Ohio State football is officially back and with that relief comes the reality that while most fans have already labeled this season (like most others, tbf) a national title or bust situation, Ryan Day must replace well over a dozen major contributors from last season's 13-1 squad.
No. 1 cornerback Shaun Wade opted out of this season earlier in the week, having grown tired of the Big Ten's embarrassing communication efforts amid navigation of the particulars necessary for a successful re-vote among conference presidents and chancellors. It remains to be seen if he'll reconsider now that league leadership has given the green light on a nine-game season.
That said, Gene Smith and Day received huge news yesterday as All-American right guard Wyatt Davis stated he intends to return, after previously opting out, provided he can clear whatever hurdles exist to do so.
If Wade holds firm and Davis does return, the reality is Ohio State was already facing a tough challenge in having to replace major losses on both sides of the ball, particularly along the defensive line and in the secondary.
Can Ryan Day and his staff develop talent fast enough to overcome the losses? Odds are they absolutely can do enough to coast through a weak Big Ten but that's not the goal. Beating the likes of Clemson is the chief task and that's where the challenge grows steeper.
As a reminder, here's a run down of the gaps created by key departures following last season.
RUNNING BACK: J.K. DOBBINS
It seems like forever ago Day had to figure out how to replace junior J.K. Dobbins' school-record 2,003 rushing yards and 23 total touchdowns.
Day countered the loss by bringing in Trey Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, to slot alongside the fast-healing Master Teague.
Dobbins averaged 143 rushing yards per game a season ago and while the Sermon/Teague duo should combine to eclipse J.K.'s per game output, it's hard to imagine they will combine for the more than 203 yards per game Dobbins and Teague racked up a season ago. The hope is they don't necessarily have to.
WIDE RECEIVER: K.J. HILL, BINJIMEN VICTOR, AUSTIN MACK
Hill might not have been a big-strike guy last year, ranking last in yards per catch (11.2) among the team's top five receivers but the dude led Ohio State with 57 receptions and placed second in both yards (636) and touchdowns (10).
A security blanket in the slot, Hill was as dependable as they come. Thankfully for the Buckeyes, Garrett Wilson is primed to blow up as he most likely shifts from the outside to fill Hill's void. As a freshman, Wilson showed electric playmaking ability and NFL-hands on the way to 30 catches, 432 yards and five touchdowns. If 2020 were a traditional 12+ game season, it's fair to expect Wilson would double those totals.
Victor, quietly, racked up the squad's third-most receptions and yards a season ago with 35 and 573 respectively. Mack ranked fifth in catches (27) and yards (361) while playing just 11 of 14 games. Individually, those guys weren't world beaters but they were veterans in the middle of the wide receiver rotation.
Can a guy flirting with journeyman status like redshirt junior Jaylen Harris replace the production of a Victor or Mack? If not, then it becomes pretty important sophomore Jameson Williams builds extensively on the flashes he showed a season ago in mop up duty.
Past those guys, there's no shortage of true freshman in Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Gee Scott Jr., among others, hoping to make a bid for reps. Contributing in a meaningful way in Year One isn't impossible, just ask Wilson, but missing the bulk of spring ball due to the pandemic could be a factor in the speed of their development.
Again, plenty of talent here but replacing the trio's lost production when it really counts might not be a foregone conclusion, at least not this season.
OFFENSIVE LINE: JONAH JACKSON, BRANDEN BOWEN, WYATT DAVIS?
Jonah Jackson proved to be a godsend as a graduate transfer from Rutgers. The left guard was nasty and dominant at times for the Buckeyes, teaming with center Josh Myers and Davis to form one of the most formidable interior offensive line groups in the nation.
With Jackson out of the picture, sophomore Harry Miller should slide in fairly seamlessly especially as he's book-ended by studs in left tackle Thayer Munford and Myers at center.
