2020 vision: How Ohio State was built for this national title run
Ohio State was seemingly on top of college football in 2015. The Buckeyes were the defending national champs with most all of that core back to defend their crown. Though they were ranked No. 1 in the country for the first 9 weeks of the season, Ohio State lost by 3 to Michigan State and never got the chance in the College Football Playoff.
It’s hard to believe this will be Ohio State’s first appearance in the national title game since that charmed 2014 run. But that’s the way it goes in college football, where the margin for error is so small. Even a near-perfect team like Ohio State’s 2019 squad missed out on the title game after a perfect storm of unfortunate events derailed their chances against Clemson.
On the other hand, sometimes it takes a perfect storm to reach the top of the mountain. Ohio State has been among the nation’s best programs for many years, but for this specific group, there were numerous twists and turns that allowed it to play for a national title.
Here are the most important moves that led Ohio State to the brink of the program’s ninth national championship:
1. Ohio State hires Ryan Day as QB coach, co-OC — and eventually, head coach
Maybe there are other coaches who could’ve come in and continued what Urban Meyer built, since the program was in a really good spot when he left. We’ll never know for sure. But there’s no debating that Ryan Day has done about as good as one could possibly do. Day is 23-1 as Ohio State’s head coach.
Meyer hired Day, who was one of his graduate assistants at Florida in 2005, to be the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach in 2017 after Tim Beck left to take that same role at Texas. At the time, Day had 2 years of NFL experience as a QB coach, as well as OC stints at Temple and Boston College.
Day was such a success in that first season that he reportedly turned down the opportunity to be an SEC head coach after the 2017 season and also turned down the offensive coordinator gig for the Tennessee Titans. That loyalty was soon rewarded.
The key moment came at the start of the 2018 season when Meyer was suspended for the first 3 games as punishment for the Zach Smith scandal. Even with 2 former FBS head coaches on his staff in Greg Schiano and Kevin Wilson, Meyer tabbed Day to coach those 3 games.
Perhaps that 3-game stretch is what gave Ohio State the confidence to promote Day to head coach when Meyer retired at the end of the 2018 season. Or perhaps it was the growing number of high-profile programs who found success promoting from within (Oklahoma with Lincoln Riley, Clemson with Dabo Swinney and Florida State with Jimbo Fisher) and the lack of success of programs who repeatedly just try to make the splashiest hire and need to start over every few years (USC after Pete Carroll, Michigan after Lloyd Carr and Texas after Mack Brown).
Ohio State could’ve gone after whoever it wanted, but it resisted the temptation to do so. It was noteworthy how Day’s offense took off with Dwayne Haskins and it became obvious how good Day was at calling plays. Within the Ohio State program, Day’s promotion was a popular move; nationally, though, it was a little puzzling because the Buckeyes could’ve gotten a much bigger name. Now, Day is that big name that NFL teams would love to hire as their head coach.
And in a weird way, the adversity from that Smith situation probably helped Day. Through the (justifiable) nonstop media coverage and the distractions it produced from actual football, Day was still able to lead Ohio State to wins — much like the 2020 season that has been plagued by stops and starts, whether it be from the Big Ten or COVID. In a season like this with never-ending surprises, Ohio State stayed afloat long enough to reach the CFP and play its best game against Clemson.
2. Hiring Brian Hartline
In 2017, Ohio State hired Hartline — a Buckeyes WR from 2005-08 — as a graduate assistant, and he was promoted to wide receivers coach the following year after Smith’s dismissal. In just 3 years as a position coach, Hartline has transformed Ohio State into a wide receiver factory — both in recruiting and development.
In the last decade, some of Ohio State’s best wide receivers were becoming better NFL players than college players. Think of Michael Thomas and Terry McLaurin (who never had more than 35 catches in a season for Ohio State). But that has changed in recent years.
During Hartline’s first full season, Parris Campbell became Ohio State’s first 1,000-yard receiver since 2002. This year, if not for the shortened season, both Chris Olave (110 yards per game) and Garrett Wilson (96.1) would’ve easily joined that club — and challenged David Boston’s single-season record of 1,435 yards set in 1998. Olave and Wilson’s development as elite wide receivers will be crucial in keeping up with Alabama’s explosive offense.
