Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series begins today with Ohio State. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team.
The 2021 Buckeyes were built on the same concept as the previous 2 national champions — assembling the most high-powered offense imaginable.
Whether Ohio State followed the footsteps of 2020 Alabama and 2019 LSU would be determined by 2 unknowns:
- Was the freshman quarterback any good?
- Could the defense stop anybody?
CJ Stroud answered the first question in the affirmative.
Early on, his mix of inexperience plus the rust of redshirting a season showed. But after he sat out the Week 4 game against Akron due to injury, things began clicking quickly. Stroud finished the season with 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns. Both totals rank 2nd in Ohio State history for a single season.
As a result, Stroud was invited to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, though Alabama counterpart Bryce Young took the trophy back to Tuscaloosa. It may not be the last time those two duel for a trophy.
Now about that defense …
Cracks were evident in the season opener at Minnesota when the Golden Gophers gained 408 total yards. The Buckeyes may even have dodged a bullet when Gophers star Mo Ibrahim tore his Achilles at the end of the third quarter, because nothing else was stopping him.
The next week, Oregon took Minnesota’s blueprint and pulled off a 35-28 heist at Ohio Stadium. The Ducks ran for 269 yards and gained 505 total, prompting Ryan Day to strip play calling duties from Kerry Coombs.
After allowing 501 yards to Tulsa in the first week of that arrangement, the defense finally stabilized. Ohio State went into the season finale at Michigan in position to win its 5th straight B1G East title.
The Wolverines had other plans, snapping their decade-long losing streak to the Buckeyes, 42-27. Michigan gained 487 yards to Ohio State’s 458, marking the only time Ohio State was outgained last season.
Though Ohio State went on to beat Utah in one of the finest Rose Bowls ever played, there was a sense of emptiness in Columbus.
"At some places going 11-2 with a Rose Bowl win is a great year. Not at Ohio State." – Ryan Day(Video) Michigan at Ohio State Preview and Predictions - 2022 Week 13 College Football Predictions
— Alex Hickey (@bigahickey) July 27, 2022
This year, the mission is clear: CFP or bust.
What does Jim Knowles know?
In an offseason with no head coaching changes, Day’s hire of new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles was the most significant personnel move in the Big Ten.
While at Oklahoma State, Knowles did the previously unthinkable: build a top-tier defense in the wide-open spaces of the Big 12. Over the course of his 4 seasons in Stillwater, the Cowboys improved from 112th nationally in total defense to 4th.
Ohio State was 59th in total defense last season, but Day says the expectation is for Knowles to turn the Bucks into a top-10 unit.
Knowles isn’t shying from those expectations. In fact, he finds them disappointing.
Jim Knowles on Ryan Day’s challenge to produce a top-10 defense in his first season at OSU:
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“I wish he would’ve said top-five. That’s our expectation.” pic.twitter.com/wleq24oZqA
— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) August 9, 2022
Getting there will be difficult, but not impossible. This is an experienced unit, technically returning 8 starters from a year ago. One of those starters has never played for the Buckeyes, but he is well-versed in playing for Knowles — nickel Tanner McCalister, who was a key piece of the other OSU’s secondary.
Quarterback pressure may end up being what defines the defense’s ultimate success.
In 2019, the Buckeyes led the nation with 54 sacks. Ohio State dropped to 49th in a shortened 2020 season and 34th last year. Whether ends Zach Harrison, Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau lead a pass-rushing renaissance or Knowles has to dial up some blitzes, Ohio State must get to the quarterback more frequently.
Who fills out the new Big 3 receivers?
It’s possible that no first-year starter in college football history has had more help than Stroud in 2021.
The wide receiving corps of Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba was so supremely talented that Jameson Williams liked his chances of getting on the field better at Alabama. Alabama isn’t the place players transfer to when they can’t get playing time; it’s the place they transfer from.
Williams ended up being the 12th pick in the NFL Draft — right behind Wilson (10th) and Olave (11th).
Fortunately for Ohio State, Smith-Njigba is the best receiver of that richly talented bunch. He set Ohio State single-season records for receptions (95) and receiving yards (1,605) despite having to share the wealth.
The most fascinating storyline for the offense is finding out who will be Smith-Njigba’s running mates. Marvin Harrison Jr. appeared to secure one of those spots in the Rose Bowl, catching 6 passes for 71 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Junior Julian Fleming, redshirt freshman Emeka Egbuka and senior Kamryn Babb will all have opportunities to emerge. True freshmen Kaleb Brown and Kyion Graves might work their way into the mix as well.
The position that was the most airtight on the roster a year ago carries a lot more intrigue heading into this season.
Can anything keep the Bucks from the CFP?
Ohio State has been the betting favorite in every regular-season game Day has coached since taking over for Urban Meyer in 2019. That’s unlikely to change in 2022. But it doesn’t mean the schedule is devoid of potential missteps.
The Bucks jump right into the fire with a season-opener against Notre Dame. They’ll also play both preseason favorites in the West — Wisconsin and Iowa — though fortunately both are at home.
A Halloween weekend game at Penn State blinks off the screen as an obvious challenge. And of course Michigan has decided to actually make it a rivalry again.
But provided that Knowles gets something better out of this defense, little stands in the way of Ohio State reaching the College Football Playoff.
In the unfortunate event of Stroud’s absence for any length of time, Kyle McCord looks capable. He threw for 416 yards in his start against Akron. Sure, it was Akron. But he was also a true freshman.
