B1G debate: Who is Ohio State’s biggest threat in the title race?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who is Ohio State’s biggest threat in the Big Ten title race?
RYAN: If we had posed this question last week, I think both of us would probably agree that Penn State was Ohio State’s biggest challenger. Now? I’m not so sure. That’s because it’s been an interesting week in the Big Ten. We’ve got star players opting out of the season to train for the NFL Draft and a new schedule to analyze. That unfortunately includes star linebacker Micah Parsons. That’s a devastating blow for Penn State. Parsons is just one guy, but he is as important as any non-quarterback in the country. Penn State is mighty talented, but are they still Ohio State’s biggest threat? In a word, yes.
Even without Parsons, Penn State still has as much talent as anyone. The Nittany Lions offense is still going to be one of the best in the country. They have 4 starters back on the offensive line that will be blocking for one of the best running back duos in the country. Sean Clifford can make enough plays at quarterback, and Pat Freiermuth is such a red-zone weapon that Penn State should rarely have to settle for field goals. The defense is a concern, though, especially without Parsons. It struggled against the pass last season (13th in the Big Ten), and Parsons was the only returning starter at linebacker.
While I wouldn’t pick Penn State to beat Ohio State, I do think it still has the best chance. The Nittany Lions get the Buckeyes at home, which will help. If they can keep Justin Fields on the sidelines, you never know.
CONNOR: Yeah, this question got much more complicated in the wake of the Parsons news. I thought he was such a critical part to the formula to beat Ohio State. That is, have a front 7 who can get into the backfield consistently and disrupt those clear throwing lanes for Justin Fields to find his loaded group of wideouts.
I can’t get there with Penn State now, though I wouldn’t have picked the Lions to win that matchup before COVID-19 happened, either. Now, I think the best bet is Wisconsin. And I get the counterpoint. It’s a yearly “L” for the Badgers. It has been a decade since Wisconsin beat Ohio State, despite the fact that before 2019, 5 of those losses in the Buckeyes’ 6-game winning streak were by a touchdown or fewer. We still have 59-0 burned in our brains when in reality, this rivalry has actually been much more competitive than most realize.
Want an unpopular take? I actually thought the Wisconsin defense did a pretty good job against Fields in those 2 games last year, and I’m not just saying that because of how much it dominated the 1st half of the B1G Championship. Fields was held to 8.8 yards per attempt with 29 combined rushing yards, which was partially because the Badgers sacked him 5 times in each contest. That Wisconsin defense finished No. 10 in scoring and it returns 81% of that defensive production. I don’t hate the idea of Jim Leonhard’s group taking another step forward.
You could say, “what about the loss of Jonathan Taylor?” Well, I’d say the loss of Chase Young makes that a wash. Young’s performance in that 1st Wisconsin game was as dominant as you’ll see from a player in that position.
Wisconsin definitely has a couple of spots on the schedule in which it could get tripped up, most notably those late road trips to Iowa and Michigan, but the Badgers have the most favorable path to Indianapolis. And hey, Wisconsin can even win the B1G without facing Ohio State. That’s gotta be worth something, right?
RYAN: Wisconsin definitely has the more favorable road, but at this point, it’s hard for me to buy into the Badgers. They’ve been close a few times, but I just can’t see Jack Coan beating Justin Fields. The Badgers, without Jonathan Taylor and Quintez Cephus, just don’t have a dynamic enough of an offense to compete with the Buckeyes for 4 quarters. Last year’s Big Ten Championship Game was a mirage. Ohio State was in its 3rd top-10 matchup in 3 weeks and was sluggish early on, but it put a beating on the Badgers in the 2nd half. I don’t think Wisconsin recruits well enough to beat Ohio State, which has won 11 of the past 12 in the series.
Penn State, on the other hand, does recruit well enough to beat Ohio State. Sure, it is only 2-7 in the past 9 matchups, but it lost by a single point in 2017 and again in 2018. The Nittany Lions hung tough against a terrific Ohio State team last season despite losing their starting quarterback. Speaking of Sean Clifford, he is now working with the same offensive coordinator who propelled Tanner Morgan to the top of the QB ranks in 2019. There’s a chance Clifford makes that sort of leap, too.
I would have liked to have seen Penn State and Wisconsin match up in the regular season. Penn State has won both meetings since James Franklin and Paul Chryst took over and it has won 6 of the past 7 in the series, but I think these are the No. 2 and No. 3 programs in the Big Ten right now on a consistent basis.
That said, I was closer to picking Michigan as the biggest threat to Ohio State than I was to picking Wisconsin. I know, I know. Ohio State has won 15 of 16 against Michigan, and it hardly ever seems that close. The Buckeyes never overlook that Team Up North, or whatever they call them.
