What goals will help get the Buckeyes back to the top of the conference?
Despite finishing the 2021 football season with a No. 6 ranking, this past season was something of a letdown for the Ohio State Buckeyes compared to previous seasons: No win over Michigan, no Big Ten title, no College Football Playoff berth.
It’s rather entitled to think that the Buckeyes should achieve these benchmarks every season. After all, by definition, there are two teams competing in the rivalry, 14 for the conference title and 130 teams battling for one of four CFP spots year in and year out. At some point, another team will come out on top for one or more of these prizes.
Still, this season was a good one. It’s hard to complain about a 10-2 record and a season where the Buckeyes were in the Playoff hunt until the final regular season game. However, looking ahead to next season, what New Year’s resolutions would help Ohio State football get back to this trifecta that separates a good season from a great one?
Resolution No. 1: Don’t wallow in pity over players opting out
Yes, it’s terribly sad that the last time we’ll have seen Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson in an Ohio State uniform was in their loss to Michigan. However, there’s something exciting about Brian Hartline’s ability to repeatedly sign the top wide receiver recruiting classes, and that’s that we’ll get to see a preview of life after Olave and Wilson in the Rose Bowl.
We can reliably say that Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be a key target for Stroud. After all, the sophomore finished the regular season as the leading receiver in catches and receiving yards on the team. He’s well behind Olave and Wilson, who had 13 and 12 touchdown receptions, respectively, when it comes to scoring, though — something he’ll be looked to boost come Jan. 1.
However, what of the young stable of talent at Stroud’s disposal? The good news for the Buckeyes is the talent is much deeper than the starting unit. Julian Fleming, Emeka Egbuka and Marvin Harrison Jr., who had 264 yards and one touchdown among the three of them in 2021, are poised to be the next great class.
Further, just as Olave anchored the receiving corps while Wilson got his bearings, and the pair supported Smith-Njigba this season, the latter would seem to be the anchor for this rising talent heading into 2022.
Resolution No. 2: Secure a top-5 recruiting class
It’s hard to stay on top without recruiting the best talent, which, up to this point in Ryan Day’s tenure, has not proven to be much of a problem. Case in point: Ohio State is sitting with the No. 4 recruiting class for 2022. It’s a solid position to be in, especially with the early signing period behind us.
Especially given the goal of a conference title, the Buckeyes are well-positioned comparatively: The SEC is currently dominating the 2022 rankings, with the top-three spots held by Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia. Penn State, with its strong offseason moves, is at No. 6. Michigan, heading into its first College Football Playoff appearance in program history, is holding the No. 9 spot.
On-field success leads to recruiting success, a mantra Ohio State fans have grown accustomed to since Urban Meyer first took the program’s reins in 2012. Further, as we’ll get to momentarily, it doesn’t hurt that Ohio State’s two five-star recruits signed in the 2022 class are on the defensive side of the ball.
Resolution No. 3: Start the defense off strong in 2022
Not to beat a dead horse, but the Ohio State defense ended the season much like it started it: not well. While finishing fifth in the conference in scoring defense isn’t abysmal at first glance, it’s hard to be a championship-level defense with that standard. As we’ve seen, teams have to be complete in order to win championships, right down to special teams. We’ve seen the dangers of not investing in defense repeatedly from the Big 12, especially when Oklahoma has made the CFP.
New defensive coordinator Jim Knowles will have his work cut out for him in Columbus, but he’ll have the advantage of elite talent on the defensive side of the ball (something he didn’t have access to to such a high degree at Oklahoma State).
The immediate challenge is apparent, however. Utah has a strong running game, anchored by sophomore running back Tavion Thomas, who broke 1,000 yards for the season in the Pac-12 Championship against Oregon. Thomas, however, is not alone. In all, TJ Pledger has totaled 671 yards on the season and Micah Bernard has added 492. The Utes, averaging 216 yards per game, the 13th-best rushing offense in the FBS.
The Buckeyes proved unable to halt the likes of Oregon and Michigan previously in 2021. Whether they can put a strong defensive front against the Utes, especially without defensive tackle Haskell Garett in the lineup, remains to be seen.
Resolution No. 4: Be strategic with the transfer portal
The Buckeyes lost Jameson Williams to the transfer portal early in 2021. In the end, despite Williams having an incredible season with Alabama, it didn’t adversely impact the Buckeyes. In fact, everyone seemed to be better off for the transfer: Williams is projected as a first-round pick, as are two of the receivers ahead of him on the depth chart from his time in Columbus.
Looking ahead, we can anticipate a similar vibe for the transfer portal heading into this offseason. Jack Miller was never going to be a starter in Columbus after the season Stroud had this year. Ditto with Quinn Ewers. Others who have parted from Columbus are players who never saw the field. There’s not a lot of harm in seeing players go have a shot at a starting role when there would be none for them at Ohio State.
Notably, the transfer portal has benefited Ohio State with the likes of Justin Fields, but it’s been used sparingly in bringing players to Columbus. That’s because, unlike many of the moves that happen in the transfer portal, there are very few players who could move to Ohio State and compete for a starting role. They’d likely need to be highly rated recruits who come from other elite programs.
Credit Ryan Day and his staff for building a drama-free culture where players stick around, and one where players are committed to the development process. That sort of culture makes it easier to identify the right players to pursue from the transfer portal, like former Arizona State running back-turned-linebacker DeaMonte Trayanum, who brings a veteran presence to an position with top young talent coming in (including five-star recruit CJ Hicks and four-star Gabe Powers).
Resolution No. 5: Remember, the Rose Bowl is more than a consolation prize
It’s easy to get down on the fact that the Buckeyes will not be playing for a national title this year, but there are just a dozen teams who get the opportunity to play in New Year’s Six bowls.
The fact the Buckeyes have been so dominant in recent years — especially since the genesis of the College Football Playoff — means that not making the Playoff is easy to be seen as a letdown. However, there’s a reason the Rose Bowl is the Granddaddy of Them All. Unlike pretty much every other bowl (perhaps with the sole exception of the Cotton Bowl), the Rose Bowl brings a level of panache that cannot be matched.
For Big Ten teams, it’s the biggest stage outside of the CFP, and there are few better ways to wrap up a season than with a trip to Pasadena.