And if for any reason the passing game doesn’t click like last season — certainly possible without Wilson and Olave around — running back TreVeyon Henderson is the ace in the hole. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored 15 touchdowns as a freshman. Backup Miyan Williams also had 16 runs of more than 10 yards in just 72 carries last year. Ohio State could still have an explosive offense if it was more reliant on the run.
This is unquestionably the team to beat in the Big Ten. And it may be the team to beat in all of college football.
Week 1: vs. Notre Dame (W)
In Marcus Freeman’s coaching debut, Notre Dame jumped to a 28-7 lead over Oklahoma State only to watch it slip into a 37-35 loss. I could see this having an opposite feel — the Bucks jump out to a comfortable early lead, then fend off a furious Irish rally at the end. Fans will fret over the defense.
Week 2: vs. Arkansas State (W)
The Red Wolves are picked to finish 6th in the 7-team Sun Belt West Division. A week after beating Notre Dame, some Ohio State walk-on will have his Rudy moment against Arkansas State.
Week 3: vs. Toledo (W)
The Buckeyes haven’t lost to a MAC opponent since Akron tripped them up in 1894. That’s so long ago that the school was known as Buchtel College at the time.
Toledo gave Notre Dame a spirited game last year before falling 32-29, and brings back 15 starters (7 offense, 8 defense) from that team. So expect the Rockets to come out swinging.
The Buckeyes will improve to 36-1 against MAC opponents, but Toledo will cover the point spread, which is likely to be inflated after the blowout of Arkansas State.
Week 4: vs. Wisconsin (W)
Badgers running back Braelon Allen will test the vulnerability of a defense that was exploited by the run a year ago. But Knowles will be aware Wisconsin can’t actually throw the ball and game plan accordingly. With Wisconsin starting 4 new defensive backs, this could be a marquee matchup that devolves into a blowout.
Week 5: vs. Rutgers (W)
In 8 meetings against the Scarlet Knights, Ohio State is undefeated with an average winning margin of 42.5 points. This won’t be the year Rutgers decreases the average. Although maybe the Knights can chop it down to 42.
Week 6: at Michigan State (W)
You know this is the game the Spartans have circled after last year’s total humiliation. It was 49-0 at halftime, and only mercy and respect kept Ohio State from hanging 100 on Michigan State that day.
Look for the fired-up Spartans to go into the locker room with a halftime lead this time around. But they won’t hang on. Stroud will draw from the Rose Bowl rally against Utah’s superior defense and calmly lead the comeback.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: vs. Iowa (W)
My guess is giving Jim Knowles an extra week to prepare for a Brian Ferentz-coordinated offense won’t be particularly fair. So even though Ohio State will be limited to its lowest yardage output of the Ryan Day era, it won’t matter. The Bucks will prove themselves capable of winning a rock fight.
Week 9: at Penn State (L)
The thing about rock fights is it takes a little while longer for the bruises to heal. And a road test at Penn State the next week is not the ideal road to recovery. This is going to be the craziest crowd Ohio State deals with all season. And the Nittany Lions will be just as spirited as their crowd. Last year, they gave the Buckeyes a spirited battle behind banged-up quarterback Sean Clifford. A healthy Clifford will help pull off the upset in Happy Valley.
Week 10: at Northwestern (W)
In 2007, Pat Fitzgerald’s Wildcats lost to Ohio State by a score of 58-7. A week after Ohio State’s first loss of 2022, expect a similarly lopsided outcome.
Week 11: vs. Indiana (W)
Indiana last beat Ohio State in 1988. How long ago is that in football terms?
These 2 programs have tied more recently than that (1990), because finishing in a tie was still something that could happen back then. This game won’t be tied past 0-0. Ohio State downs the Hoosiers for the 27th straight time.
Week 12: at Maryland (W)
This is going to be trickier than you think. And given that Ohio State won the 2 most recent versions of this game 66-17 and 73-14, there’s little reason to expect anything of the Terps.
But with the Bucks coming off consecutive blowout wins and Michigan looming next week, the team will enter this matchup on cruise control. Furthermore, Maryland’s offense poses a threat regardless of how improved Ohio State’s defense will be.
In a surprising back-and-forth battle, Noah Ruggles will come to the rescue with a late game-winning field goal.
Week 13: vs. Michigan (W)
Just putting this out there: Ohio State’s biggest margin of victory over Michigan is still a 38-0 shutout in 1935. And I doubt that margin will be seriously threatened. But there might be a point midway through the second quarter where we wonder if it’s in reach.
After Jim Harbaugh’s “some people standing on third base think they hit a triple” comment following last season’s drought-busting win, Ryan Day is going to empty the tanks if it is at all possible.
2022 Projection: 11-1 (8-1), 1st in B1G East
If Ohio State doesn’t win the East this year, it will be one of the great disappointments in Big Ten history. Because a division title is the absolute bare minimum of what this team is capable of doing.
The Buckeyes are the rare team that can marry talent with experience.
Per ESPN’s Bill Connelly, Ohio State is the Big Ten leader in experience with 73% of its production returning from a year ago. This season really does boil down to 2 issues: adequately replacing Olave and Wilson, and improved play from a veteran defense.
For what it’s worth, projections guru Phil Steele has Ohio State finishing 9th in total defense and 11th in scoring defense in 2022. That would be a drastic improvement from finishing 59th (total) and 34th (scoring) in those categories a year ago.
If he’s right — or even if he’s merely in the ballpark — the Buckeyes will be in the College Football Playoff.
Once they reach that point, our crystal ball becomes hazy. But there isn’t a fanbase in the Big Ten that should be more excited for 2022 than Ohio State.