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Could Ohio State’s backups beat an average college football team?

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Well, could they?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago, our friends at SBNation.com wondered if Alabama’s backups could beat an average FBS program, specifically, Northern Illinois. After looking at the recruiting rankings and some of the general matchups, the author concluded that yeah, Alabama’s backups could probably win that game.

That’s not a shock, as Alabama has recruited better than anybody over the last few seasons, and their backups will still include multiple future NFL players. Only a few programs have recruited at anything close to Alabama’s clip, and without that deluge of elite talent, it’d be tough for even the backups of a good team to hang with a competent college squad.

But you know who else has recruited at nearly that elite of a level? Ohio State. Could the Buckeye Backups beat an average FBS team?

First, let’s take a guess at what an OSU backup starting lineup might look like:

Position Player Name Year Recruiting Ranking
QB Joe Burrow (RS) Freshman 4*, .8970
RB Bri'onte Dunn Senior 4*, .9537
WR Austin Mack Freshman 4*, .9614
WR Paris Campbell Sophomore 4*, .9359
HBack Dontre Wilson Senior 4*, .9685
TE Jake Hausmann Freshman 4*, .9414
LT Branden Bowen (RS) Freshman 3*, .8666
LG Michael Jordan Freshman 4*, .9387
C Brady Taylor (RS) Sophmore 3*, .8618
RG Evan Lisle (RS) Junior 4*, 9616
RT Malcom Pridgeon Junior 4*, .9329
DE Jayln Holmes Junior 4*, .9622
DE Nick Bosa Freshman 5*, .9965
DT Jashon Cornell (RS) Freshman 4*, .9557
DT Tracy Sprinkle (RS) Junior 3*, 8514
LB Jerome Baker Sophmore 4*, .9686
LB Nick Conner (RS) Freshman 4*, .9116
LB Justin Hilliard (RS) Freshman 5*, .9848
CB Denzel Ward Sophmore 4*, .9032
CB Damon Arnette (RS) Freshman 3*, .8597
FS Damon Webb Junior 4*, .9820
SS Cam Burrows (RS) Junior 4*, 9719

This is just our projection. You could probably argue for a half dozen other blue-chip wideouts, and Dunn would probably split carries with true freshman Antonio Williams, but the general gist looks about right. This team would be exceptionally talented, with two five-star players, and several just below that level, but also very light on experience. The starting lineup would boast just two seniors, and only eight upperclassmen.

Finding a good team to compare them against seemed a bit tricky. We took a look at the programs who finished in the mid 60s range in the 2015 F/+ rankings, the teams projected to be a similar place for next season, and programs that recruited at an average level. Taking all of those into account, we settled on Illinois, a team that finished 65th last season, and projects to just be a bit worse than that this season.

What does their starting roster look like? We looked around the internet and came up with this guess (the official ones aren’t out yet), and cross checked it with their 247Sports Composite recruiting ranking. Here’s what we came up with:

Position Player Name Year Recruiting Ranking
QB Wes Lunt (RS) Senior 3*, .8891
RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn Sophomore 4*, .8953
WR Desmond Cain Sophomore 3*, .8426
WR Malik Turner Junior 3*, .8006
WR Justin Hardee Senior 3*, .8140
TE Tyler White Senior 3*, .8205
LT Austin Schmidt Senior 3*, .8051
LG Nick Allegretti Sophomore 3*, .8481
C Joe Spencer Senior 3*, .8739
RG Gabe Megginson (RS) Freshman 4*, .9182
RT Christian DiLauro (RS) Junior 3*, .8323
DE Carroll Phillips (RS) Senior 2*, .7959
NT Robbie Bain (RS) Senior 3*, .8252
DT Jarrod Clements Senior 3*, .8590
DE Dawuane Smoot Senior 3*, .8140
LB Julian Jones Sophomore 3*, .8205
LB Hardy Nickerson (RS) Senior 3*, .8120
LB James Crawford (RS) Junior Unranked
CB Darius Mosely Senior 3*, .8703
CB Caleb Day Senior 3*, .8722
FS Jaylen Dunlap (RS) Junior 2*, .7951
SS Taylor Barton (RS) Senior 3*, .8023

Illinois’ roster has some talent, as it’s mostly three-star kids, but what really jumps out is the experience. There are only five underclassmen projected to start here, and they return a fair amount from a defense that finished in the top 20 last season in S&P+.

It seems like this would be a matchup of strength on strength. The Ohio State backup squad has an immensely talented defense, paced by a five-star talent on the defensive line, and linebackers who can do things like this. There might be a bit of concern about the secondary, but the pass rush and run stopping ability should be very solid.

There’s talent galore on offense, but also a ton of youth, even on the offensive line, along with a QB that’s never seen game action. Against such an experienced defense, even one that isn’t as talented, it’s reasonable to expect the Buckeyes to struggle a bit.

I have a hard time seeing Illinois scoring that much in this scenario either though. I imagine this would be a close game, decided by which team could generate the most big plays on offense, in leu of long, sustained drive. Tie goes to the side stocked with prospective NFL players. It’s also noting that one of these teams would be coached by one of the very best coaches in the country, and the other would be by Lovie Smith.

This is just a guess, and maybe a biased one, but if these two teams played on a neutral field, I’d take the Buckeyes by 3 or 4.

Are there "average" teams that could win this game? Sure. Northern Illinois nearly beat Ohio State’s starters last season, so it seems reasonable to think they would have beaten the backups. Arizona is projected to finish 64th in next year’s S&P+, and that would probably be a difficult matchup for this Ohio State team. Navy is 65th, and we’ve also already seen how close they can hang with Ohio State’s starters.

The talent disparity is pretty significant, as Ohio State’s backup squad would probably be the most talented team in the Big Ten after Michigan’s starters, but an experienced, well-coached team would certainly be able to take advantage of their youth to beat them, just like a less-talented team may end up being Ohio State’s starters this season.

But the fact that we can have this conversation with a straight face just goes to show how well this program has recruited recently. That’s going to put the Buckeyes in a position to win bigger games over the next few seasons. And it shows just how hard it is for a lot of the rest of college football to spring upsets against the elite of the elite in this sport.