What could have been?
That’s the question Ohio State football players, coaches and fans will be asking themselves for weeks, months and probably years to come after the Buckeyes lost the opportunity to play this fall.
On paper, Ohio State appeared to clearly have one of the three best teams in college football going into the 2020 season, along with Alabama and Clemson. Before the Big Ten canceled its fall sports and sportsbooks took college football odds off the board altogether, most oddsmakers gave Ohio State the second-best odds behind Clemson to win the national championship.
The Buckeyes’ offense had the potential to be the best in the country, led by Heisman Trophy frontrunner Justin Fields, a star-studded offensive line, two excellent receivers in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson and an intriguing graduate transfer running back in Trey Sermon. Ohio State’s defense was less of a sure thing, but the Buckeyes still had no shortage of talent on that side of the ball, including one of the nation’s best defensive backs in Shaun Wade, seven upperclassman linebackers and plenty of potential breakout stars like Zach Harrison, Tommy Togiai, Josh Proctor and Sevyn Banks.
Ohio State wasn’t only loaded with potential star players, it was also loaded with great leadership – Ryan Day said the Buckeyes “probably could have had 11 or 12 captains” – and was as motivated as ever to chase a title after its heartbreaking College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson last year.
Even after winning 13 games in his first year as a head coach, Day thought this year’s Ohio State team had a chance to be even better, which makes the heartbreak of being unable to play this fall that much more profound.
“I’ll get emotional if I start thinking about it,” Day said Wednesday. “What I said to the team the other day is the truth: As a player, you work your whole life and as a coach, you work your whole life for an opportunity to coach a team like this. This team is special. It’s special because it’s talented. It’s special because it has leadership. It’s special because of the character. It could have been in a once-in-a-lifetime team.
“Certainly the team last year I’ll never forget. It was the first time as a head coach, and what they did was awesome, but there was just something about this team that had it. It had it. They came back hungry after their last game on the field. They were determined. And this quarantine, this virus was not going to get in their way.”
Fields had a similar feeling about this year’s team.
“Of course, team-wise, we want to first start off with beating the team up north and winning a Big Ten championship, then we want to go on to win the first playoff game and win the national championship. So I think those are what the team’s focused on most right now, and really, we’re just getting better each and every day,” Fields said last week before the season was postponed. “I think we all see the opportunity we have on the table in terms of coming back and being able to play and compete for a national championship.”
“This team is special. It’s special because it’s talented. It’s special because it has leadership. It’s special because of the character. It could have been in a once-in-a-lifetime team.”– Ryan Day on the 2020 Ohio State football team
Now, though, that opportunity has been taken off the table for this year’s Ohio State team – at least for the fall, and quite possibly for good.
While the Big Ten is putting together a plan to hopefully play in the winter or spring, that’s far from guaranteed. Even if the Big Ten is able to play football during the spring semester, that might not come with an opportunity to compete for a national championship; that will depend, in part, on whether the ACC, Big 12 and SEC are able to follow through on their current plans to play in the fall or if they also end up punting to 2021.
And even if every conference ends up playing in the winter to early spring and the College Football Playoff is moved accordingly – now the best-case scenario for Ohio State if it’s to play any football in the next 12 months – it’s still unlikely we’ll ever get to see the full 2020 Ohio State roster take the field for a game.
While no Ohio State players have publicly opted out of a potential spring season yet, it would come as a surprise to most if Fields plays, given that he’s already established as a top prospect for the 2021 NFL draft. If Fields makes what many would consider to be a smart business decision by skipping the spring and shifting his full focus to preparing for the NFL, Ohio State’s next season will be played with an unproven quarterback who’s never started a game before.
Wade’s father, Randy, told ESPN’s Marty Smith on Thursday that his son is “not playing in the spring,” likely leaving the Buckeyes without their biggest star on defense, too. Many of the Buckeyes’ other upperclassmen who also have a chance to be 2021 NFL draft picks, like Olave and right guard Wyatt Davis among others, will need to weigh their options, as well.
As talented as Ohio State is, the Buckeyes will be a contender for whatever they’re able to compete for whenever they’re able to play games next. Even if they lose significant players, they’ll still have plenty of four- and five-star recruits – possibly including early enrollees from the recruiting class of 2021 even if they play in the spring – who are eager to be the next man up.
But even under the best of circumstances, a shortened season played in the second half of the academic year isn’t going to be the same as a full season with a full roster played in the fall. And knowing what that season might have become makes it that much more painful for everyone in the Ohio State football program and its fans to have that season snatched away.
“Once-in-a-lifetime” might be hyperbole, and it’s easier to say a team could have won the national championship when you’ll never be proven wrong. But even the highest of expectations seemed to be within this Ohio State team’s realistic reach, and that’s what makes the Big Ten’s decision to shut things down so hard to accept, even though Day is going to try to keep his players looking toward the future rather than dwelling on what they’ve lost.
“It’s going to be difficult for a lot of people, there’s no question. It hurts,” Day said. “They feel like they’ve had something taken away from them. But at the same time, we’re really getting this thing focused on what’s next.”