But this is already such a weird year, why not? Michigan is going to be talented, as usual, especially on defense where it should have one of the top units in the country. The quarterback position is an unknown, but that’s part of the exciting part in this. I know what Jack Coan is, and I don’t think that’s a QB that can beat Ohio State. I don’t know what Dylan McCaffrey or Joe Milton are quite yet. I do know that whoever the QB is will have a couple of very good receivers and a deep backfield to work with. Besides, Jim Harbaugh is going to beat Ohio State eventually, right? (Sidenote: He should probably stop pissing off Ryan Day.) Though maybe that time is next year, when Ohio State will presumably be starting a redshirt freshman QB (either C.J. Stroud or Jack Miller), Michigan will have a returning starter at QB and the game will be in Ann Arbor.
CONNOR: What if I told you that I’m not banking on Jack Coan beating Ohio State? Yes, I believe the Graham Mertz era begins in 2020.
If there were ever a year for Wisconsin to do a very un-Wisconsin thing, this seems like it’s it. You’ve got a favorable schedule to start the year. You’ve got a defense that can bail you out. You’ve got an offensive line that should once again be one of the nation’s top units with one of the best blind-side protectors in America in Cole Van Lanen. You need somebody who can stretch the field to beat a team like Ohio State. Jonathan Taylor saw loaded box after loaded box in his seemingly annual meetings with the Buckeyes. Mertz can give the Badgers a much-needed downfield passer if given the opportunity.
With Michigan, this thing is the definition of insanity. I’m guilty of it, too. It’s talking ourselves into the possibility that the Wolverines will somehow catch Ohio State off-guard. I’ve now given up on that possibility until Don Brown opts for a more modern defense that can actually account for Ohio State’s ability to stretch the field. For me, it’s not so much about what Michigan has returning at quarterback as it is that I just don’t think the Wolverines have a prayer of slowing down the Ohio State offense. Ryan Day’s offense averaged 59 points in those past 2 meetings against Brown’s defense. At this point, it seems more likely that Ohio State will hit 70 points in Michigan than Brown’s defense will actually string together enough stops to pull out a win.
Here’s an interesting question. So you know how Ohio State had the collapses against Iowa (2017) and Purdue (2018)? Who’s your candidate to somehow pull that off this year?
RYAN: On your Michigan defense point, I hear you. I could say the same thing about Wisconsin offensively, though. If Mertz does overtake Coan for the starting role, that would change the conversation. But until that happens, I’ve seen enough from Wisconsin.
I really can’t see it happening this year, even if a few Ohio State players decide to opt out. The Buckeyes have so much talent that would never see the field in a normal season, but they are still better than many 1st stringers in the Big Ten.
That said, I’m going to go with your alma mater, Indiana. Ohio State should have 3 snoozers to start the season, especially since Rondale Moore has opted out. Indiana, meanwhile, opens the season with Wisconsin, Penn State and Illinois, so my theory is that the Hoosiers are going to have already raised their level of play out of necessity. This Indiana team with 17 returning starters could be even better than last year’s. Michael Penix Jr. has a ton of weapons back from an offense that scored over 30 points in 9 of 13 games. My theory is the Hoosiers can keep up offensively for a while and maybe get a few breaks along the way.
CONNOR: I agree that Ohio State’s odds at an unbeaten season, barring a rash of opt-outs, seems most favorable. I’m still not sure enough people realize that 2019 Ohio State was the first Power 5 team to go 9-0 in conference play and win a conference title in the Playoff era. It’s amazing to think Ohio State’s last B1G loss was that wild night in West Lafayette 2 years ago. I just got super sad thinking about the fact that Moore’s college days are over.
I’m gonna go back to the scene of the crime and say Purdue could pull it off, even without Moore. Purdue and Indiana are in the top 20 in percentage of returning production, and that really didn’t account much for Moore because of his abbreviated 2019. I want someone who will take risks and dial up wild looks and can keep Ohio State off balance. That’s exactly what Jeff Brohm did a couple of years ago, albeit against a struggling, inconsistent defense. Throwing the ball a ton against this Ohio State team as it searches for key replacements in the pass-rushing and coverage departments (that’s a Chase Young and Jeffrey Okudah reference) seems wise.
By the way, I’ve written thousands of stories on Saturday Tradition and I’m not sure I’ve told the world that Indiana is my alma mater. If I have, maybe it only slipped out once or twice? I’ll say that while I’m a Tom Allen believer and I love the point you brought up about the potential of Penix with those weapons, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around Indiana beating an Ohio State team that’s expected to play for a national title.
But hey, I’ve said before that I think if we get a season, it’ll be even crazier than 2007. Perhaps we will see Indiana take down Ohio State in Columbus just like Juice Williams and Illinois did in that insane 2007 season.
Let’s get weird, 2020.