This is the first in a series previewing the 2022 outlook for Big Ten teams. Tomorrow: Michigan

Ohio State won 11 games, had a Heisman finalist QB and finished the season with a Rose Bowl victory. But 2 losses knocked the Buckeyes out of the B1G title hunt and the CFP … which is the standard in Columbus. The dust is barely settled on the 2021 season and it’s time to start thinking about 2022. The good news is that the Buckeyes have plenty of reason for optimism.

What worked in 2021

Basically, the offense worked. Ohio State led the nation in scoring (45.7 PPG) and yardage (561.2 yards per game). Ohio State returned zero career college passing attempts at QB and handed the starting halfback role to a true freshman … and didn’t miss a beat. QB CJ Stroud was superb, finishing second on the OSU single-season lists in yardage and TDs (4,435 yards, 44 TDs). TreVeyon Henderson wasn’t quite as consistent, but 1,255 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns isn’t exactly chopped liver. With returning stars Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson being joined by Jaxon Smith-Njigba, OSU had one of the best receiver trios in the history of college football.

Ohio State had 600 yards of offense in a game 5 times in the season, and never managed under 458 total yards. Only twice did OSU fail to pass for 300 yards — against Tulsa and by 6 yards in the opener against Minnesota. OSU averaged 5.5 yards per carry and even aside from Henderson, Miyan Williams and Master Teague also ran the ball well. The Buckeyes offensive line allowed just 17 sacks all season, and frankly, all hummed along well on the offensive front.

Special teams play was solid, with excellent work in both the kicking and return games. Kick return defense had some struggles in the Rose Bowl, but that was a pretty isolated issue.

What didn’t work in 2021

Basically, the defense didn’t work. Sure, that’s an oversimplification. Ohio State gave up 22.8 points and 372.6 yards per game. That’s 9th in the Big Ten, in the middle of the national standings, and was representative of a group that played much worse than its numbers.

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State allowed 245.8 passing yards per game, which is 12th in the conference. While some of that was due to playing from ahead in many games, OSU was 9th in the conference in passing efficiency defense, which is to say that they got burned way too much in the air. The Buckeyes allowed more than 360 passing yards 3 times, including 428 yards against Tulsa.

The Buckeyes were better vs. the run, finishing 6th in the league by allowing 126.8 yards per game and just under 3.7 yards per carry. That said, in OSU’s 2 losses, the Buckeyes run defense was awful, as it allowed 269 rushing yards to Oregon and 297 to Michigan.

State didn’t develop an elite pass rush, and while Denzel Burke was solid in the secondary, the OSU back seven had many legitimate moments of struggle. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs lost his play-calling duties in the first month, and his successor, Matt Barnes, is headed to Memphis. Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State is the new coordinator, and his work is cut out for him.

The weird thing is that the talent is there. Yes, OSU lost all of its starting linebackers after 2020, but there are plenty of talented players, many of whom showed flashes of stardom. Tommy Eichenberg could evolve into a star at linebacker. Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau could be first-round draft picks. But whether it was chemistry or scheme or just bad luck, the defense never really came together for the Buckeyes, and the coaching changes tell the story.

Key losses

The Buckeyes do lose plenty of talent, not that it’s unusual. Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett was definitely OSU’s most consistent presence on the defensive line, and he’s gone. Offensive tackle Thayer Munford likewise is off to the NFL, as is bookend tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere, and OSU will need someone to take the mantle as the leader of the offensive line. Wideouts Olave and Wilson are both gone, and both were All-America talents, although the cupboard behind them is far from empty.

The players listed above are the known losses, although OSU is likely to lose more talented players to the transfer portal and perhaps the NFL. The QB depth chart has already thinned out behind Stroud, and it wouldn’t be shocking if the running back room similarly had a few exits. Perhaps not obvious but significant, graduate kicker Noah Ruggles will be gone next season. He was quietly excellent, and if OSU finds its season hinging on a kick, it’ll be apparent how significant Ruggles was — and how hard he could be to replace.

Key returnees

Well, Stroud, Henderson and Smith-Njiba are all back. So yes, OSU returns a Heisman finalist QB, a future NFL running back, and the guy who now owns most of  the school’s single-season receiving records. So save your tears for somebody else.

Up front, disappointing defensive end Zach Harrison might return for his senior year, and if he does, he’ll automatically be a key to the defensive transition. Burke will be a fixture in OSU’s secondary, and again, will be a key component of a move to a new coordinator and possible new style of play.

The loss of both starting offensive tackles might be the hardest thing to overcome, but again, the Buckeyes don’t replace guys, they just reload with the next group of 5-star standouts. Speaking of which …

Key recruits

OSU had 247sports’s No. 4 recruiting class in the nation, which is the best non-SEC class in the country. While OSU has plenty of depth, there’s still room for guys to play early, like Burke and Henderson, both of whom starred as true freshmen in 2022. Given OSU’s linebacking issues, two guys who will get a shot right away are early enrollees CJ Hicks and Gabe Powers. Both have the skill sets to contribute early, with Hicks as the nation’s No. 12 prospect and Powers an in-state kid who is ranked No. 61 in the country. Sonny Styles is a 5-star guy who could fit in at safety, at linebacker, or as a hybrid, if the new defense includes such things.

Don’t forget QB Devin Brown, particularly if OSU doesn’t add some veteran players in the portal. Stroud is definitely the man, but in college football, the backup is always a single snap away from being the starter.

The issue in Columbus won’t be talent. The Buckeyes have as much or more than virtually anyone in the sport. How much talent? Enough to basically coast to 11-2. But of course, 11-2 isn’t the goal in Columbus. Can the Buckeyes go farther? Much will depend on the defense, but there’s plenty of reason to think things trend up.