Ohio State opens up their 130th season of college football at Ohio Stadium on Saturday afternoon against Florida Atlantic. The Buckeyes will be looking to continue their dominance in season openers, as Ohio State has won 19 consecutive season openers overall, and 33 straight season openers at Ohio Stadium.
A “new” Day
Patrolling the sidelines for Ohio State will be a “new” head coach. Ryan Day already has dipped his toe in the water as a head coach with the Buckeyes, as Day was the interim head coach for the first three games of last season while Urban Meyer served a suspension, winning all three of those games. Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic will be the first game where Day is the official head coach of the Buckeyes. Day is the 25th head coach in Ohio State history, and just the fifth head coach of the Buckeyes in the last 30 years.
New kid in town
In his first year as head coach of the scarlet and gray, Day will be putting his trust in Georgia transfer quarterback Justin Fields, who threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns last year, while adding another four touchdowns on the ground in limited duty for the Bulldogs while sitting behind Jake Fromm. Even though he wasn’t on the field a lot, Fields impressed enough to be selected by the coaches to the All-SEC Freshman Team.
The good news for Fields is Day has plenty of experience getting new quarterbacks ready to take the field. This year marks the ninth straight season that Day has coached a new starting quarterback. If the results from Fields are anything close to what Day was able to get out of Dwayne Haskins last year, the rest of the Big Ten is in trouble.
Alone in the spotlight
If Fields has trouble finding his footing early in Columbus, at least he’ll have a talented running back lining up next to him to take some of the pressure off. J.K. Dobbins enters this season looking to become the first Ohio State running back to rush for 1,000 yards in his first three seasons in the scarlet and gray.
After bursting onto the scene as a freshman, Dobbins suffered a bit of a sophomore slump last year as he shared carries with Mike Weber, along with the Buckeyes featuring more of a passing attack. With Weber gone, Dobbins will have the spotlight all to himself at running back, and the junior is eager to show he belongs in the conversation when it comes to the best running backs in the country.
We likely won’t see Ohio State go to the air quite as much this year, especially when considering the wide receivers the Buckeyes lost. Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, and Johnnie Dixon combined for 167 catches, 2,433 yards, and 31 touchdowns last year. Campbell finished the year with 1,063 yards receiving, making him just the fifth Ohio State wide receiver to crack 1,000 yards receiving in a season.
Even though Ohio State lost a tremendous trio of wide receivers, the cupboard definitely isn’t bare at the position. K.J. Hill will return for his senior season, and will be looking to add his mark to the Ohio State record books. The senior from Arkansas is just 48 receptions away from tying David Boston for most career catches in school history. While Boston’s record seems most attainable, Hill could also break Michael Jenkins’ school record of 2,898 career receiving yards if he goes for at least 1,232 yards this year.
Joining Hill at wide receiver will be seniors Binjimen Victor and Austin Mack. Victor has shown flashes of his ability in the past, most notable in the Penn State game last year, where his 47-yard touchdown reception with just over six minutes to go sparked an Ohio State comeback victory. Mack was having a solid season last year before a foot injury during the Purdue game ended his season.
The Buckeyes will also have a couple youngsters in the mix at wide receiver this year. When Mack was injured, freshman Chris Olave stepped up, catching 10 passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan and Northwestern. Expect to see even more from Olave this year, as he has already proven he can step up when the pressure is on.
The most intriguing wide receiver for Ohio State this year hasn’t even played an official game in the scarlet and gray yet. Garrett Wilson was the number two ranked high school wide receiver in the country, and he gave Ohio State fans a glimpse of his ability in the spring game. Under the tutelage of wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, Wilson has the chance to have a special career in Columbus.
Munford and sons
How Ohio State’s offensive performs in 2019 is going to depend on the offensive line. The clear leader of the offensive line is left tackle Thayer Munford, who started 13 games last year before suffering a back injury in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern. Munford’s 13 starts are four more than the rest of the offensive lineman on the roster have had at Ohio State.