If for any reason Davis can't return, right guard becomes a legit concern. Yes, as Colin Hass-Hill astutely broke down earlier this week, redshirt sophomore Matthew Jones would likely be the first man up but replacing a first-team All-American would surely feature some bumps and bruises along the way. If Jones struggled, well, that would be a really bad situation for Justin Fields and company, unless you're brimming with confidence on how inexperienced guys in Gavin Cupp or Enokk Vimahi might fare. No hate on those guys, I'm just not sure they're yet prime time pieces on a national title contender. Let's assume Davis will be back - as he should - so we can sleep at night but it's 2020 so who the hell knows, right?
At right tackle, Branden Bowen returned from injury to log over 800 snaps for the 2019 Buckeyes. It feels like the time is now for Nicholas Petit-Frere to match the blue chip hype. If for any reason he cant, true freshman Paris Johnson would likely get the call.
DEFENSIVE LINE: CHASE YOUNG, DAVON HAMILTON, ROBERT LANDERS, JASHON CORNELL
This is where things start to get dicey.
Chase Young's 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss are out the door, leaving Zach Harrison and Jonathon Cooper, among others, substantial slack to pick up. A committee approach fits right into Larry Johnson's typical plans but losing the most gifted player in college football will be felt. Period.
Interior defensive lineman Davon Hamilton's departure is a sneaky loss that presents challenges as well. Hamilton was an absolute stud last season (10.5 TFL) and it'll be up to guys like Tommy Togiai, Antwaun Jackson Jr., Taron Vincent and Haskell Garrett to fill the gap in the middle created by not just Hamilton but also Robert Landers and Jashon Cornell moving on. The foursome no longer in the fold logged over 1,500 snaps in 2019.
LINEBACKER: MALIK HARRISON
Ohio State's leading tackler (75) and most-consistent member of the front seven, Harrison's departure creates a significant hole within the linebacking corps.
Senior Baron Browning shifted from the middle to the outside - his more natural position - in the offseason and could be the guy to replace Harrison at the weakside spot.
If he doesn't, fellow veteran Pete Werner will shift from his strongside spot to replace Harrison, with Browning moving to Werner's spot. Al Washington and the defensive braintrust do plan to field versatile outside backers that could be interchangeable and while Werner had a great year in 2019 and Browning just needs to put it all together, Harrison's steady performance will be missed.
It's crucial for Ohio State that Browning not lose his instincts amid the position switch while playing a more disciplined game. Too many times the electric talent was out of position due to overpursuit or a mental error that would then see him on the sidelines in favor of the more trusted Tuf Borland in the middle a season ago.
Werner can play either spot depending on where Browning can prove most comfortable and effective.
SECONDARY: JEFF OKUDAH, DAMON ARNETTE, JORDAN FULLER, SHAUN WADE?
Holy smokes. Welcome to the position group that will most likely make or break Ohio State's national title hopes.
It was going to be a tough climb even if Wade returned and if he holds firm in opting out, Kerry Coombs must replace his entire secondary. You know, the secondary featuring two corners in Okudah and Arnette taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft and a 6th-round safety that's starting as a rookie for the Rams in Fuller.
Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown will serve as the two primary cornerbacks if Wade doesn't return. If he does, one of those two will man the nickel spot. That leaves unproven names like senior Marcus Williamson and redshirt sophomore Tyreke Johnson to bid for rotational duty. Banks and Brown have shown enough to generate confidence but that doesn't mean they'll immediately play like an Okudah, Arnette or Wade.
At safety, Josh Procter saw plenty of time last year so he's experienced enough and certainly has the talent but still needs to put it all together, similar to how Browning needs to add that extra polish and become more dependable.
Whether or not Ohio State looks to employ more dual safety looks if Wade doesn't return will be interesting to watch considering redshirt safety Marcus Hooker looks ready for more action.
This group has plenty of chops but even more to prove if Ohio State's wants to win it all. The good news is the weakness of the Big Ten schedule should give the secondary time to build experience and confidence before facing an elite passer like Trevor Lawrence.
Bottom line, we all know Ohio State has a proven track record of reloading and this season will serve as stiff a challenge as any in recent memory based on the holes left by the stars gone from the 2019 squad.