Forget the Playoff for now, Ohio State has major issues
For the first time since Ryan Day took over for Urban Meyer, Ohio State looks mortal.
Forget, for a moment, how this impacts the Big Ten and whether a 1-loss Ohio State can get in the College Football Playoff over a suddenly-alive Pac-12, a weak ACC or a 2-bid SEC. We’ll get to that. Right now, I’m wondering if Ohio State is even good enough to get there. Or if it is good enough to win a 5th straight Big Ten title.
If there is one thing we’ve learned over the first 2 weeks, it’s that Ohio State’s defense is no better in 2021 than it was in 2020. And the Buckeyes no longer have the near-flawless play of Justin Fields to overcome that.
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No. 3 Ohio State’s 35-28 loss to No. 12 Oregon underscored that the Buckeyes are extremely vulnerable defensively, especially on the edges. The way the Ducks continually ran outside on Ohio State was an eye-opener. For most of Saturday afternoon, the Buckeyes were helpless to stop it.
When you hear Oregon, you think of speed and spread offenses. That was the Ducks under Chip Kelly. That hasn’t been Oregon’s identity under Mario Cristobal, but it was tough to tell the difference on Saturday.
One week after Oregon ran for 75 yards on 30 attempts (2.5 average) against Fresno State, the Ducks gashed the Buckeyes for 269 rushing yards on 38 attempts (7.1 average). And it was even worse at one point until Ohio State managed to get a few stops late in obvious run situations.
Oregon hadn’t gone over 400 total yards in 4 straight games dating to last season; the Ducks went over 500 against Ohio State. It’s a disturbing trend for the Buckeyes’ defense, which just hasn’t been the same since defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley left to become the head coach at Boston College. Kerry Coombs was a terrific position coach for the Buckeyes from 2012-17, but his return as the defensive coordinator for the last year-plus hasn’t gone as planned. The Buckeyes were ripped apart by Alabama in the national title game and shredded by Indiana’s passing attack. Add Oregon to the list.
One of the most underrated story lines in the preseason was that Ohio State had to replace its entire linebacker crew. It’s not often you see an entirely new position group. Replacing Justin Fields was the main topic of conversation, especially when Quinn Ewers made it 4 blue-chip QBs in Columbus. CJ Stroud isn’t perfect, but as you can see from his line of 35-of-54 for 484 yards and 3 TD passes, he isn’t the problem. Ohio State didn’t have the speed defensively to contain the Ducks, as it fell behind by 14 points early in the second half and was unable to recover.
Oregon running back CJ Verdell regularly got to the edge and averaged over 8 yards per carry. Think about all of the good running backs in the Big Ten; Tyler Goodson (Iowa), Kenneth Walker III (Michigan State), Chez Mellusi (Wisconsin) and Noah Cain (Penn State) come to mind. Ohio State is going to have to get a lot better.
If 612 yards of offense isn’t good enough, what is? Obviously Ohio State left a lot on the table and should’ve had more than 28 points, but you can’t ask for much more from Stroud this early in his career. Do the Buckeyes have to score 40 or 50 in every big game to have a chance at winning? Against legitimate programs, it sure seems like it.
Ohio State faces an uphill climb to the CFP; the 2019 Buckeyes are the only Power 5 team to go unbeaten in conference play with a 9-game league schedule. When the Buckeyes ran the table in 2014 after the early loss to Virginia Tech, it was still an 8-game league schedule. Ohio State has a 22-game winning streak against B1G teams, but that won’t last forever. Minnesota led Ohio State at halftime in Week 1, and we’ve seen Ohio State’s leaky defense get exposed before (in 2017 at Iowa and 2018 at Purdue).
At Ohio State, it’s Big Ten title or bust. It’s national title or bust. Anything less than that is a season unfulfilled. Now, there’s obviously no margin for error. The Buckeyes have to win 11 straight (including 9 B1G games) just to have a chance at reaching the CFP for the third straight year.
For the Big Ten, Saturday could prove costly. This was the breakthrough that the Pac-12 had been waiting for, and Oregon will need to lose at least twice to fall below the Buckeyes. It’s early, but Georgia and Alabama both look destined for the CFP. Clemson has an early loss to Georgia, but its schedule (no Notre Dame, North Carolina or Miami) is comically easy and it will have a good chance to run the table. And that’s not even getting into Notre Dame and the Big 12, which will also be in the conversation.
So yeah, Ohio State and the Big Ten face an uphill battle. It’s a long season and this was a non-conference game, but Saturday will likely loom quite large come December.