Munford may have the most starts at Ohio State among offensive linemen, but there is actually an offensive lineman on the roster who has more starts than Munford. Rutgers graduate transfer Jonah Jackson started 11 games last year for the Scarlet Knights at right guard, and in 2017 he started five games at center. Jackson comes to the Buckeyes after he was an All-Big Ten honorable mention pick by both the coaches and media last year. Jackson will start at left guard for the Buckeyes this year.
Rounding out the Ohio State offensive line will be right guard Wyatt Davis, who started two games for the Buckeyes after Demetrious Knox was injured late in the season. Josh Myers will take over for Michael Jordan at center, and after there has been a bit of a revolving door over the past few years at the position, hopefully the sophomore can man the position over the next couple of years. Finally, Branden Bowen returns to the field after breaking his leg in 2017, and has started six games for Ohio State in his career.
Young the giant
There’s no doubt who the biggest star of the Ohio State defense will be this year. With Nick Bosa having moved on to the NFL, Young will look to become the next great defensive end at Ohio State. The junior has already started to write his legacy, as he registered 10 sacks last season. If Young is able to hit double digits in sacks again this year, he’ll join Mike Vrabel as the only Buckeyes to record two seasons of at least 10 sacks.
Young will have to shoulder a little more of the load early in the season at defensive end, as fellow starter Jonathan Cooper will likely miss some time early in the season due to a high-ankle sprain. This will allow for more playing time for guys like Tyler Friday and Tyreke Smith, as well as possibly some early action for highly-touted prospect Zach Harrison. No matter who ends up lining up opposite Young on the other side of the line, defensive line coach Larry Johnson will have them ready to go.
Something to prove
The biggest question Ohio State will have to answer this year is whether their defense has put 2018 behind them. The biggest problem with the defense last year was with the linebackers. Malik Harrison came on strong after a slow start to the season, but there wasn’t much else to write home about with the group. Tuf Borland worked his way back on the field after suffering an achilles injury in spring practice, but he wasn’t as effective as he was in 2017. Pete Werner did all he could to fill in some of the gaps, but that didn’t stop opponents from targeting him.
A few changes have Ohio State’s linebackers primed for a bounce-back season in 2019. The biggest change is linebackers coach Bill Davis is gone and has been replaced by former Michigan linebackers coach Al Washington. The second major change is Washington and new co-defensive coordinator have brought the “Viper” position with them from Michigan, which will now be called the “Bullet” position. The new position, which is more of a linebacker/safety hybrid position, will be patrolled by Brendon White, who really impressed when called into duty against Nebraska after Jordan Fuller was ejected for targeting.
Much like the linebackers, the secondary of Ohio State has a lot to prove this year. After the defense picked off 24 passes in 2016 that number slipped to just 11 in 2018. New co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley and Mattison are trying simplify Ohio State’s defensive schemes to allow for Jeffrey Okudah, Jordan Fuller, and the rest of the secondary to use more of the natural ability and instincts to make plays. Expect to see more turnovers from the group this season.
Florida Atlantic kicks off their third season under head coach Lane Kiffin, and will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2018. After the Owls went 11-3 in Kiffin’s first year in Boca Raton, they struggled last year and finished with just a 5-7 record. Running backs Devin Singletary and Kerrith White, both of whom are in the NFL this year, had big seasons, but a defense that gave up nearly 425 yards per game was the downfall of the Owls.
The good news for Florida Atlantic is they still have Lane Kiffin as their head coach, and Kiffin is really good at what he does. Entering his ninth season as a college football head coach, Kiffin has posted a 51-31 career record. Even though Kiffin has had some controversies while head coach at Tennessee and USC, he is still one of the bright offensive minds in the game, as well as a tremendous recruiter.
