Rooting for a team spoiled with success is both a blessing and a curse.
All things considered, 2019 should have been a reloading year for the Ohio State Buckeyes’ football program. New coach, new quarterback, an almost entirely new offensive line; those are three of the most central components to any team, and expecting a unit experiencing such turnover to retain their status as a championship contender is unrealistic. Losing three wide receivers that all served as captains the previous year—two of which went in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft—doesn’t help matters either. Even beating Michigan—a team that ESPN’s FPI predicted had the highest chance of winning the Big Ten in 2019—would have been asking a lot from the outset.
But Ohio State holds themselves to a different standard than most of the college football universe. Instead of focusing on what they had to replace, they reinforced the strength of what they already had to build up the incoming replacements.
J.K. Dobbins finally had the opportunity to serve as an exclusive lead running back after splitting a timeshare for his first two seasons in Columbus. Chase Young was ready to step out of the shadows of both Bosa brothers and lead an Ohio State pass rush that consistently dominated the decade. Jeff Okudah, Malik Harrison, and Jordan Fuller all came prepared to turn around a defense that got uncharacteristically torched for big plays throughout 2018. K.J. Hill set his sights on becoming one of the most prolific pass-catchers in Ohio State’s history, while Chris Olave and Binjimen Victor prepared to fill the shoes of the Buckeye receiving corps that helped Dwayne Haskins rewrite conference record books the season prior.
That kind of support system is what allows inexperienced players to grow up, build confidence, and thrive. The offensive line put together a phenomenal season against some of the best rushing defenses in the sport, but mistakes are inevitable in a complicated zone scheme such as the one Ohio State attempts to execute on a weekly basis. Dobbins regularly turned plays that otherwise would have gone down as losses into scrappy, often critical gains.
The smash mouth rushing attack kept defenses honest and gave Justin Fields far more time to identify where to go with the football through the air. Despite shaky pass protection all season, Fields still set the NCAA record for TD/INT ratio (13.67) via 41 passing TDs against only three interceptions. That not only beat the previous best-mark belonging to Case Keenum (48 TDs/5 INTs, a ratio of 9.6), but also surpassed what would have been a record TD/INT ratio of 10 from Joe Burrow following the national championship game (60 TDs/6 INTs).
The support translated on defense as well. Young’s presence as a wrecking ball alongside stout play from other senior members of Ohio State’s defensive line allowed for plenty of opportunities for young guys like Zach Harrison, Tyler Friday, and Tommy Togiai to build experience that will pay dividends next season and beyond. Damon Arnette finally becoming a consistent presence at corner opposite Okudah allowed Shaun Wade to develop in the slot, and Wade is almost certainly poised to now become one of the best players on Ohio State’s defense next season—if not the best.
But perhaps most shocking of all, Ryan Day oversaw all this turnover and development on his way to becoming only the third college football coach in the 21st century to post an undefeated regular season record in their first year on the job.
The other two? Larry Coker (Miami, 2001) and Urban Meyer (Ohio State, 2012).
Put it another way, the last two times the Ohio State football program has undergone a transition at the head coach position, their team has gone a combined 25-1 in the immediate aftermath. The lone loss came against the defending national champion in the College Football Playoff.
All things considered, there’s no other program that can handle that kind of a dramatic turnaround in such a graceful fashion. That’s not hyperbole, that’s just a fact. Ohio State has now done it twice in the last decade where almost every other team hasn’t been able to do it at all. Miami, the most recent other school to accomplish such a feat, just got shut out by Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl.
So is this a season worth mourning since the ultimate goal wasn’t accomplished? Absolutely not. This season was a resounding success. An incredible success. The future is as bright as it has ever been in Columbus, and considering the state of flux this team found itself in following Urban Meyer’s departure, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.
Mourn for the players that won’t have another shot at a national title, if anything. This team had championship DNA, anyone that watched them play would agree. All season, these Buckeyes stepped up in the face of every challenge in their path, and responded in dominating fashion. Even when their first taste of true adversity came in their Big Ten Championship rematch with Wisconsin, they shut out the Badgers in the second half en route to a comeback victory. They faced three of the best run defenses in college football four times and ran the ball down absolutely everyone’s throat. They dominated lowly teams and kept the best of the rest the Big Ten has to offer at a comfortable distance. They were a miscommunication on a broken route and an historically bad night of officiating away from keeping that momentum going (more on that in Part II).
J.K. Dobbins and Chase Young will never be national champions, and for two of the truly greatest Buckeyes we have ever seen, that is an absolute shame. The shame carries over for K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, the entire platoon of defensive linemen that grew up under the direction of Larry Johnson over the last four years, and all of the team’s other seniors and early draft departures. But their ghosts will not go unavenged.
Ryan Day’s first team—ripe with youth, talent, and experience—just got their first taste of football grief. If the 2014-15 Buckeyes taught their fans and players anything, it’s that there’s nothing more motivating in the world of sports than the desire to overcome a great loss. That team also lost to Clemson in the postseason the year prior before winning the first College Football Playoff with their third string quarterback.
So before diving into how to process this most recent loss, as well as what the future holds, do well to remember that one should never define a season by its ending. The 2019 Ohio State Buckeyes took their faithful on a spectacular ride, and the road to national gridiron glory still goes through Columbus for every aspiring program in the Midwest. Remember this team as the one that resoundingly announced to the college football universe that Ohio State isn’t going away any time soon, regardless of who or what needs replacing.