Better late than never! After the Big Ten cancelled the 2020 football season in August, and then reversed course last month, the Big Ten kicks off their abbreviated season this weekend. Ohio State has their eyes on another trip to the College Football Playoff, and will begin their season by hosting the Nebraska Cornhuskers. This marks the first time in 71 years that the Buckeyes have started their season in October, when Ohio State shutout Missouri 19-0 in 1939.
This will be the fifth consecutive season the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers have played. After falling to Nebraska in Lincoln in their first meeting as conference foes in 2011, Ohio State has largely dominated the Cornhuskers, winning the last five meetings. After Nebraska pushed Ohio State to the limit in Columbus in 2018, the Buckeyes won handily in Lincoln last year, demolishing Nebraska 48-7. Justin Fields tossed three touchdowns and ran for another, while J.K. Dobbins rushed for 177 yards. Ohio State has won seven of eight all-time meetings against Nebraska.
Tough to top in Columbus
Ohio State will be looking for their 35th straight season-opening win at Ohio Stadium when they host Nebraska. Even without fans in attendance, expect the Buckeyes to be tough to top in Columbus. Since 2012, Ohio State is 54-3 at Ohio Stadium, with the .947 winning percentage being the best in the country during that span.
Not only will the Buckeyes be looking for another trip to the College Football Playoff, but Ohio State will also be trying to capture their 39th Big Ten Championship,. Last year the Buckeyes became the first school to win three-straight outright Big Ten titles. Ohio State has now won or shared the Big Ten title in eight-straight seasons.
Ohio State may have had 10 players from last year’s team selected in April’s NFL Draft, but there is still loads of talent on both sides of the football. Returning to the Buckeyes this year are nine players who started at least six games last year, as well as 46 letterwinners.
The biggest star of the returning players is undoubtedly Justin Fields. After transferring into the program from Georgia last year, Fields didn’t take long to get comfortable as the signal-caller of the Buckeyes, throwing for 41 touchdowns and adding another 10 more scores on the ground. Fields became the first Big Ten quarterback to reach those numbers.
Of the four Heisman Trophy finalists in 2019, Fields is the only one to return to college this year. Even though Fields has his eyes on the national title, expect to see Fields again named a finalist for the Golden Stiff Arm. Fields has a chance to become the eighth winner from Ohio State to win the Heisman Trophy, with Troy Smith being the last to do so back in 2006.
Whose got next
The biggest question for the Ohio State offense is at running back. Last year J.K. Dobbins carried the load, rushing for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns for the Buckeyes in 2019. Dobbins declared for the NFL Draft following last season, and is now toting the rock in the pros for the Baltimore Ravens.
It looked like Master Teague was going to be the next in line at running back for Ohio State, Last year as a redshirt freshman, Teague rushed for 789 yards, which ranked seventh in the Big Ten. Teague struggled down the stretch though, carrying the football 31 times for just 90 yards in the last four games of the season. The final game of the season saw Teague wilt in the spotlight when Dobbins was injured, rushing for just nine yards on seven carries against Clemson.
Even bigger questions for Teague arose in the spring when he suffered an achilles injury. The setback forced Ohio State to try and solidify the running back position by bringing in Oklahoma transfer Trey Sermon. In three seasons with the Sooners, Sermon rushed for 2,076 yards and 22 touchdowns. After rushing for 385 yards and four touchdowns last year, Sermon’s junior season was cut short due to a knee injury. The addition of Sermon will help ease Teague back into action, as well as add some depth to a position that also has Marcus Crowley recovering from an ACL injury.
There may be questions at running back for the Buckeyes, but the same can’t be said at wide receiver. Even though Ohio State lost K.J. Hill, Austin Mack, and Binjimen Victor to graduation, there are still plenty of targets for Justin Fields to throw the football to. Leading the pack at receiver is Chris Olave, who hauled in 49 passes and 12 touchdowns last year. Expect to see Fields and Olave hook up early and often in 2020.
Joining Olave is Garrett Wilson, who will be sliding into the slot receiver position this year. The role had been previously occupied by Hill, Ohio State’s all-time leader in receptions. As a true freshman, Wilson caught 30 passes and scored five touchdowns. Wilson gained confidence as the season went on, and we should see an even bigger jump in production this year for the talented wide receiver.
Ohio State is going to need a couple wide receivers to step up to compliment Olave and Wilson. The good thing for Ryan Day and wide receivers coach Brian Hartline is there are plenty of talented young receivers who are itching to make some news. Jameson Williams saw a little bit of time in mop-up duty at wide receiver last year, but was able to get people talking with his incredible speed. Williams could cause opponents problems if they focus too much attention on Olave and Wilson.
