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-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields gets coached up at the Spring Game. (Image Source: Joe Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)
We begin our Big Ten preview series with the defending champion Ohio State Buckeyes:
Origin of Optimism: It’s Ohio State. There’s always reasons to be optimistic. Namely, because top to bottom they have the most talent in the Big Ten. Ohio State’s last four recruiting classes ranked No. 4, 2, 2, and 14 nationally according 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, finishing atop the Big Ten in three of the four years. Including transfer quarterback Justin Fields, the Buckeyes have 13 five-star recruits on their roster. The rest of the B1G has 11 combined. While there are a lot of holes to fill in 2019, you can be sure the replacements are just as talented as the players they’re replacing. In some cases, more so. This program doesn’t rebuild, they reload.
Cause for Concern: We can point to the loss of three receivers and a running back to the NFL, four offensive linemen who must be replaced, or a linebacking corps that was mediocre for most of 2018, but none of those compare to the departures at the two most important spots: the head coach and the quarterback. In Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes had an elite tier-one coach in college football. His record at OSU was an amazing 83-9 and his Buckeyes never won fewer than 11 games (only once!) in each of his seven seasons in Columbus. It’s an impossible act to follow. No matter how good Ryan Day turns out, the odds are he won’t be as successful as Meyer. The same could be said for Justin Fields at quarterback replacing Dwayne Haskins. In his only season as a starter, Haskins had the greatest year ever by an OSU passer with 4,831 yards and 50 touchdowns. Heisman winner Troy Smith threw for 5,720 yards and 54 TDs…in his career. OSU will not be as good at the two most important spots. Also, beyond Fields, the depth at quarterback is shaky at best.
Breakout Player: One of those five-star recruits is junior cornerback Jeffrey Okudah, who has just one start in two seasons at OSU, but showed flashes of his potential last season when he saw a significant amount of playing time. The Texas native tied for the team lead in pass breakups with eight, including two in a stellar performance in the Rose Bowl, in which he also recorded five tackles. He’s an elite athlete with NFL size at 6’1” and 200 pounds. In his first year as a starter don’t be surprised if Okudah has a first-team All-Big Ten type season and starts garnering attention as a potential first-round pick.
X-Factor: Quarterback Justin Fields is an obvious choice but let’s go with the offensive line. The Buckeyes lost four starters from last season’s team, including first-team All-B1G tackle Isaiah Prince and second-team center Michael Jordan. Replacing 80 percent of the line is a challenge and the only returning starter, Thayer Munford, missed the spring with an injury. There’s reason to be worried. However, this unit—while still one of the best in the Big Ten—wasn’t as dominant as previous OSU O-lines. If grad transfer Jonah Jackson (left guard) learns the offense quickly and five-star talents Wyatt Davis (projected right guard), as well as Nicholas Petit-Frere (competing at right tackle) play to their ability it’s possible by season’s end the O-line could be improved from a year ago. How the offensive line goes, could decide if the Buckeyes repeat as B1G champs or take a step back in the East.
Schedule: Playing in the B1G East, it’s never easy, but OSU’s schedule is manageable, especially considering their toughest out of conference game is Cincinnati at home (not exactly Oklahoma). They host both PSU and MSU, but have to travel to Michigan, as well as Nebraska and Northwestern from the West. Throw in Wisconsin and the crossover games aren’t a cakewalk. There are two tough stretches. In a five-week stretch (Sept. 28 to Oct. 26), the Bucks play four straight against Nebraska, MSU, Northwestern, and Wisconsin (all preseason top 26 teams), before they end the year with Penn State and Michigan back-to-back. They project to be underdogs at Michigan, but could be double-digit favorites in every other game this season.
It’s a Disappointing Season If: They fail to beat Michigan and win the B1G. In that order. Sorry, Ryan Day. You’ve been handed over the keys to a Ferrari so there will be no grading on a curve.
It’s a Successful Season If: They make the College Football Playoffs. I mean, it’s been two years now without a playoff appearance! Let’s go!
Over/Under – 10.5 Wins (-220): At 10.5, I have to lean under. Would I be surprised if OSU gets to 11 wins? Of course not, but I don’t see them losing Urban Meyer and replacing Dwyane Haskins in the same season without missing a beat. This will be the year, the Bucks finally lose to Michigan and they will drop one more, likely against either PSU, MSU, or Nebraska. Penn State has played them tough three straight (an OSU loss, followed by two one-point wins), Sparty has won two of the past three in Columbus, while an average B1G West foe has shell shocked OSU on the road in each of the past two seasons (Iowa & Purdue).
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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