An owl to give a hoot about
A reason for optimism for Florida Atlantic the next few years is they look to have found themselves a quarterback. Last year Chris Robinson passed for 2,540 yards and 12 touchdowns, which earned him honors as Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year and a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team. Even more impressive was Robinson’s ability to punt the football, as he punted six times for a 54.7 yard per punt average.
Brand new backs
Unlike last season, Florida Atlantic will face plenty of questions at running back this year. In 2018, Devin Singletary ran for 1,348 yards and 22 touchdowns, while Kerrith White added 866 yards and eight touchdowns. Both are gone now, and the only running backs who received carries last year were James Charles and Malcolm Davidson, who combined for five carries for 54 yards.
There’s no secret about who Robinson will likely be targeting in the passing game this year. Tight end Harrison Bryant caught 45 passes for 662 yards and four touchdowns last season, and is one of the top returning tight end prospects in the country this season. The expectations for Bryant earned him All-Conference USA First Team honors prior to the season, and the senior is likely to be one of the top tight ends off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Looking to find out even more about the stud Florida Atlantic tight end? Check out the in-depth look we dropped earlier this week.
After struggling so much on defense last season, it’s hard to get a read on how Florida Atlantic’s defense will perform this year. Lane Kiffin has overhauled the defensive coaching staff, with only one defensive assistant from last year’s team remaining. New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer comes to Boca Raton from Charlotte, replacing Tony Pecoraro, who lasted just one year on Lane Kiffin’s staff.
The heart of the defense
Even though Florida Atlantic lost four of their top seven tacklers from last year to graduation, the Owls do have some solid pieces on defense. The most notable defender is linebacker Rashad Smith, who accounted for 86 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and four interceptions last year. Smith has registered at least 86 tackles in each of the last two seasons.
Front line of defense
Spencer and Kiffin will be hoping the Florida Atlantic defensive line can makes some waves against an Ohio State offensive line that will feature four new starters this season. Our Geoff Hammersley broke down in more detail just how the Florida Atlantic pass rush will be looking to attack the Ohio State offensive line.
Making the most of a last chance
One notable name that Ohio State fans might recognize from Florida Atlantic’s defense is defensive end Tim Bonner. After originally starting his career at Louisville, Bonner transferred to East Mississippi Community College, where he was a part of the Netflix series Last Chance U. Last year Bonner registered 25 tackles and three sacks for the Owls.
Not ready for the big time
Even though Florida Atlantic had some success in 2017, it’s hard to see the Owls keeping this matchup close. Florida Atlantic has been dreadful against top competition, losing 23 straight games against Power 5 teams. The last time the Owls beat a Power 5 team came back in 2007, when Florida Atlantic beat Minnesota 42-39. Last year in the season opener, the Owls were demolished by Oklahoma 63-14 in Norman.
A noticeable talent gap
Why have the Owls had so much trouble recently against Power 5 teams? A lot of it can be attributed to the players Florida Atlantic is bringing in. It’s no secret that Florida Atlantic isn’t going to get the top tier players that Ohio State or Oklahoma does, but the gap is even bigger than many would imagine. Bringing Lane Kiffin to Boca Raton might help the Owls bring in some higher rated players, but it’s unlikely the gap is going to shrink significantly anytime soon.
Ohio State being favored by 27.5 points seems about right in this contest. The Buckeyes could see some early growing pains since it will be their first true game with Justin Fields at quarterback, as well as four new offensive linemen. The numbers aren’t in Florida Atlantic’s favor though for putting the Buckeyes on upset alert.
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Ohio State might come out of the gates a little slow as they adjust to life after Dwayne Haskins, but they’ll find their groove and exploit a Florida Atlantic that was gashed at times last year. The Buckeyes might not quite match the beatdown that Oklahoma put on the Owls last year, but there shouldn’t be much suspense in the second half, as it will give Ryan Day time to work in some of the backups. Ohio State puts in a solid performance in Day’s first game as official Ohio State head coach and the Buckeyes will take some confidence into next Saturday’s showdown with Cincinnati.