After Ohio State beat Wisconsin to capture the Big Ten title nearly four weeks ago, it looked like the Buckeyes might have a shot at a College Football Playoff berth on the strength of wins over the Badgers, Penn State and Michigan State but it was not to be as one-loss Alabama claimed the fourth and final spot.
Forced to digest the reality a 31-point loss to Iowa was the fatal blow, Urban Meyer's outfit has said all the right things leading up to tonight's date with USC in the Cotton Bowl.
Of course, the Buckeyes said all the right things leading up to their trip to Iowa City so we'll have to take that with a grain of salt.
Should both teams have their hearts in it, this could evolve into a pretty fun game to watch as the Buckeye defense matches up against USC quarterback Sam Darnold while the Trojan rush defense looks to see if it can stand up to the Buckeye ground attack.
The most decorated but maybe most polarizing quarterback in Ohio State history (from on-field perspective) plays his last game as a Buckeye tonight. Give us a one-sentence commemoration of J.T. Barrett’s career.
Dan: Although some Ohio State fans scoff at the idea of J.T. Barrett being among the Buckeyes' all-time great, his places atop the school record books are likely to stand for many years to come.
Kevin: J.T. Barrett is the best Buckeye quarterback of all time, but still never quite seemed to be good enough.
DJ: Nothing but respect for the man that toppled Art Schlichter from the record books.
Of the seniors suiting up one last time, which will you personally miss the most and why? Which senior will be the most difficult to replace in 2018?
DJ: Billy Price, because he weathered the ultimate mental test by following me on Twitter. Ohio State will be fine with Brady Taylor at center next year, but it will be impossible to replace the things Price brought off the field. He was a 10th assistant on the field, brought it every day in the locker room (or so I've gleaned), and he's a guy that makes you wish you had a business that could offer him more money than he'll make on his next NFL contract. Like Pat Elflein before him, he will be a pillar of the team smart enough to draft him. Ohio State was lucky to have him in 2017.
Kevin: I'm going to go with Billy Price. He's been as good and consistent a player you could ask for as long as you could ask. There aren't many four-year starters at a school like Ohio State, but Price did that and became the program's leader in consecutive starts in the process.
Though most of all, I respect the hell out of him as a leader. You can just tell the impact he has on the locker room based on how other players talk about him. Jamarco Jones once told a story about his first practice, he was so tired he couldn't even do push-ups anymore. He said Billy literally crawled under him, and did push-ups with him on his back. And after a loss, when nobody wants to speak to the media, he's always the first out there and will answer questions until he's blue in the face. He's just got a rare, rare leadership quality that I haven't seen in anybody and is such a genuinely good and kind person.
As far as the most difficult to replace, I'm actually going to say Marcus Baugh. Ohio State is extremely thin on tight ends after Baugh with A.J. Alexander's career-ending injury and Kierre Hawkins transfer. The best options behind him will likely be a player who was a defensive end at this point last year and a true freshman. That's not a situation you necessarily want.
Dan: My connections with these seniors have been largely formed through interviews over the past five months, so I would say the one I will miss most is Jalyn Holmes, who I've always found to be a personable and quotable person who provides an honest and unique perspective. Honorable mention goes to Billy Price, who is as engaging with the media as any player on the team.
The senior who will be most difficult to replace, though some Ohio State fans won't want to hear it, is J.T. Barrett. Having had Barrett as a quarterback and leader for the past four years, there's going to be an adjustment period without him; that's not to say that Dwayne Haskins isn't capable, because he has the potential to be better than Barrett, but taking over as the starting quarterback of a team is still the most challenging task in sports. An honorable mention for this category, though, is Jamarco Jones, because he always plays one of the most challenging positions in football and because of the Buckeyes' lack of proven depth at offensive tackle.
Behind quarterback Sam Darnold and receiver Deontay Burnett, USC’s passing attack sits 18th nationally with almost 295 yards per game. Will the Buckeye defense keep the Trojans aerial attack in check? Why or why not?
