Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for Ohio State football in 2020
Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series starts with Ohio State and continues over the next two weeks, going first through the Big Ten East and then the West. Coming Tuesday: Penn State.
Doesn’t it seem so long ago that we were breaking down the legality of Shaun Wade’s hit on Trevor Lawrence, or Chris Olave’s broken route that led to the game-ending interception?
The world has flipped upside down since Ohio State’s loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal. The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the nation, and star players all across the country are skipping the season to prep for the NFL Draft.
But the last time we saw Ohio State, it walked off the State Farm Stadium field at the Fiesta Bowl with shoulders slumped. Olave reportedly didn’t eat solid food for 3 or 4 days afterward. It seemed like the team with the No. 1 defense in the country and the No. 4 offense was destined to play for a national title, but it came up short.
And now, as the Buckeyes enter a highly anticipated season, it seems only a pandemic can stop them from getting their shot at revenge on Clemson.
2019 record: 13-1 (9-0), 1st in B1G East
Will they play?
As stars around the country have opted to sit out this season and get ready for the draft, Ohio State notably still has its team intact. The Buckeyes have four players who could go in the first round (Justin Fields, Wade, Wyatt Davis and Olave), plus a bunch more guys who will be drafted. Wade and Davis flirted with the idea of skipping the season, but once it was clear that the Big Ten was proceeding this fall, they opted back in.
The question that all players have asked themselves is whether it’s worth it to play this season or not, given the unknown health risks of COVID-19. Ohio State players are in a unique position from many of their peers, though, in that they have legitimate national title aspirations. That’s a tough thing to pass up. When you train for years with a group of guys and your goal is in sight, that’s a tough bond to break.
Even if Ohio State had a few players decide to sit out this season, the 2-deep is loaded with 4- and 5-star recruits that are craving a chance to play. The Buckeyes have 14 5-star recruits on the roster, and six of them are slated to be backups in 2020. Aside from Olave, who was somehow only a 3-star recruit, every starter was at least a 4-star recruit in high school. And nearly all the seconnd-stringers, with a few exceptions, were too.
The biggest potential domino was Fields. Since he is playing, the chances were that his teammates would follow his lead, since his presence makes Ohio State one of the top two teams in the country. If he decided to opt out, some teammates probably follow. As of now, Fields is a go.
Even if Fields, Wade and Davis had opted out, Ohio State would have been favored to win the Big Ten — just not the national title. But hey, who can forget 2014 when Ohio State went through three QBs and still won it all?
Potentially scary offense
Since Ohio State will apparently have its full complement of players, look out. Fields has two established stars at wideout in Olave and Garrett Wilson, plus a group of freshmen wideouts (led by 5-star recruits Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba) that likely includes several future NFL players. With what looks like one of the top offensive lines in the country, Fields is going to put up huge numbers. He is coming off a season in which he threw 41 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions.
Think of a Fields-led offense going against teams such as Rutgers and Michigan State that have new defensive coordinators and very limited practice time due to the pandemic. And other defenses such as Maryland and Nebraska that have struggled in recent years. Add in a high-quality backs such as Trey Sermon and Master Teague, and well, Ohio State is going to be tough to stop — maybe even more so than usual.
Holding Ohio State under 40 points would be cause for celebration — and probably won’t happen very often in the regular season.
Next batch of stars
Even though Ohio State didn’t lose any defensive players to opt-outs, there is still a ton of turnover from 2019’s top-ranked unit. Just four starters return. Chase Young and Jeff Okudah are gone. So who will the next great Ohio State defensive players be? We’re about to find out.
Wade’s move from slot corner to the outside is worth watching and already a popular storyline (it’s the only reason he hasn’t left for the NFL), but there are going to be guys on this defense who become household names after waiting their turn to crack the lineup, just as Young and Okudah did before them. So while Ohio State seems inexperienced on that side, just wait. The talent will take over.
Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown are in their first years as starters, but either could emerge as the next in Ohio State’s long line of defensive backs drafted in the first round (6 in the last 4 years). Zach Harrison is pegged as Ohio State’s next great pass rusher. Safety Josh Proctor is compared to former first-round pick Malik Hooker. And on, and on, and on.
There will be no shortage of star power, even if it doesn’t seem like it now.
Week 1: vs. Nebraska (W)
First of all, you have to feel for Nebraska. It was very vocal throughout the Big Ten postponement, even more so than Ohio State, and it feels like B1G commissioner Kevin Warren saddled the Huskers with the Buckeyes. Ouch.
But it should make for great television, at least for a quarter or so. Remember all the hype heading into last year’s game in Lincoln? College GameDay was there, Nebraska announced its new indoor facility, and BAM! Ohio State dropped 38 first-half points and led by 48 in the third quarter. You get the feeling that Ohio State lives for those sorts of environments. Anyways, Ohio State shouldn’t have any trouble this year, either, as Nebraska continues to try to build its program under Scott Frost.
