As the calendar turns to 2018, the upcoming year promises to be an interesting one for the Ohio State football program.
While the Buckeyes don’t play their next football game for another eight months, there are plenty of questions that will surround the team – and that the Buckeyes will try to position themselves to answer as effectively as possible – throughout the winter, spring and summer leading into the fall.
Ohio State’s 2017 season just came to an end, and there’s still plenty of time to reflect on that, the following five questions are among those that the Buckeyes and their fans will be talking about regularly over the next 12 months.
Who will be the starting quarterback?
Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow or Tate Martell? That’s the question that will likely be the biggest question surrounding Ohio State football for at least the next eight months.
Now that J.T. Barrett’s lengthy run as Ohio State’s quarterback has come to an end, the Buckeyes are set to have an open quarterback competition throughout the spring and summer, with three players all appearing to have a legitimate shot at winning the job.
Haskins, who appeared in eight games for the Buckeyes this season and led the Buckeyes to a comeback victory over Michigan, will enter the spring as the leader in the clubhouse. A promising passing prospect with a big arm, Haskins has the physical potential to be a star and appears to have positioned himself well to take over the starting job.
Burrow and Martell, however, shouldn’t be counted out.
Burrow, who will enter 2018 as the veteran of Ohio State’s quarterback roster as a redshirt junior, was neck-and-neck with Haskins in the competition to be the Buckeyes’ backup quarterback this season before breaking a bone in his throwing hand in August. While he could be a candidate to transfer if he doesn’t win the job this spring, he remains highly regarded by Ohio State’s coaches and should get a serious shot to compete with Haskins.
Martell, meanwhile, was the 2016 Gatorade high school player of the year and offers dynamic playmaking ability as a runner. After redshirting as a freshman in 2017, Martell is the wild card in the quarterback competition in 2018, as he will have to overcome a lack of experience yet could still emerge as a serious contender for the job because of his athleticism and potential to run an offense that has been heavily predicated on the quarterback run game.
Will the new starting quarterback make Ohio State’s offense better?
Even though Barrett is the winningest quarterback in Ohio State history, there are plenty of Buckeyes fans who are happy to see him go because they believe Barrett held the offense back and that next year’s offense will be better without him.
Barrett’s career at Ohio State certainly had its ups and downs, and it’s certainly possible that a new quarterback could add a new dimension to the Buckeyes offense that makes it better.
Every quarterback on the Buckeyes’ roster, however, is unproven, making it far from a sure thing that any of them will be an upgrade and a very real possibility that any of them could be a downgrade.
Haskins, Burrow and Martell each have the potential to possibly be better than Barrett, but there’s a big difference between potential and actually making it happen in games that count over the course of an entire season. Additionally, each of them offer somewhat different skill sets from that which Barrett possessed, which means Ohio State’s coaches will need to adjust their offense in order to best fit the new starting quarterback’s skill set.
Cardale Jones’ magical three-game run to win a national championship at the end of the 2014 season is evidence that the Buckeyes can adjust to Barrett’s departure and potentially have a better offense as a result, but what Jones accomplished was a spectacular feat that will be difficult to duplicate. Installing an adjusted offense with a new starting quarterback isn’t as difficult with eight months to prepare for the next game, but only time will tell whether the Buckeyes will be better with a new quarterback or leave fans wishing that they appreciated Barrett more.
Who will be the breakout stars of the 2018 season?
While all eyes will be on the new quarterback in 2018 – and finding a strong successor to Barrett at that position is absolutely crucial to the Buckeyes’ championship chances in 2018 – Ohio State will also need new players to step up at a myriad of other positions in order to compete for a national title.
As the Buckeyes await NFL draft decisions over the next two weeks, they know they will have at least two established stars returning to the fold among non-draft eligible players in J.K. Dobbins, who will enter 2018 as one of college football’s best running backs, and Nick Bosa, an All-American this season who could be college football’s best defensive end next season.
Left guard Michael Jordan, safety Jordan Fuller and middle linebacker Tuf Borland are among the Buckeyes’ other key players who are not draft-eligible and should play key roles in 2018. The Buckeyes’ chances of being an elite team, however, rely on other young players breaking out and emerging as stars in 2018.
Defensive end Chase Young, linebacker Baron Browning and cornerback Jeffrey Okudah – all five-star recruits in the class of 2017 – stand out among the many candidates to become stars for the Buckeyes in 2018. On the offensive side of the ball, redshirt sophomore Demario McCall and incoming freshmen Jeremy Ruckert and Jaelen Gill are among the players who have the potential to give the Buckeyes more playmaking ability. Yet it could also be players like Borland, a less heralded recruit, who end up taking advantage of opportunities and playing key roles for the Buckeyes.
Either way, how many young players can step up as breakout players and how much impact they can make will be crucial for Ohio State to be a championship contender once again.
How will Ohio State change its defensive coaching structure, and will that lead to improvement?
The first part of that question should be answered in the near future, as the new rule allowing Football Bowl Subdivision teams to hire a 10th full-time assistant coach goes into place on Jan. 9. All signs appear to be pointing toward Washington State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch being that hire for the Buckeyes, though Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said no hire had been finalized prior to the Cotton Bowl.
Whether Grinch is the hire or not, Ohio State will almost certainly use the 10th assistant coaching spot to add a defensive coach, given that the Buckeyes currently have five offensive assistants and an offensive-minded head coach, but only four defensive assistant coaches.
That means it likely that some of the Buckeyes’ current defensive assistant coaches will have their roles adjust as a result.
Considering that Grinch is currently the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Wazzu, it’s presumable that he could join Ohio State’s staff as a co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach, with Kerry Coombs continuing to coach cornerbacks. While defensive coordinator Greg Schiano is currently the safeties coach, it’s possible he could end up spending more time with linebackers or defensive linemen or in more of an overall oversight role next year if Grinch joins the staff.
Larry Johnson’s role coaching the entire defensive line presumably won’t change, considering how much success he has had in that role for the Buckeyes, but a change to the linebacker coaching structure could make sense after a rocky first season for Ohio State at that position under Bill Davis.
Regardless of how the Buckeyes make all of that work, it’s certainly not a bad thing to add another smart defensive mind to the staff after an up-and-down year for the Buckeyes’ defense, specifically its passing defense. The question is whether adding another coach will actually lead to improvement on the field, but how the Buckeyes will look to use a coaching addition to their advantage should come into focus in the coming months.
Can Ohio State return to the top of the college football pyramid?
As Ohio State has now gone three years without playing for a national championship, this is the question that will ultimately pervade over the 2018 Buckeyes once the season begins.
While Ohio State hasn’t fallen far from the top of the pyramid, winning more games than all but two teams in the last three seasons (though Oklahoma still has a chance to surpass Ohio State in this year’s College Football Playoff), it is reality that those two teams – Clemson and Alabama, which will face in a playoff game for the third year in a row on Monday – have been ahead of the Buckeyes on the totem pole for each of the past three seasons.
Regardless of how Monday’s game plays out or whether Alabama should have even made the playoff over Ohio State, both of those teams have accomplished more than the Buckeyes have over the past three seasons, putting Ohio State no higher than third – potentially fourth behind Oklahoma or Georgia depending on how the playoff plays out – in the national college football pecking order.
That’s not a bad place to be, but there’s still an expectation that the Buckeyes should be No. 1, and they haven’t been there since winning the national championship in 2014. The fact that Ohio State could realistically get back to No. 1 in 2018 means the Buckeyes are still in a great place, but it also means that the question of whether the Buckeyes can live up to those sky-high expectations will once again loom over their 2018 team.