It’s impossible to know for sure.
But a compelling case can be made that Ohio State would be headed to Los Angeles for a chance to win a national championship next week had Marvin Harrison Jr. not gone down in the third quarter of Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal in Atlanta.
At that point, the Buckeyes had racked up 319 passing yards and four scores through the air, of which Harrison contributed 105 yards and two touchdowns. On the next play after Harrison’s injury, Ohio State kicked a field goal to take a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The Buckeyes strike first. C.J. Stroud to Marvin Harrison Jr. pic.twitter.com/Td9Tu6OGQM— Eleven Warriors (@11W) January 1, 2023
C.J. Stroud and Marvin Harrison Jr. are cooking. pic.twitter.com/6gn1CPem4R— Eleven Warriors (@11W) January 1, 2023
From that point forward, the Buckeyes only mustered 29 more passing yards and three more points, allowing Georgia to outscore them by 15 in the final period to steal a one-point win and a spot in the national title game.
A scary hit to Harrison’s head and neck area delivered by Georgia defensive back Javon Bullard – and the subsequent collision Harrison’s head made with the turf – might have changed college football history. Ryan Day confirmed after the game that Harrison suffered a concussion on the play, which rendered him unable to return. What followed was Ohio State's lowest-scoring quarter of the game. It came at the worst possible time.
“It hurt bad. Fourth quarter, College Football Playoffs, chance to go to the national championship? I mean, I wish I could be out there for my teammates and do the best I can to help,” Harrison said after Ohio State’s 42-41 loss in the Peach Bowl.
Even if the hit on Harrison had been ruled differently, the game's result might have changed. In real time, Bullard’s hit on Harrison to break up a high-arcing heave from Stroud to the end zone appeared to be a no-brainer targeting call. Harrison’s immediate physical reaction made it look like he might have been knocked unconscious by the hit, given his stiff appearance and fencing response.
A targeting penalty would’ve given the Buckeyes a fresh set of downs and the ball half the distance to the goal line after a play that was snapped from the Georgia 7-yard line. Instead, there was no targeting call, and Ohio State faced 4th-and-7. The Buckeyes were forced to kick a field goal rather than getting another series to punch in a touchdown at the Bulldog's doorstep.
No targeting was called for this hit on Marvin Harrison Jr. The Ohio State receiver was taken to the sidelines after and is being treated by medical personnel. pic.twitter.com/rSIo0ZRe2M— Eleven Warriors (@11W) January 1, 2023
In Day's postgame press conference, the fourth-year head coach said the referees explained their reasoning for the lack of a targeting foul. When asked to explain his thoughts on the matter, Day said he’d have to see the replay before coming to an educated conclusion on the subject.
“I was told that it was not targeting, that he didn't take a shot to the head, which is hard – I didn't see it, so I don't know,” Day said. “But to get a concussion and not get hit in the head, I'd have to see the replay. And they said that it happened after he got hit, but I'd have to take a look at the video. I wasn't able to see the replay.”
Harrison stayed down on the field for a couple of minutes before being escorted to the medical tent. Afterward, Harrison returned to the bench but did not have his helmet in hand – a sign that his night was over.
Harrison said he made an effort to get back in the game but ultimately understood the rationale of the medical staff in holding him out for the remainder.
“Of course (I tried to go back in). I mean, I did my best. I wanted to be out there with my team,” Harrison said. “As I said, I respect the trainer's decision. At the end of the day, they're just looking out for my health. So I definitely tried to fight. … Obviously, they knew I wanted to go back into the game.”
Harrison said this wasn’t the first time he’s suffered a concussion in his football career and that Saturday’s incident was a “similar situation” to one he had in the past. Still, Harrison said he felt good enough to return to the field had the medical staff allowed him to.
“I think I felt fine. I think I felt good enough to go back into the game,” Harrison said. “If I could, I definitely would've gave it my all and tried to help the team win.”
But that didn’t happen, and Harrison had to look on helplessly as the two-touchdown lead he helped build dwindled to nothing in the fourth quarter. The Buckeye offense, particularly the passing game, simply wasn’t the same without its top receiving target.
And many onlookers, including Day and Harrison, will be left to wonder how things might have been different had No. 18 been on the field for the game’s biggest moments.
“To say that losing Marv didn't have an impact on the game, it absolutely did,” Day said. “What this guy did and the way he competed in the second half with all those things coming at him, I just can't say enough. I'm so proud of the way he played.”