Dan: Ohio State's passing defense has had its issues this season, and Sam Darnold is one of the two best quarterbacks the Buckeyes will play this year (along with Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield), so that's certainly a concerning combination. The good news for the Buckeyes, though, is that the Trojans throw mostly to their wide receivers, and while Ohio State has had major issues covering tight ends and receivers out of the backfield this year, they've mostly held opposing wide receivers in check since their first couple games of the season. At the same time, I'd expect USC to make adjustments to try to exploit the Buckeyes' weaknesses, so Ohio State will have problems if its linebackers and safeties haven't improved in coverage over the past few weeks. Ultimately, I don't expect Darnold to throw for 400 yards on the Buckeyes, but I do think the Buckeyes will give up some big plays.
DJ: Yes. The defensive line gives Ohio State a chance to shut down the passing game of any opponent in the country.
Kevin: Honestly, I think Ohio State's going to be fine in the secondary, but what do I know? I also thought it would be fine against Indiana and Oklahoma. I just think Damon Arnette has been playing really well to close the season, Jordan Fuller has been playing lights out all season, and everything we've heard about Jeffrey Okudah is that he's made great strides during bowl practices and will likely see the field a lot on Friday night. That's not to say Sam Darnold throws for under 150 yards and has three interceptions, I just don't think he's going to carve up the Buckeye secondary like Baker Mayfield did.
USC’s rush defense can be had as evidenced by the 158 yards per game surrendered (56th nationally) on a healthy 4.36 yards per carry (67th). Will Ohio State punish the Trojans on the ground? Or might USC effectively sell out to stop the run, forcing the Buckeyes to try and win this one through the air?
Kevin: I'm sure they'll try to sell out to stop the run, following a blue print of Iowa, Michigan State and Michigan, but ultimately I think there are just too many ways Ohio State can attack USC on the ground for the Trojans to completely stop that aspect of the Buckeye offense. Between J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, Ohio State is going to be able to find success. And in 2017, it's not like the only running play is handing the ball off to a running back inside the tackles.
But even if USC does shut down Ohio State's rushing attack, the cool thing about football is it's a game of countering what you're opponent is doing. If stops the run, the horizontal and vertical passing game will open up.
Dan: I expect Ohio State's offensive line to win the battle against USC's defensive line and open the way for J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber to make some big plays, but the question – as it has been all year – will be whether the Buckeyes are willing to commit to their running backs. Knowing that the Buckeyes usually try to take what the defense gives them, I'd expect USC to try to take away the running back and keep the ball in J.T. Barrett's hands, whether that be running the zone read or throwing the ball out of run-pass options. If Ohio State decides to pound the ball with Dobbins and Weber, I think the Buckeyes will eventually wear out the Trojans and run for big yardage. But considering that it's the last game of his Ohio State career, it's probably safe to expect a heavy dose of Barrett both throwing and running the ball.
DJ: I'm hoping so. Yet this is (mostly) the same staff that game-planned for a month last year and came out throwing against Clemson. If Ohio State pushes tempo and runs the ball, it will win. It's as simple as that.
Oftentimes player development gets hyped up during bowl practice but is there any particular guy you think could use this game as a spring board into next season? Who and why?
DJ: Baron Browning. He showed flashes during a season of inconsistency and will only get better going forward. I expect him and Tuf Borland to make each other better in the spring and fall.
Dan: Kendall Sheffield has had an up-and-down first season as a Buckeye, but with Denzel Ward almost certainly headed to the NFL after this game, Sheffield is in line for an even bigger role at cornerback next season, assuming he remains in Columbus. While he's had some growing pains in his first year of FBS football, Sheffield has tremendous physical ability, which should mean development with the opportunity to spend some time working on fundamentals over the past few weeks. And the opportunity to go up against Sam Darnold, a talented crop of receivers and a dynamic passing offense means the opportunity to demonstrate any improvement he has made in game action and build confidence toward potentially emerging as a star of the Buckeyes' secondary in 2018.
