Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series begins today with Ohio State. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team. Up next: Penn State

You may not like Ohio State, but you have to respect the Buckeyes.

What they did in 2020 was nothing short of remarkable. The back-and-forth with the Big Ten, only getting to play 5 regular season games and the constant chatter surrounding the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff candidacy … it was all a lot to deal with. And Ohio State met every challenge on the way to the national title game. It wasn’t always pretty (thanks to Northwestern), but Ohio State left little doubt that it was the No. 2 team in the country.

After reaching the CFP in 2 straight seasons, what will Ohio State do in the post-Justin Fields era?

NFL departures sting, but the cupboard is far from bare

No team had more players drafted (10) than Ohio State in 2021, and only LSU (21) has more than Ohio State’s 20 drafted players over the last 2 years. And yet, Ohio State still features undeniably one of the best rosters in the sport — if not the very best.

The Buckeyes opened the season at No. 5 in the Coaches Poll, but that’s largely due to the fact that they are replacing Justin Fields and have a 4-way competition at QB (more on that below). It’s hard to rank a team any higher than that when you don’t even know who the starter will be, who the backup will be and who the backup to the backup will be.

Here’s what we do know: Ohio State has the best collection of wide receivers in the country and the best offensive line in the country. It’s an absurd collection of talent.

The Buckeyes may start 4 tackles this season. Thayer Munford, a 3-year starter at left tackle, may move inside to make room for 6-foot-8 Dawand Jones. Paris Johnson, the No. 1 tackle in the 2020 class, is going to play guard this season before moving outside next season.

With Chris Olave’s surprising return, an already-crowded wide receiver group is even more so. The Buckeyes have the No. 1 wideout in the 2020 and 2021 classes (Julian Fleming and Emeka Egbuka), and both are going to be battling just to get on the field. Garrett Wilson and Olave will both likely be 1st-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.

So yeah, Ohio State is going to be every bit as loaded as usual, despite the departures to the NFL.

All eyes are on …

The QB competition, obviously.

We’ve seen great collections of QB talent on one roster before, but the unique thing about this QB room is that all of them have 4 years of eligibility left. It isn’t like there will be a guaranteed opening in a year or two; the winner could conceivably hold onto this thing through the 2024 season. Is that likely? Not at all, when you factor in injuries, potentially entering the NFL Draft and poor performance. But with no clear opening, whoever doesn’t win this battle will be highly incentivized to hit the Transfer Portal.

C.J. Stroud (the likely starter), Jack Miller, Kyle McCord and Quinn Ewers are all blue-chip recruits who are good enough to start at most programs around the country. The fact that they are all together in one locker room is nothing short of ridiculous. Ewers, the No. 1 recruit in the 2022 class who recently reclassified to 2021, is a fun story, but he will likely spend this season learning before challenging for the job next season. The one to watch is McCord. He is a 5-star guy with no real path to playing time, as Stroud is expected to start. How will Ryan Day keep McCord happy?

The only thing that can hold the Buckeyes back is …

Defense. Right? I can’t get that final game of the 2020 season out of my head. Alabama was a generational offense, but allowing 621 yards to anyone is unacceptable. And remember, DeVonta Smith didn’t even play in the second half, and Jaylen Waddle was at what, 50 percent? Michael Penix Jr. shredded Ohio State’s secondary with almost 500 passing yards.

The goal for the Buckeyes is to win a national title, and they have legitimate means to do so in most years. But look at who the Buckeyes will potentially be matched up with in the College Football Playoff: Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma), Bryce Young (Oklahoma), D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson) and JT Daniels (Georgia). These are some of the best quarterbacks in the country, and all of those teams should have explosive offenses. The days of holding a good team under 20 points are ancient history, but can the Buckeyes hold one of those QBs under 30? Or at least under 35?

The defense, at this point, is the biggest question mark. The Buckeyes lost their top 5 tacklers from 2020 and will have an entirely new batch of linebackers. The secondary was a mess last season. After such a dominant 2019, Ohio State was 77th in yards per play allowed. The defense was not the same without an elite rusher such as Chase Young or a Bosa brother. Can Zach Harrison fill that role?

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If Ohio State can’t figure it out defensively, it will not seriously contend for a national championship. It won’t stop Oklahoma, it won’t stop Alabama and it won’t stop Georgia.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Minnesota (W)

There will be no shortage of intrigue for this one. How will Ryan Day handle the QB situation? How will C.J. Stroud play under the bright lights? In all likelihood, Ohio State’s offensive line will dominate one of the worst run defenses in FBS last season, and the QB will get eased in. I could see Ohio State rolling 42-21 in the opener.