Week 2: at Penn State (W)
Is it possible that we’ll know the Big Ten East Division champion after two weeks? It appears that way. This will be Ohio State’s most difficult game up until the CFP. This series has produced some terrific games, even if the Buckeyes have won 7 of the last 9 meetings. Ohio State won by a single point in 2017 and 2018 and by 11 last season — though Penn State starting QB Sean Clifford left with an injury. Without Micah Parsons or 110,000 fans at Beaver Stadium (like there were for the 2018 game), this isn’t nearly as scary. But Penn State still has plenty of talent, especially offensively, and should be able to keep up with Ohio State. Fields may have to make some plays late to win, depending on how the Buckeyes perform defensively.
Week 3: vs. Rutgers (W)
The only question in this one will be, how many points does Ohio State want to score? It is probably the ideal game after facing Penn State. Contrast this schedule with what Ohio State dealt with in 2019 (Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks leading up to the CFP), and it seems a lot more breathable, even if the Penn State game arrives sooner than expected. Fun fact: Ohio State and Rutgers have only met six times (all in the last 6 years), and last year’s 35-point win for Ohio State was the closest game. Poor Rutgers. I think Greg Schiano would’ve been fine if this game was moved to the spring.
Week 4: at Maryland (W)
Ohio State always seems ready to go offensively against the Terrapins, as its worst scoring game in the six meetings between these teams is 49 points. Maryland has been able to put up some points on the Buckeyes, most notably the 51 in a near upset in 2018. But Ohio State’s defense was a mess that year, and it seems to be in a much better spot now.
Week 5: vs. Indiana (W)
When thinking about what could be the 2020 version of Iowa (2017) or Purdue (2018), this is the game that caught my eye. Granted, it’s at home, but since there won’t be fans, how much does home field really matter? That’s to be determined. But anyways, my theory is that Ohio State will have coasted through its last two games, and a rising Indiana program with 17 returning starters and a very good QB could hang around for a while. I could see this being one of Ohio State’s closest games, which may mean still winning by 21.
Week 6: at Illinois (W)
Welcome to Champaign, Illinois, where undefeated seasons go to die — if you’re Wisconsin. Ohio State, however, shouldn’t have any issues against a team that would be happy just to make a bowl game again. It is more of a trap game than I originally thought, as it was supposed to be on Thursday night to kick off Labor Day Weekend, which would’ve meant the entire country was watching and thus a great chance for Ohio State to make a statement. Now it’s just a random game on the day that Ohio State usually plays Michigan. Just for fun, I think Ryan Day should remind his guys that Illinois starting QB Brandon Peters used to play for That Team Up North (sorry, Brandon).
Week 7: at Michigan State (W)
Once upon a time, this is a game that would be circled on Ohio State’s schedule. From 2011-16, the teams split their six matchups, with neither winning by more than 12 points. But the last three games have been snoozefests, with Ohio State winning by an average of almost 30 points. This year will be more of that with Michigan State rebuilding under Mel Tucker.
Week 8: vs. Michigan (W)
As if Ohio State didn’t want to beat Michigan badly enough, Jim Harbaugh reportedly accused Ryan Day and the Buckeyes of cheating (though that was like seven news cycles ago). Fields and the rest of the Buckeyes have sounded locked in throughout the pandemic, so it’s just hard to envision this game going differently from the way it’s been for 16 years (featuring 15 Ohio State wins). Day reportedly said he wants to score 100 on the Wolverines this season — which isn’t too far off from the 56 and 62 the Buckeyes have put up the last 2 years. It’s also worth noting how strange it is seeing this game in December. It is nice that it is the regular-season finale, though, as the second edition of the Big Ten schedule had this one in the middle of the season. That would’ve been the first time Ohio State hasn’t finished the regular season against Michigan since 1934. I’m glad it’s in this spot, even if it isn’t 2 days after Thanksgiving like usual.
2020 projection: 8-0 (1st in B1G East)
The bottom line is that it’s hard to predict Ohio State losing any games with its full complement of players. The only date that would give me pause would be the Penn State game. But with Micah Parsons out, Ohio State may be double-digit favorites, even on the road.
As long as Ohio State stays healthy and doesn’t have players opting out, it would be shocking to see Ohio State lose a regular-season game. That would put the Buckeyes in the CFP, where I predict they avenge that loss they have been thinking about for the last 9 months and win the national championship. A lot can happen between now and then, and as we’ve already seen with LSU and Oklahoma, there are going to be some head-scratching results. But I think the Buckeyes have fewer flaws than any team in the country, and that depth will enable it to push past whatever obstacles come their way.