That’s all that’s separating Ohio State and Minnesota from kicking off their respective seasons. As always, the Buckeyes will enter 2021 with massive expectations. After months of waiting, OSU finally has a chance to erase the bitter taste the 52-24 national championship loss to Alabama left in its mouths in January and will now attempt to make its third straight College Football Playoff appearance and claim its first national title since 2014.
As Eleven Warriors’ season preview comes to a close, here are the 10 biggest questions that will surround Ohio State in 2021.
Does C.J. Stroud keep his starting role all year?
When Ryan Day anointed C.J. Stroud as Ohio State’s starting quarterback on Aug. 21, he was cautious to commit to anything beyond that. The OSU coach called Stroud lining up under center Week 1 “an opportunity,” and said he’s excited to see what Stroud does with it.
But as you’ve heard Day say plenty of times by now, “it’s a long way to January,” meaning, who knows what can happen between now and then?
Like every other OSU quarterback on the roster, Stroud has not thrown a collegiate pass. But that doesn’t mean the expectations are minimized for the 6-foot-3, 218-pound quarterback. His teammates have raved about him all throughout fall camp. Projected first-round draft pick wideout Garrett Wilson recently went as far to compare him to NFL All-Pro Russell Wilson.
Stroud has the skill set to run Ohio State’s offense similarly to what Justin Fields accomplished a season ago, with the caveat Stroud doesn’t boast quite the same athleticism as Fields does. But as OSU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson pointed out earlier in fall camp: Who does?
Stroud has a big arm that allows him to make throws to all areas of the field and a steady pocket presence. He’s capable of creating plays with his feet as well when necessary.
From his raw ability alone, Stroud is every bit capable of thriving in this offense, but should he falter for whatever reason, or if he were to suffer an injury, then what?
So, who's the backup QB?
Well, Day wasn’t really specific about that.
What we can say confidently is that it won’t be Quinn Ewers to start the season, seeing as Day has said the five-star phenom is “a long way away” from being ready to see game action, although that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be ready by the end of the year.
So that leaves Kyle McCord and Jack Miller III. From what limited portion of fall camp the media was able to witness, McCord looked to be the more impressive of the two quarterbacks, and seems to be the likely choice to assume quarterback responsibilities should something happen to Stroud.
But Day probably isn’t going to reveal that answer until he has to.
Who’s going to see action at linebacker with four key players from 2020 gone?
Certainly Teradja Mitchell, who was named a team captain and seems like a sure-fire bet to start at Will after Day said Mitchell would “for sure” play a significant role this year.
As for Mike, Dallas Gant would be the pick if Al Washington and Kerry Coombs want to go with the experienced route. But a foot injury caused him to miss time in the spring, and it’s uncertain if he’s currently at full strength. Cody Simon took most of the first-team reps Gant missed, and he’s drawn a heap of praise from teammates for his play and maturity. If Gant isn’t ready, Simon could start Week 1 against the Gophers.
Other players that could earn reps include Tommy Eichenberg and K’Vaughan Pope. Palaie Gaoteote could factor in the mix, but there's still no word on whether the USC transfer will be eligible, and the start of the season is a whopping four days away.
How will the running back rotation play out?
Ohio State was pretty balanced distributing carries between Trey Sermon (116) and Master Teague III (104) last season. So Miyan Williams, Teague and freshman TreVeyon Henderson could all see a fair split the first couple of games. While Day loves to utilize a balanced run-pass offense, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Buckeyes get off the bus running Thursday to help take pressure off their quarterback making his first career start.
Williams had only 10 carries last season but showed flashes of brilliance, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. OSU is very high on Williams, and even though Teague is more experienced, it wouldn’t be totally surprising to see Williams start the first series against the Gophers.
If nothing else, Teague has a career as a professional bodybuilder waiting for him down the road. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound junior would like to see his 4.9 yards per carry average improve from last year, though he did lead the team with eight touchdowns.
As for Henderson, the top-rated running back in the 2021 class has the agility and skill set to turn into a star. In his final high school football season in 2019, Henderson ran for 2,424 yards and scored 50 total touchdowns.
Does the offensive line stay with its projected new look?
It was an eye-opening moment early in fall camp when Ohio State moved its two best offensive linemen, putting Thayer Munford at left guard and slotting Nicholas Petit-Frere at left tackle. The move was essentially to make room for 6-foot-8, 360-pound Dawand Jones to play right tackle. As camp went on, that alignment became less experimental and more likely what the starting configuration will be against Minnesota.