Week 2: vs. Oregon (W)

The last time these teams met was in the 2014 national title game, so there aren’t quite the same stakes. But it’s still a juicy matchup, especially after last year’s affair got canceled due to COVID. With it being the first full house at the Horseshoe since 2019 and likely being in primetime on Saturday night, the atmosphere should be electric. Even though Oregon is ranked No. 12 to start the season, it’s hard to imagine Ohio State not winning handily as there is still a substantial talent gap.

Week 3: vs. Tulsa (W)

The Golden Hurricane should be one of the better teams in the AAC, but this should be an opportunity for Ohio State to get its younger players some experience. Maybe the Buckeyes start slow, like when these teams met in 2016, but it shouldn’t be close in the second half.

Week 4: Akron (W)

Fun fact: Akron is the only MAC school to ever beat Ohio State. Another fun fact: That was in 1894. Times have changed. Next.

Week 5: at Rutgers (W)

Rutgers has come a long way in the year since Greg Schiano was hired, but not far enough. The Buckeyes have won all 7 meetings against Rutgers — and by an average of 43 points. Last year’s 35-point win counts as a close one.

Week 6: vs. Maryland (W)

This was one of the matchups I was disappointed to miss out on last year. I really wanted to see Taulia Tagovailoa against a very beatable Ohio State secondary. I’m no betting expert, but this could be one of those games where the over hits easily. The Buckeyes did put up 705 yards in the teams’ last matchup in 2019.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: at Indiana (L)

I think Ohio State is going to lose a Big Ten game, something it hasn’t done since 2018. Will it be this one? I’m not sure. But I think this is the best bet, even though the Buckeyes are coming off a bye. Heck, maybe they’ll be rusty. Maybe they’ll use the extended break to switch quarterbacks, depending on how C.J. Stroud is performing. Maybe they’ll be overlooking the Hoosiers with Penn State visiting the following week. The fact is, even the most talented teams lose. It happened in 2017 (Iowa) and 2018 (Purdue). Oklahoma loses Big 12 games every year, and Clemson loses an ACC game in most years.

Why Indiana? Well, I know is the Hoosiers are not scared of Ohio State. Michael Penix Jr., who nearly threw for 500 yards in the 42-35 loss last year, is not scared of Ohio State. Ty Fryfogle is not scared of Ohio State. Indiana started the season ranked No. 17 and has a ton of momentum coming off its best season in over 50 years.

Week 9: vs. Penn State (W)

Coming off a loss against Indiana, Ohio State will be playing for its College Football Playoff life. It will be Ryan Day’s first true setback on the field (that didn’t end the season) where he’ll have to make in-season adjustments. And just in terms of pure talent, Penn State is as close to Ohio State’s equal as there is in the Big Ten, as they have at the very least stayed within 2 scores in 5 straight meetings. But there’s no way the Buckeyes are losing 2 in a row.

Week 10: at Nebraska (W)

Poor Nebraska. This annual meeting is an annual stomping, with the Buckeyes having won the last 6 matchups by an average of 34.5 points per game. It’ll be interesting to see where the Huskers are at this point, as they very easily could be 5-3 and vying for their first bowl game under Scott Frost. But Ohio State does seem to get up for this game every year, which means it won’t be closer than 3 scores.

Week 11: vs. Purdue (W)

It would’ve been fun to see Rondale Moore against Ohio State again, but alas, we’ll just get David Bell by himself. I can’t imagine this one will go like the last time these teams squared off in 2018 (a 49-20 Purdue win). In fact, I could see the opposite score this time around, as it has been all downhill from there for Purdue.

Week 12: vs. Michigan State (W)

I don’t think Ohio State will get caught looking ahead to Michigan, even with the Spartans rebuilding. The Buckeyes will have an advantage at every position.

Week 13: at Michigan (W)

The strangest part of the COVID year was not getting the games that we are accustomed to, and The Game was at the top of that list. Even though it’s been lopsided in recent years — Ohio State has won 8 straight and 15 of 16 in this series — it was still a shame to not see this game in 2020.

As for the game itself, hard to imagine the series not continuing in the same manner. One of these years, Michigan is going to win this game again, but this does not appear to be that year. Ohio State will have an advantage at virtually every position.

2021 projection: 11-1, 1st in B1G East

While the loss to Indiana comes as a shock to those who have gotten used to the Buckeyes rolling through the Big Ten, ultimately, it won’t hurt them, thanks to Penn State and Iowa picking up the slack against the Hoosiers. Anything short of a Big Ten title and berth in the CFP would be deemed a failure, because that’s who Ohio State is now. There are probably 3 other programs in that same boat (Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma), and those are the 4 teams that everyone excepts to be in the CFP every year (until Oklahoma joins the SEC).

Ohio State isn’t ranked as high in the preseason because the QB position is unknown. But by the time the postseason rolls around, the Buckeyes will have that position figured out and, with the strength of the rest of the roster, be a very tough team to beat.