The Ohio State football program won’t make it to the College Football Playoff this coming season unless quarterback Justin Fields takes that proverbial next step.
The skinny: The Buckeyes lost some serious talent on both sides of the ball last season as players like Chase Young, Jeff Okudah and J.K. Dobbins (among others) moved on to the NFL. This year’s team will almost certainly not be as potent on defense due to the departures of Young and Okudah, and the offense will be more inexperienced as well.
Skill position questions on offense: Dobbins is gone, and so are receivers K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor — all of whom had significant roles for the Buckeyes last season.
- Who replaces Dobbins? By far, the biggest loss to Ohio State’s offense was Dobbins, who was the driving force behind the Buckeyes’ attack last year. His presumptive replacement, Master Teague, reportedly suffered a torn Achilles in the first spring practice. That leaves the likes of Marcus Crawley (also out with an injury), Steele Chambers, Demario McCall and walk-ons like Xavier Johnson and Robert Cop.
- Slot games? K.J. Hill was so darn consistent as a slot specialist for the Buckeyes. It’s unclear who has the inside track to take over in this role, but many expect Jaelen Gill to take over. We’re not ruling out speed freak Jameson Williams taking on a big role, but this position is still a big unknown heading into the summer.
Thankfully, there is still some good news amid all this uncertainty.
- Elite receivers: Chris Olave should have a huge season for the Buckeyes and is a legit No. 1 receiver. Garrett Wilson caught 30 balls and five touchdowns as a true freshman and will blossom even more as a sophomore. As noted above, Jameson Williams has a high ceiling as well, and the team’s receiving corps should be one of its biggest strengths in 2020.
Still, there are more questions than answers for Ohio State when it comes to the offensive skill positions, outside of the receiving corps.
Massive shoes to fill on defense: We cannot stress enough how difficult it will be for Ohio State to replace the consistent production of guys like Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Jordan Fuller, Damon Arnette, and even the likes of defensive tackles Davon Hamilton and Robert Landers.
- Chasing after Young: Widely regarded as the best pass-rushing prospect to enter the NFL in years, Young leaves massive shoes to fill at Ohio State. Many expect Zach Harrison to seamlessly replace Young, but the true sophomore will have a hard time providing the same type of impact we saw from Young and Nick Bosa before him.
- Tackling the middle: An underrated part of Ohio State’s defense last year was the impact the defensive tackles had. This year, the interior of the defensive line could be elite if former five-star Taron Vincent can come back strong from a torn labrum.
- Corner concerns: Losing Okudah was to Ohio State’s defense what losing Dobbins was to its offense. A truly elite cover corner, his departure absolutely will negatively impact the Buckeyes, especially because it’s compounded by the loss of the program’s best pass rusher. Shaun Wade will now be the No. 1 corner for Ohio State, with a big group that includes Cam Brown, Sevyn Banks, Tyreke Johnson, Josh Proctor and Marcus Williamson all fighting for concrete roles and playing time.
It seems foolish to assume that Ohio State’s defense will be able to dominate in 2020 like it did last year.
Why it’s all on Fields: While the program is among the nation’s best at recruiting and retooling on a yearly basis, last year’s squad was among the program’s most talented ever — and it still didn’t live up to expectations with a loss to Clemson in the Playoff semifinals.
The biggest reason for this is that Fields fell apart with his worst game of the season when it mattered most, taking four sacks and throwing two brutal interceptions in the second half against Clemson in a close game the Buckeyes lost by six points.
The bottom line: With so many other question marks at key positions, the success or failure of this team will hinge upon whether Fields can take a giant leap forward in his development as a pure passer to supercharge the offense to the point where all other potential deficiencies are mitigated by his prowess.
This young man absolutely has the talent to make it happen. And it’s going to be a ton of fun to see if he can live up to his immense potential.