A national championship might be the goal, but Ohio State has one focus right now: Minnesota
Ohio State had an entire offseason to let the feeling of last year’s national championship result marinate. A successful 2020 campaign had been overshadowed by a blowout loss to an Alabama team that will be remembered as one of Nick Saban’s best.
Competing for a national title is the goal every year in Columbus, and it will be the expectation again as the Buckeyes enter the 2021 season. Ryan Day doesn’t hide from the championship-or-bust mentality at Ohio State. He also understands that four months and 12 regular season games stand between the Buckeyes’ season opener and an opportunity to make some noise in the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes can’t put the cart before the horse. That’s why Day is placing such a heavy emphasis on the one-day-at-a-time mentality with his team. Ohio State might one of the preseason favorites to win it all, but all the attention in Columbus is focused on the Sept. 2 trip to the Twin Cities.
“We start right away. And I think the easy thing to do coming off of last year is to focus on…how do we get back to the national championship?” Day said at B1G Media Days. “But more importantly, this year it’s going to be how do we win that first game at Minnesota?”
Although the Golden Gophers finished last season with a 3-4 record, which included blowout losses to Michigan and Iowa, P.J. Fleck is returning the most veteran squad in the B1G. They have all the pieces to give Ohio State fits in a 60-minute showdown at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Minnesota returns 10 offensive lineman that have combined for over 150 collegiate starts. Under center is third-year starting quarterback Tanner Morgan. In the backfield is Mohamed Ibrahim, the B1G’s reigning Running Back of the Year. Chris Autman-Bell looks poised for a breakout year as the featured receiver in the passing game.
Defensively, the Gophers bring back their top player at each level — Boye Mafe on the defensive line, Mariano Sori-Marin at linebacker and Coney Durr in the secondary. Even with the struggles on that side of the ball last season, Minnesota has some confidence knowing it has experience in every position group.
That’s why Day isn’t looking past the first game of the season.
“They have one of the most experienced and veteran teams there is in the country,” Day said. “So, it’s going to be a major challenge for us. Going on the road, we haven’t played in front of fans in a long time. It’s a huge challenge.”
When you consider all the factors at play, it’s a perfect storm for an upset.
Ohio State will have a new face (likely C.J. Stroud) at quarterback and a first-time starter in the backfield. The Buckeyes lost all of their starting linebackers from a season ago and have some question marks in the secondary.
A younger Ohio State squad is going on the road to play in front of a sold-out crowd in Minneapolis a week before a high-profile game against Oregon with College Football Playoff implications. It’s the most difficult Week 1 test Day has faced in his short three years leading the program.
Fall camp preparation is as critical as it’s ever been in Columbus.
“We have a young team. We’re going to have a young quarterback. We have to start the season really strong,” Day said. “So, this preseason is going to be very, very important to us. We have to really come out of the gates strong as we head into that first game.”
It’s not like Ohio State is going into Huntington Bank Stadium with the cupboards bare. This is still a team that has the best one-two punch at wide receiver with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson on the outside. Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford make up arguably the best offensive tackle combination in the country. Freshman TreVeyon Henderson and Master Teague should pack a pretty strong punch out of the backfield.
Simply put, the Buckeyes should still have that explosive offense even with a new starter under center.
There are more questions on defense, but that unit is fortified by a strong defensive line that features Haskell Garrett, Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and newcomer Jack Sawyer. Ohio State should be able to find success in the trenches, even against a seasoned Minnesota front.
“The good news is we’re not that young up front. We do have really good depth on the defensive line,” Day said. “A lot of guys coming back — Haskell Garrett, Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Antwuan Jackson, Taron Vincent. We’re as deep as we’ve been on the D-line.”
Ohio State still enters the season as the most talented team in the B1G. Recruiting at an incredibly high level paired with returning stars like Olave, Wilson, Munford, Garrett and Harrison provide the Buckeyes with some experience and leadership.
Even with a young squad, the goal is still to play in the National Championship Game at the end of the season. But that’s not the top priority for Day and the Buckeyes right now.
“It sounds like coach talk, but in order to get back here is figure out a way to win the first game,” Day said. “Otherwise, it doesn’t matter.”