Along with Williams, Ohio State has brought in a couple of the best high school wide receivers in the country. Julian Fleming was the top-rated wide receiver in the nation coming out of high school, and one of the top overall recruits in the 2020 class. As if bringing in Fleming wasn’t enough, Ohio State went back down to Texas to pull another top receiver. Jaxson Smith-Njigba was the Texas 6A State Player of the Year. The Buckeyes are hoping the two can have impacts similar to Wilson had last season.
The big uglies
At least Fields should have plenty of time to find his targets since three offensive linemen from last year’s team are returning. Wyatt Davis headlines a group that has the look of one of the best offensive line units in the country. Along with Davis, senior Thayer Munford returns at left tackle, and is fully healthy after a back injury slowed him heading into his junior season. Josh Myers will again be snapping the football to Fields at center.
The new starters on the line will be a pair of sophomores. Harry Miller will take over at left guard in the spot vacated by the graduated Jonah Jackson. On the other side of the line, Nicholas Petit-Frere is next in line at right tackle after Brandon Bowen graduated. Both players appeared in most of Ohio State’s games last year, with Petit-Frere having a start under his belt when Munford was injured.
Gone but not forgotten
The other side of the line for the Buckeyes has a giant hole to fill at defensive end. Chase Young continued Ohio State’s recent tradition of impactful defensive ends, becoming the third Buckeye defensive end in the last five years to be taken with one of the first three picks in the NFL Draft. Young not only set a single-season record with 16.5 sacks last year, but he finished his career in Columbus with 30.5 sacks.
Youth and experience
Luckily Ohio State doesn’t rebuild, they reload. While it’s impossible to just replace a talent like Young, the Buckeyes do have another freak athlete ready for his turn in the spotlight. Zach Harrison recorded 3.5 sacks as a true freshman, and was so impressive that he played the second-most snaps among Buckeye defensive ends last year. The Olentangy Orange product has the look of someone who is going to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks for at least the next two years.
Harrison may get most of the attention at defensive end this year, but Jonathon Cooper could be the “feel good” story of the year for Ohio State. Last year was supposed to be Cooper’s swan song in Columbus, but he was only able to play in four games due to injury, and elected to take a redshirt for another shot at his final year with the Buckeyes. For the second season in a row, Cooper was named one of Ohio State’s captains.
The strength of Ohio State’s defense could very well be at linebacker — imagine saying that just a couple years ago. The Buckeyes will have starters Pete Werner and Tuf Borland back, as well as Baron Browning, who was on the field plenty last year. Werner and Borland are tackling machines, while Browning could wreck havoc in the opposing backfield. Last year Browning recorded five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Expect to see Browning used in many of the same ways Malik Harrison was used last year.
How Ohio State’s defense performs this year will depend on how they are able to replace the three starters that are gone from last year’s secondary. The lone returning starter is Shaun Wade, who is one of the best cornerbacks in the country. Wade intercepted two passes last year, but ended the season with a sour taste in his mouth after he was ejected in the first half against Clemson on a questionable targeting call for his hit on quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Welcome back, coach
The biggest addition to the Ohio State secondary is of someone who won’t put on pads this year. After two years as a defensive back coach with the Tennessee Titans, Kerry Coombs returns to Columbus as the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach. Not only did Coombs produce a number of NFL first round draft picks in the secondary during his first stint with the Buckeyes, but now Coombs has even more experience with what NFL teams are expecting from defensive backs. The energy Coombs brings to the defense is infectious, and even if there isn’t much experience in the secondary, there’s no question that the new starters will give everything they got for Ohio State.
Close but no cigar
The Scott Frost era hasn’t exactly gotten off to the start that Frost and the Nebraska faithful had been hoping for. This marks Frost’s third season as head coach at his alma mater, with the former quarterback posting just a 9-15 record in his first two seasons. A lot of the losses have been tough to stomach, with nine being by seven points or less, and eight of the losses coming by five points or less.
Frost is hoping familiarity with the coaching staff will help push the Cornhuskers to victories. Seven of the 10 Nebraska assistant coaches are in their third season with Frost and Nebraska. New offensive coordinator Matt Lubick previous worked with Frost at Oregon, when Lubick was the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach while Frost was the offensive coordinator.
