The Five Biggest Questions Surrounding Ohio State Football As 2023 Begins

By Dan Hope on January 6, 2023 at 9:35 am
Devin Brown and Kyle McCord

As the clock struck midnight and Noah Ruggles’ game-deciding field goal attempt sailed wide left with only three seconds remaining in the Peach Bowl, a new year began in multiple ways for Ohio State football.

In the calendar sense, 2022 ended and 2023 began at almost the exact same time as Ruggles’ miss, as the missed kick that sealed the Buckeyes’ fate in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Georgia happened just as New Year’s Eve was becoming New Year’s Day. From a football standpoint, Georgia’s 42-41 win brought Ohio State’s season to an end nine days earlier than the Buckeyes had hoped, officially sending the scarlet and gray into the 2023 offseason.

There are still nearly eight months to go until Ohio State will return to the field and play its first game of 2023 against Indiana on Sept. 2, but the Buckeyes have a lot of work to do between now and then to prepare for a season in which they will have some major questions to answer.

In particular, the following five questions – some personnel-based, some results-based – linger over Ohio State as the countdown to the 2023 season begins, and how well the Buckeyes answer each of them will go a long way toward determining whether or not next year is a success.

Who will be the Buckeyes’ new starting quarterback?

This is always a major question when a college football team has to replace an outgoing quarterback, especially when replacing a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist like Ohio State is with C.J. Stroud. And it’s a very legitimate question for the Buckeyes entering the 2023 offseason, as there’s expected to be a true competition to replace Stroud during spring practices that could extend into preseason camp.

The good news for the Buckeyes is they have two promising options to replace Stroud: five-star junior Kyle McCord and highly touted redshirt freshman Devin Brown. But both of them are unproven, as McCord attempted just 20 passes in 2022, while Brown has yet to throw a single pass in a Buckeye uniform.

McCord has two years of experience as the Buckeyes’ No. 2 quarterback and started one game against Akron in 2021 – completing 13 of 18 passing attempts for 319 yards and two touchdowns and earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors in the process – and that experience could give McCord a leg up going into the spring. Unlike the last few quarterback competitions Ohio State has had, however, the outcome of this one doesn’t feel like a formality.

Brown, who was ranked by On3 as the No. 1 overall prospect in the entire recruiting class of 2022, has more than enough talent to challenge McCord for the job. And considering McCord and Brown will be the only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster for spring ball (since incoming freshman Lincoln Kienholz isn’t enrolling until the summer), there will be plenty of reps to go around for both of them to put their skills on display and make their case for the job.

Ideally, both quarterbacks will look ready to be Ohio State’s next starting quarterback this offseason, which would give Ohio State a tough decision but a good problem to have. Given their lack of experience going into the season, though, quarterback play will remain a question mark throughout the offseason no matter how quickly a starter emerges at the position.

Can the defense become elite in Jim Knowles’ second year?

Ohio State’s defense showed signs of progress in Jim Knowles’ first year as coordinator, allowing 51.1 fewer yards per game in 2022 than it did in 2021. But the defense stumbled when everything was on the line in the two biggest games of the year, allowing a combined 87 points in the Buckeyes’ losses to Michigan and Georgia.

That puts the spotlight right back on Knowles and his unit as the 2023 offseason begins as Ohio State looks for improvement on the side of the ball that’s consistently been its weakest throughout Ryan Day’s tenure.

A reason for optimism about Ohio State’s defense entering 2023 is Knowles’ track record of defenses improving over time. In his first two years at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys’ defense jumped by at least 30 spots in the national rankings in both total defense and scoring defense from year one to year two. The standards are higher at Ohio State than anywhere else he has coached, and the Buckeyes’ defense didn’t meet those standards at the end of his first season, but Ohio State’s 2022 defense was by far the best Knowles has ever had in his first year at a new school.

The Buckeyes have plenty of returning talent on defense for next year, including JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer at defensive end, Mike Hall, Ty Hamilton and Tyleik Williams at defensive tackle, Steele Chambers and possibly Tommy Eichenberg at linebacker, Denzel Burke at cornerback and likely Lathan Ransom, pending Eichenberg and Ransom’s NFL draft decisions. And unlike at this time last year, when all of those players were learning Knowles’ scheme anew for the first time, most of the players on the field for Ohio State’s defense this year will already have a year of experience playing or practicing in Knowles’ scheme under their belts.

Still, Ohio State’s defense has a lot to prove after another disappointing end to the year, and with Stroud’s departure from the offense, it’s all the more important for the Buckeyes to have an elite defense if they’re going to be a championship contender.

How will Buckeyes replace key departures on offensive line?