When OSU’s offense trots out against the Gophers, it will likely line up Petit-Frere at left tackle, Munford at left guard, Harry Miller at center, Paris Johnson Jr. at right guard and Jones at right tackle. Should Jones struggle against opposing edge rushers early, how patient are Day and offensive line coach Greg Studrawa going to be with the junior?
If the struggles are persistent and Munford has to move back to tackle, the Buckeyes certainly have the depth to mix and match combinations to eventually find something that works, although the amount of practice time they’ve devoted to the projected starting combination is telling of how successful they expect those five to be.
Will Ohio State transform its secondary into a strength?
Statistically, Ohio State was the sixth-worst pass defense in the nation in 2020, yielding 304 passing yards per contest. That’s a number that’s going to have to get better if the Buckeyes want to reach their lofty aspirations.
At first glance, Ohio State is going to need to lean on their most experienced cornerbacks: Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown. If either of those players take the next step, it will go a long way in helping to turn a weakness into a strength. Josh Proctor has a firm grasp on the free safety position and could be in for a big year. Beyond that, the secondary is mostly inexperienced.
Ryan Watts is the only other cornerback on the roster to have experience playing outside corner for OSU last season. It will be interesting to see if Demario McCall’s transition to cornerback results in anything. He’s gotten enough run with the first team in practice to think he could get a chance at some point.
Ronnie Hickman, Craig Young and Kourt Williams are all contenders to play at bullet. Ditto for Lathan Ransom, Marcus Williamson and Cameron Martinez at cover safety (OSU’s terminology for slot corner).
How do Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau factor into an experienced defensive line?
Well, if defensive line coach Larry Johnson is to be believed, neither Sawyer or Tuimoloau is going to be in OSU’s vaunted Rushmen package to start the season. But both Day and Johnson have hinted the highly-touted tandem could force their way onto the field sooner rather than later.
Tuimoloau and Sawyer were the crown jewels of Ohio State’s 2021 class. They're the highest-rated defensive recruits OSU has ever signed and were ranked as the fourth and fifth-best players in the cycle, respectively.
Tuimoloau has impressed his coaches and teammates with his work ethic and maturity, getting his black stripe removed 10 practices into his collegiate career. Sawyer got his OSU career off to a great start by recording four sacks in the spring game. He’s already popular enough around town that he received a truck as part of a name, image and likeness deal.
Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Javontae Jean-Baptiste already make for an excellent defensive end rotation. Add in two players of Tuimoloau and Sawyer’s caliber and it’s easy to dream about this unit.
What role does COVID-19 play into this season, if any?
I don’t want to think about it much either. But we’re sadly not escaping the subject anytime soon.
The Big Ten has already established that if a school cannot play a game because of COVID-19 related reasons, that school will forfeit the contest.
Will the Buckeyes run into a team that suffers an outbreak and get a free win because of it? Will the Buckeyes themselves have to forfeit a game? The good news is OSU’s team vaccination rate is high, as Day said only around 10 of OSU’s players are not vaccinated and therefore must continue to undergo testing. That rate should increase now that Ohio State has mandated all students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated this fall.
After seeing so many postponements around the sport in 2020, it will be interesting to see if any forfeits are required around the country and depending on what team it impacts, how it could affect the College Football Playoff. Is a 12-0 Alabama season with two forfeit wins as impressive in the eyes of the CFP committee as an 11-1 Oklahoma season with no forfeits? If you need a reference to how COVID-19 can still ruin a team’s season even in the vaccination era, look no further than how North Carolina State’s 2021 baseball season ended.
Can anyone in the Big Ten beat Ohio State?
On paper: No, it doesn’t look that way. But of course, the game isn’t played on paper.
Just about everyone has picked OSU to win the Big Ten and cruise on its way to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game, excluding national writer Bruce Feldman, who picked the Buckeyes to go 10-2, citing concerns regarding their defense.
The Buckeyes’ toughest conference games include Thursday at Minnesota, Oct. 23 at Indiana and hosting Penn State on Oct. 30. OSU will be favored in all of those games, but if it’s going to falter anywhere on the conference slate, it would likely be in one of those three matchups.
Will the Buckeyes end the season hoisting a trophy?
Despite losing a talent like Fields anything less than capturing a national championship would likely be seen as a disappointment by Buckeye fans after OSU brought in its highest-rated recruiting class ever.
Two of the usual national title contenders, OSU and Alabama, will start the year with inexperienced, albeit talented, quarterbacks. Oklahoma is loaded offensively, but will the defense show up? Clemson once again has the easiest road to the playoff. Georgia has gotten a lot of love this offseason. Could a dark horse emerge? Where does OSU stack up in comparison with these other heavyweights?
We’ll start to get a glimpse of the answer this week.