Starting the season
Starting the season on the road is unfamiliar territory for Nebraska. Saturday’s opener will be just the first away from Lincoln since 1999, and just the fourth in the last 42 years. Overall, Nebraska is 98-27-5 in their first game of the season, and 33-2 since 1986.
The bad news for Ohio State is Nebraska has won their last four season openers against ranked opponents. The good news is the sample size is very small, with the last time the Cornhuskers opened the season against a ranked foe coming in 2003 against Oklahoma State.
Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez will be making his second start at Ohio Stadium. As a freshman in 2018, Martinez put together a solid performance, throwing for 266 yards and a touchdown, while adding 72 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns. Martinez didn’t fare so well last year when the teams met in Lincoln, throwing for just 47 yards with three interceptions.
Ohio State’s defense could have their hands full with Martinez, who already has four games of at least 400 yards of total offense under his belt. Martinez is Nebraska’s all-time leader in total offense per game, averaging 277.5 yards of offense per game. The Cornhuskers are going to need even more from Martinez this year if they want to make some noise in the Big Ten West.
The Buckeyes can’t sleep on the rushing attack of the Cornhuskers, either. Dedrick Mills is Nebraska’s leading returning rusher after posting 745 yards last year. The running back really came on in Nebraska’s final three games of the 2019 season, averaging 115.7 yards per game on the ground. Along with Mills, Martinez rushed for 626 yards last year, while Wan’Dale Robinson added 340 yards rushing.
Nebraska won’t have the services of last year’s leading receiver J.D. Spielman, who transferred to TCU during the offseason. At least Robinson will return to head the receiving corps. Last year Robinson hauled in 40 catches for the Cornhuskers. Tight end Jack Stoll also figures to be a frequent target of Martinez after catching 25 passes last season.
While it was hard to keep Martinez and the other Nebraska quarterbacks clean last year, that shouldn’t be a problem this year for the Cornhuskers, as all five starting offensive linemen from last year’s team return. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes has started 33 straight games, while Matt Farniok has 24 straight starts at the other tackle position. Guards Boe Wilson and Trent Hickson, and center Cam Jurgens round out the rest of the Nebraska offensive line.
A lot to replace
The defensive line of the Cornhuskers is going to need a little work, as they have to replace all three starters. The most experienced player on the defensive line is redshirt senior Ben Stille, who has racked up 11 sacks and 23 tackles for loss so far in his career. A pair of redshirt juniors will round out the defensive line, with Deontre Thomas at end and Damion Daniels at defensive tackle.
At least half of Nebraska’s starting linebackers from last year will be back for the 2020 season. Collin Miller was Nebraska’s second-leading tackler last year, recording 67 tackles at inside linebacker for the Cornhuskers. Even though he didn’t get the starts that Miller did, Will Honas actually had more tackles than Miller last year, recording six more stops.
Jojo Domann has experience at outside linebacker, racking up 52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Caleb Tannor split time with Domann at outside linebacker, and should see his role expand this year. Tannor’s numbers weren’t as big as what Domann put up, but of his 16 tackles, four were for a loss.
An experienced secondary
The area that Nebraska has to worry the least about is in the secondary, as three starters return from a unit that allowed 200 yards passing per game. DiCaprio Bootle has 21 career pass breakups and should demand the spotlight at cornerback now that Lamar Jackson is gone. Opposite Bootle should be Cam Taylor-Britt, who started 10 games in 2019.
At safety, Marquel Dismuke returns after recording 67 tackles and four pass breakups. The other safety position will be manned be Deontai Williams, who suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the 2019 season. Prior to that, Williams picked off two passes, forced two fumbles, and recovered a fumble in 2018. If he gets the chance, expect Williams to try and create a turnover to spark his team.
It’s fitting the two schools most responsible for the Big Ten reversing course and playing football this year will be squaring off on the conference’s season-opening weekend. Not a very nice thank you for Nebraska, who is a big underdog in this game. The Cornhuskers have been overmatched by the Buckeyes for most of their time in the Big Ten, with 2011 and 2018 being the exceptions.
While Saturday’s contest won’t look like the blowouts Ohio State have put on Nebraska in recent years, it also won’t come down to the wire. Many are expecting Ohio State to blow the doors off Nebraska, but there could be some growing pains for the Buckeyes in their first game of the season. Nebraska has enough talent to at least stay within shouting distance of Ohio State, but not enough to put the Buckeyes on upset alert.
Ohio State won’t cover the spread, but they won’t have to sweat the result either. The goal for the Buckeyes is to get out of the season opener healthy, and without showing too much ahead of next week’s game at Penn State.