Outside of quarterback, there’s no bigger personnel question mark for Ohio State as the 2023 offseason begins than the offensive line – especially at offensive tackle, where the Buckeyes are expected to lose both Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones to the NFL draft. 

Josh Fryar is a likely candidate to replace Jones at right tackle after serving as the sixth man on the Buckeyes’ offensive line this year. Still, the Buckeyes appear to be looking for a transfer tackle to fill the other starting spot. Ohio State has offered four tackles in the portal over the past month, but it hasn’t landed one yet.

Among offensive tackles already on the roster, Zen Michalski looks like the most likely candidate other than Fryar to contend for a starting job after serving as the second-team left tackle this past season as a redshirt freshman, but the Buckeyes might be hesitant to make him their starting left tackle with no first-team experience. It’s also possible Donovan Jackson could move outside from left guard to left tackle, as he spent time practicing at tackle last offseason, but that would open up a hole to fill on the interior offensive line.

Josh Fryar
Josh Fryar is likely to be a new starter on the offensive line in 2023, but who else will join him remains a big question mark.

Whether the Buckeyes will have other holes to fill on the interior offensive line remains to be determined, as neither center Luke Wypler nor right guard Matt Jones has announced whether they will enter the 2023 NFL draft or stay at Ohio State for another season. Replacing the starting tackles won’t look quite as daunting if the Buckeyes return all three of their starters inside, but losing Wypler and/or Jones would turn the offensive line into an even bigger question mark.

Jakob James would likely be the next man up, while Enokk Vimahi and Tegra Tshabola are potential candidates to compete for a starting guard job, but none of them are sure-fire candidates to be the next man up. As such, there might not be any position coach with a tougher job this offseason than Justin Frye, whose unit could make or break whether the Buckeyes continue to perform at an elite level offensively in 2023.

Can Ohio State get back on track in The Game?

Perhaps this should be the first question on the list because it’s undoubtedly the one that’s going to be on Ohio State fans’ minds every day from now until Nov. 25. After losing back-to-back games against Michigan for the first time in 22 years, the pressure for Ohio State to beat the team up north in 2023 will be the highest it’s been in a long, long time.

Turning the tables in The Game probably isn’t going to come easily. J.J. McCarthy and Donovan Edwards will be back to lead Michigan’s offense after both of them had huge games in this past November’s 45-23 win over Ohio State, and the Wolverines have been actively reloading their roster for next season via the transfer portal. Michigan has clearly had Ohio State’s number for the past two years, and the Wolverines will have home-field advantage when they host the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor in 11 months.

Day’s 1-2 record against Michigan is the biggest black mark on his résumé through his first four seasons as Ohio State’s head coach and the heat he’s felt from Ohio State fans for the Buckeyes’ rivalry game failures could reach a boiling point if it happens three years in a row.

What began to feel like a formality during the Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer eras has now become a cloud looming over Columbus and erasing that cloud with a rivalry game win is undoubtedly the most important objective for Day and Co. in 2023. Losing to Michigan has also cost Ohio State a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game in both of the past two seasons, so getting a win up north could be a prerequisite for the Buckeyes to have a chance of achieving their second stated goal – after beating Michigan – of winning the Big Ten championship.

Will the Buckeyes make the final four-team playoff?

When we write this article a year from now, whether Ohio State will make the CFP might not even be a question worth asking – and if it is, that will mean the Buckeyes have taken a step backward. When the CFP expands to 12 teams in 2024, making the playoff field will be a baseline expectation for Ohio State, which has never finished lower than seventh in the final rankings since the CFP started in 2014.

For 2023, however, the CFP will remain as selective as it has been, and the Buckeyes won’t have an easy path there. After playing eight home games in 2022, Ohio State will have only six home games in 2023, with a six-game road schedule that includes challenging end-of-month tests at Notre Dame in September, Wisconsin in October and Michigan in November. And the Big Ten East projects to be as competitive as ever, with Penn State (who Ohio State plays at home on Oct. 21) also bringing back a talented roster that gives the Nittany Lions a chance to challenge the Buckeyes and Wolverines for divisional supremacy.

Having to navigate that schedule with a first-year starting quarterback, question marks on the offensive line and a defense that still must evolve will only make more difficult the task of getting through the season with one loss or fewer – the standard that’s been required to make every four-team CFP. Given that, the Buckeyes will need to focus on just trying to get into the playoff before they can worry about whether they’ll be good to win a national championship.

Winning the national championship remains Ohio State’s ultimate goal, as it is every year, but after back-to-back losses to Michigan and barely making the CFP in 2022, whether the Buckeyes will accomplish those goals are the more pressing questions as 2023 begins.

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