The best offense in the nation, a top 10 ranking, a Heisman front-runner … just another season for Ohio State.

But because 2021 ended shy of the College Football Playoff, it fell short of expectations in Columbus. That said, the Buckeyes return a ton of talent and added an aggressive defensive coordinator in Jim Knowles. Will 2022 end where the Buckeyes want to be? Here are 10 questions that will largely tell the tale.

1) What does CJ Stroud need to do to win the Heisman?

Sure, individual awards are a much less important matter than team success. But with Stroud opening the season as 1 of 2 clear Heisman frontrunners (along with Bama’s Bryce Young), it’s worth considering if he can become OSU’s first Heisman winner in over a decade and a half. Frankly, Young being the defending Heisman winner probably helps Stroud’s chances as much as anything, because Heisman voters don’t like the same player winning twice — which is why it’s only happened once.

That aside, if Stroud a) leads OSU to the CFP, b) plays at a similar level to 2021, and c) does not miss a month or more of the season due to injuries or other issues, that’ll probably be enough to win the Heisman. None of those are small things, but it’s entirely within reach.

2) Is anybody irreplaceable?

Stroud is the main name in question, but other stars such as RB TreVeyon Henderson and WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba come to mind. How would OSU react if they lost any of them?

Sure, Stroud is one of the top players at his position in the nation, but OSU with backup QB Kyle McCord running the offense would still be at about 90% capability — which is probably enough to win the Big Ten. Henderson has good depth behind him, and while OSU’s receiving corps is talented, Smith-Njigba’s experience as an All-America-level No. 1 receiver is probably the biggest potential loss to OSU. That said, none of these players missed significant time last season, and they probably won’t this season. But if they did, Smith-Njigba might be the biggest loss.

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3) Speaking of Smith-Njigba, which receiver will explode like he did in 2021?

Last year, OSU had Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. But Smith-Njigba’s massive season (95 catches, 1,606 yards, 9 TDs) actually outshone his highly decorated teammates. So who will be the exploding receiver of 2022?

Here’s a few early guesses. Marvin Harrison Jr. shone in the Rose Bowl, making 3 touchdown grabs in his first OSU start. Julian Fleming has peacefully bided his time, but he does everything well, and might be the most immediately ready second target behind Smith-Njigba. Sophomore Emeka Egbuka showed big skills on kick returns, and could be the most explosive. But even if none of those 3 goes for 95 catches or 1,606 yards, the 3 together almost certainly will do so. It might be quantity winning out in the OSU receiver room.

4) What will new OL coach Justin Frye’s impact be?

While OSU had the nation’s top offense in 2021, there were still some small tweaks to make, and the addition of Frye is an intriguing one.

OSU rushed for 180 yards per game and 5.5 per carry last year, but in several games, the team ended up playing catch-up and almost abandoning the run. No, we don’t need old time B1G football with Stroud and a bunch of speedy receivers around. But look for OSU to be more physical up front, and address its meager 3.1 yards per carry in its losses last year. Tackle Paris Johnson looks to be ready to become the next great OSU lineman, and Frye will probably run behind him in the 4th quarter to great advantage.

5) Can Knowles fix the defense?

Last year, coordinator Kerry Coombs had his play-calling duties stripped away early in the season, and the Buckeye defense allowed 22.8 points per game and 373 yards per game. Those numbers weren’t bad, but Oregon and Michigan beat the Buckeyes by running the ball down their throat and controlling those games. Knowles comes from Oklahoma State, and the immediate thing that jumps out from his OSU defenses is that each season under Knowles, OSU allowed fewer points, yards per carry and yards per game — well, that and OSU managing 57 sacks last season.

Knowles inherits more talent than he had in Stillwater. Ohio State will be more aggressive, will play a 4-2-5 system, and boasts plenty of talented players who can use a fresh start. But the road to the CFP runs through an improved defense for the Buckeyes.

6) Is it (finally) Zach Harrison’s year?

A season ago, speculation was that Harrison was ready to step up and emerge as a consistent force up front for the Buckeyes. It didn’t happen — Harrison’s 34 tackles and 4 sacks wasn’t a bad year, but there’s still another level for Harrison to crack. Knowles’s influence should be a good one, and with players like Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau ready to take his time, Harrison better be ready, or he’ll be left behind.

7) Who steps up in the secondary?

While OSU faced merciless running offenses in the losses to Oregon and Michigan, the Buckeye secondary had trouble all season, allowing 246 passing yards per game. Some of those numbers were empty stats that came as a result of reserves playing while OSU led by multiple touchdowns. But the Buckeyes have to fix the secondary.

Returnees Denzel Burke (12 passes broken up last year) and Ronnie Hickman (team-high 100 tackles) can be counted on. Transfer Tanner McCalister comes over with Knowles from Oklahoma State, and his talent and experience will help. But there are a few other spots that are still wide-open. In a 4-2-5, the Buckeyes need to have 7-8 dependable DBs to rotate. Players like Josh Proctor and Cameron Brown have some experience, but it’ll be interesting to see who rises up the depth chart this fall.

8) Who blows up on the defense?

One guy who gets forgotten in the list of returning stars and 5-star recruits is linebacker Steele Chambers. Chambers began 2021 as a running back and moved over to linebacker in fall camp, making  tremendous strides after playing offense for 2 seasons, making 47 tackles and 5 tackles for loss. The learning curve is steep for this guy, who brings that next-level speed to an incredibly pass-happy B1G. Don’t be surprised if Chambers ends up all-Big Ten in 2022.

9) What’s the game that could ruin the season?

Here are two — Notre Dame in the opener can’t exactly ruin the season. Losing that game would be not unlike losing in Week 2 to Oregon last year. But it would give every game a must-win feel for the duration and get the season off to a lousy start, so let’s consider that possibility. The other is Oct. 8 at Michigan State. Sparty hasn’t even challenged the Buckeyes in years and probably won’t here. But it is OSU’s first road trip and another chance for the wheels to fall off the wagon.

10) Can OSU win it all?

Can they? Sure. Returning most of the standouts from the best offense in the nation and adding a more aggressive defense makes OSU a presumptive favorite in the Big Ten. Win the league, head to the CFP, hopefully play a non-SEC foe in the semifinal and then pull out another 2014-style finish.

OSU’s margin for error is probably a single regular-season game. Heading into the Michigan game last year, a win there would have set the stage for OSU to waltz into the CFP. But a second stumble would sink the Buckeyes again. But OSU doesn’t go on the road until October and only Michigan State and Penn State are compelling road foes. If not now, when?