Kevin: Well it's hyped up for a reason. There's virtually no player development during the season, because every practice is about preparing for your upcoming opponent. But during bowl season, you have more time than you actually need to prepare for your upcoming opponent, meaning you can actually afford to give reps to younger players, developing them for future seasons. Bowl practices are what Binjimen Victor attributes to his emergence.
That said, I think the players in the most need of those extra practice reps are the young cornerbacks, namely Jeffrey Okudah. With Denzel Ward almost surely declaring for the draft, the Buckeyes will need other players to step up. Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield were the next two cornerbacks on the depth chart all season, but Okudah was No. 4, and might have the highest ceiling of the group. With good bowl practices and a solid spring, he could be starting next season.
Ohio State enters the Cotton Bowl with an 11-2 mark featuring wins over Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin but with decisive losses against Oklahoma and Iowa. At times, the Buckeyes have looked dominant. At other times, things like the passing game and linebackers have looked very pedestrian. As a result, what collective grade (A-F) would you give the coaching staff and why?
Kevin: This is a pretty hilarious question because in large part, I'd say the coaching staff has done a good job, but the few failures have been absolutely catastrophic. You don't win what I believe to be the most talented conference in the country, beat three top-15 teams and be a fringe playoff team without a great coaching staff. But on the flips side, a great coaching staff doesn't lose by 31 points to Iowa and give up 55 points to a mediocre-at-best offense.
So uh, B-, I guess?
DJ: B-. I could sell recruits on the Ohio State–Urban Meyer brand. Where they lacked this year was game-planning. Too many times the Buckeyes looked like they were staggering off a party bus at 6:30 a.m. in a foreign country. In Iowa, they didn't even get off the bus.
And now that I'm thinking about that Iowa loss, I almost want to lower the grade to a D+. That's totally unfair, but it's been almost two months and I still have no idea how I'll explain to my children what happened in Iowa City.
Dan: I'd give the coaching staff a B-minus. The offensive coaching improved this season from last season, but there were clearly growing pains, as the Buckeyes' new offensive coordinators implemented more creative play calling but still left Ohio State fans longing for the days of Tom Herman. The defense's inability to cover tight ends and fullbacks in the passing game certainly can be pinned at least in part on the coaching staff, so the grades for Greg Schiano and Bill Davis wouldn't be great. All of that said, Ohio State still won a Big Ten championship, so a B-minus might be too harsh. I think the coaches would collectively agree that they could have done better this year, but that grade can certainly go up if the coaches show they have used the past few weeks to their advantage – though that's easier said than done, considering how much of that time they spent recruiting – in both player development and improved game planning.
The Buckeyes recently moved to a 7.5-point favorite after opening as a 6-point favorite. Do they cover? Give us your final score and player to watch.
Dan: If the Buckeyes are as motivated as they say they are to win this game and play up to their ability, I think they will cover. The Buckeyes should have an advantage on both sides of the line of scrimmage, which is usually where a big game is won, and I think J.T. Barrett will have saved one of his best games for last. At the same time, I think USC's offense to make its share of plays against Ohio State's defense, especially in the passing game, and if the Buckeyes show up with anything less than their A game, they certainly could be beat. All things considered, my prediction is that Ohio State will win this game 41-31. A player to watch: Jerome Baker, who I think would like to leave for the NFL draft after this game, but who I think also realizes he needs to improve and needs to perform well in the Cotton Bowl to improve his draft stock.
Kevin: Yeah I think they cover pretty easily. I got 35-21, Buckeyes. My pick for the game MVP is J.T. Barrett in his last game as a Buckeye, because why not?
DJ: Yes. The Buckeyes will wear USC down and force Darnold into bad decisions late in the game to seal the victory. 35-22. Keep an eye on Jeffrey Okudah. I tab him to be the one that seals it.