And even after Olave goes to the NFL, the pipeline is strong, thanks to Hartline’s skill on the recruiting trail. Hartline was the No. 1 recruiter in the country in the 2020 class, per 247Sports. Of note, he landed Julian Fleming, the No. 2 overall recruit, despite him growing up in Penn State’s backyard and his girlfriend already attending Penn State. Hartline has landed 6 top-100 wideouts in the 2020-22 classes.
Hartline’s presence as a coach and a recruiter has been critical and will help Ohio State keep this dynamic offense humming for years to come.
3. Kirby Smart chooses Jake Fromm over Justin Fields
Smart was in a very tough position in the 2018 season. The Georgia head coach had to choose between a rising sophomore who led the Bulldogs to the brink of a national title (Jake Fromm) and the No. 2 overall recruit in the 2018 class (Justin Fields). Fromm started while Fields played in spots. Fields wound up transferring after the season, and he chose Ohio State. Fields (51 total TDs, 3 INTs, 9.2 yards per attempt) was far better than Fromm (30 total TDs, 6 INTs, 7.4 yards per attempt) in 2019, which had to be tough for Georgia fans.
Would Georgia have won national title if it had Fields? Maybe. That roster is so loaded year after year, and it seems they are just missing that elite QB to get it over the hump. Look at how badly Georgia struggled this year at QB.
These last 2 seasons with Fields have been a delight for Buckeye fans, as he has conducted himself with class on and off the field. His insistence on this season even happening will always be remembered. And of course, his performance against Clemson will be one of the most iconic in program history for a long time.
So Ohio State fans owe a big thank you to Smart. I’m not sure if he could’ve done anything differently, but that’s life at a blueblood. Fields’ presence gives Ohio State a chance against anyone, and that includes Alabama.
4. Chris Olave commits to Ohio State
No one could have ever guessed that the 24th-best recruit of Ohio State’s 26-member 2018 class would arguably become its most important player besides Fields. But 3 years in, that’s where we are with Chris Olave. We saw what happened to Ohio State’s offense when he missed the Big Ten Championship Game, and it wasn’t pretty. It’s hard to imagine Ohio State would be the team it is without Olave.
Olave, unlike nearly all of the guys who will be playing for either team Monday night, was just a 3-star recruit. (Gasp!) Ohio State has 66 4-star or 5-star recruits on its roster and only 23 3-star recruits.
It’s kind of amazing that Olave wound up at Ohio State, which only has 5 guys from California. Olave sat out his junior season of high school after transferring, so he wasn’t on Ohio State’s radar. He caught Ohio State’s attention during his senior year, and Ohio State offered on Oct. 7. Michigan and USC both offered later that month. Olave’s final list included UCLA, USC and Utah, so it’s a little surprising that he picked the only school that wasn’t on the West Coast. But Olave obviously knew what he was doing, because he could go in the first round of the NFL Draft.
5. Trey Sermon transfers in from Oklahoma
This was obviously a huge domino and effected multiple teams, as Andy Staples detailed. Sermon left Oklahoma after 3 productive seasons, as he was looking for a chance at more playing time. But Sermon likely would not have transferred if he had known starting running back Kennedy Brooks would’ve opted out of the season due to COVID. Oklahoma sure could’ve used Sermon this season, and Ohio State is glad he’s in Columbus. Sermon has been incredible with 524 rushing yards over the last 2 games.
6. Shawn Wade (and Wyatt Davis) decide to return
There have been star players across the country who have opted out of this season, but Ohio State has its team intact. (Of course, Ohio State has dealt with COVID more than any contender this year.)
The key was when Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis, both potential first-round picks, opted back into this season once the Big Ten came back. Having Wade and Davis in the mix set the tone for the rest of the team, that this was going to be a special season.
Wade could’ve gone to the draft after last season, but he came back with the goal of improving his draft stock and winning a national title.
Winning it all has been on the mind of every Ohio State player since last season, and it’s been in the works for years — move by move.