmaking ability, but the veteran is the type of sturdy defender that every secondary needs. Alongside him, Ole Miss transfer Davison Igbinosun could come in and start right away after an impressive true freshman campaign, although junior Jordan Hancock will also vie for a starting job.

Ohio State's defense is never short on talent, but Knowles did a superb job getting this unit to play to its potential in 2022. Now the Buckeyes return every major piece, including several players who could be in the mix for national awards and All-American honors. This is going to be a Top 10 unit nationally and the depth throughout it will be huge in keeping Ohio State in the Playoff mix throughout the entire fall.

Special Teams: Although the lasting memory of Noah Ruggles will unfortunately be a negative one for his missed field goal in the Playoff semifinal, the reality is that he was a highly productive kicker for years. Luckily, Ohio State appears to have identified his replacement in USC transfer Parker Lewis, who hit 26 of 35 during his two seasons in Southern Cal. Punter also is in good hands, as Jesse Mirco is back after a solid campaign, while the return game will once more feature Emeka Egbuka and Xavier Johnson.

Bottom Line
Lofty expectations are nothing new in Columbus, but there seems to be an extra sense of pressure as the Buckeyes gear up for 2023. Losing two in a row to Michigan will do that, and despite all of Ohio State's success, a decade gap for a National Title is adding a feeling of urgency. It seems like only a matter of time before Ryan Day gets one, and there's no question this team has the talent. The offense has its usual collection of studs, but the improvement on defense is what makes the Buckeyes particularly interesting this fall. I truly believe they are 1A and 1B with Michigan in the Big Ten and both will be in the thick of the National Title hunt all season long, but the deciding factor? The Buckeyes have to travel to The Big House on the final day of the regular season, enough for me to count on the Wolverines to repeat as the league champions. Ohio State could still sneak in the CFB Playoff if things go right, much like 2022, but the margin for error feels particularly small this year. They may have to settle for a New Year's Six Bowl this year and turn to 2024 as the year for their National Title run, with the hopes some of their draft eligible pieces return for one more season.

Program Profile
Coaching Staff
Ryan Day had never been a head coach at any level of football prior to taking over for Urban Meyer, but has proceeded to go an astounding 45-6 as the man in charge at Ohio State. He's gone to the College Football Playoff three times in four seasons, but does enter 2023 under a bit of pressure after consecutive losses to Michigan. His new offensive coordinator will be Brian Hartline, who has promoted from WR coach over the offseason after Kevin Wilson took the Tulsa head coaching job. Hartline has already asserted himself as one of the most dominant recruiters in the game and could have a future as a head coach if he wants it, but the Buckeye alum seems pretty content in Columbus for now. Defensively, Jim Knowles did an excellent job rebuilding the Ohio State defense in 2022 and returns for Year Two. He's been around the college football scene since the 1980's and served as head coach of Cornell from 2004-2009, although his specialty remains DC. Prior to Ohio State, he held the same role under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State and spent the better part of the 2010s on staff at Duke under David Cutcliffe.

Recruiting Breakdown
Ryan Day and staff brought in the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class, led by one of the most impressive receiver hauls in recent college football history. The trio of Brandon Inniss, Carnell Tate, and Noah Rogers should ensure there's no long-term step-back out wide, even with Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming all likely off to the NFL next spring. Tate is the headliner, a five-star prospect from IMG Academy who has the build to be an instant-impact piece on the perimeter. In addition, the Buckeyes did a great job continuing to load up along both lines of scrimmage, with defenders Jason Moore and Kayden McDonald, along with interior offensive linemen Luke Montgomery. Montgomery isn't your typical guard at the collegiate level; he started his high school football career at tight end and also played basketball. He's going to bring immediate athleticism to the position, but may be heading towards a redshirt year in 2023 due to the depth in front of him.

2023 Schedule Analysis
Ohio State will once again begin their season with a foe from the state of Indiana, although it will be a Big Ten East opponent on the road in the Indiana Hoosiers. Bloomington should be rocking, but the Buckeyes will be heavy favorites, and follow up that game with a pair of breezy non-conference matchups (Youngstown State and Western Kentucky). Then, it's back on the road with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a team who they beat in 2022 but still gave their offense some fits. There's then a bye before the bulk of their Big Ten slate, which begins with Maryland in early October. In fact, the month of October isn't an easy one; the Terrapins, road against Purdue, then Penn State and Wisconsin to round things out. Purdue has been a thorn in the side of Ohio State the last few years and could be an upset opportunity, and despite OSU's long-running win steaks over Penn State and Wisconsin, they are always a challenge. November is quite a bit easier, with three games where the Buckeyes will be comfortable favorites before what is arguably the most important game in college football this fall: Ohio State at Michigan. The Wolverines have flipped the script by winning the last two, the first time they've gone back-to-back since 1999-2000, but the Buckeyes will be back and ready for vengeance in the regular season finale.

2023 X-Factor: TreVeyon Henderson, RB
One would assume that the biggest X-factor in Ohio State's backfield this fall is the ongoing quarterback competition. But, I have little doubt that, whether it's Kyle McCord or Devin Brown, they're going to have a huge year throwing to this loaded receivers corps. No, the player in the backfield I'm watching with a particularly close eye in 2023 is tailback TreVeyon Henderson. Henderson came in during 2021 and quickly proved that he was well worth the hype coming out of high school, with 1,248 rushing yards. It felt like he was poised for a huge encore in 2022, but never quite got rolling. Henderson tweaked his ankle in the win over Toledo and wasn't 100 percent at any point last fall, limiting him to just eight appearances. Needless to say, his numbers took a plunge and the Buckeye ground game felt a bit flat, even with three different players crossing the 500-yard threshold. Rumor has it that Henderson is back and ready to go for 2023, and I truly believe this guy is the nation's best running back when healthy. If he can regain his 201 form, this offense is absolutely terrifying and I'm not sure there is an offense in the nation that can contain it. If it's another injury-plagued fall, Ohio State will still be scary on offense, but it feels like their ceiling as a team takes a significant dip. His health should be one of the most important storylines to watch this fall not only for Ohio State, but for the Big Ten as a whole.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 11-1 (8-1 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: WR Marvin Harrison Jr.
Defensive MVP: LB Tommy Eichenberg
Impact Freshman: WR Carnell Tate
Impact Transfer: OL Josh Simmons
Breakout Player of the Year: S Sonny Styles

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