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Column: Just thinking out loud about the 2021 Buckeye football season

Some “what ifs?” to consider

Michigan State v Ohio State
Chris Olave celebrates against Michigan State
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

It’s fun — especially in sports — to speculate about what might have happened. What if...? Are there any crucial moments that the Buckeyes’ season turned on? For me, the 2019 and 2020 Ohio State football seasons have easy “what ifs?”

In 2019, it’s what if Chris Olave hadn’t broken off his pass route in the end zone as time was running out against Clemson in the playoff game? Both Justin Fields and Olave himself were clear on the matter: touchdown! Buckeyes win! They, then, would have gone on to face LSU, and former Buckeye quarterback Joe Burrow, in the championship game – a matchup that we all expected. I’d like to say that the Bucks, with that great 2019 team, would have been national champs, but the Tigers were having a magical season. So, who knows? But it would have been a hell of a game.

2020 was a much stranger season, for a lot of reasons. After Ohio State avenged that playoff loss in 2019 with a lopsided win over Trevor Lawrence and Clemson, they had Alabama in the championship game. What if running back Trey Sermon, who was on a three-game tear, hadn’t gotten injured on his first carry? Would Sermon’s presence have made a difference in the outcome? Probably not – unless he scored four touchdowns and played defense too, perhaps covering DeVonta Smith one on one and holding him catchless! Again, probably not.

And 2021? As the 2021 season began, I didn’t know what to expect. New quarterback. Lots of new faces on defense. Somewhat disappointed initially, I grew more and more hopeful as the season unfolded, only to finish again disappointed. But here are several “what ifs?” for the 2021 season.

What if Chris Olave had opted for the NFL draft after the 2020 season, instead of returning to Ohio State?

Olave surprised everyone on Jan. 18, shortly after the championship loss to the Tide, by announcing that he was returning for another Buckeye season. I know that I, for one, was ecstatic, happy to have my favorite player back in scarlet and gray. I wondered, though, if it was an emotional, spur of the moment decision to try again to grab a national title, a decision that he might undo later on. He didn’t, and played the 2021 season for the Buckeyes, earning second team AP All American honors. Even with their loaded wide receiver room, the Buckeyes would have been worse without Olave. But his decision leads to the second “what if?” below.

What if wide receiver Jameson Williams hadn’t entered the transfer portal, ending up playing for Alabama during the 2021 season?

Williams entered the portal on April 28, 2021, just a week and a half after OSU’s spring game. Williams was a Buckeye starter in 2020, but didn’t have many balls thrown his way as Olave and Garrett Wilson were almost always Fields’s targets. Williams got a couple of catches in the spring game, but was overshadowed by Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and newcomers Emeke Egbuka and Marvin Harrison, Jr. Williams, unwilling to sit the bench or maybe even to share snaps, declared on May 3, that he was transferring to Alabama.

What if he had stayed? Would Ryan Day have gone to a four wideout set? Is there any team in the country who could have covered all of them on a single play? The Buckeyes this year had an unprecedented three wide receivers make the AP All America team: Olave and Wilson as second teamers, Smith-Njigba on the third team. Jameson Williams was a first-team All American. Would the Bucks have had four All American receivers?

No doubt Williams would have contributed to the already dynamic OSU offense. In 13 games for the Tide, Williams pulled down 68 catches for 1445 yards, a 21.25 yds/reception average. He scored 15 receiving touchdowns and averaged 111.15 receiving yards per game. He was the long ball threat, with a 94-yard play on his resume. Teammate John Metchie III actually had more receptions – 96 – for 1142 yards and an 11.9 per catch average. The Buckeyes, of course, had three wideouts sharing catches: JSN had 80, Wilson had 70, and Olave had 65.

Williams might have stayed if Olave had gone pro, but I didn’t see him sticking around after witnessing what happened during the spring game.

Akron v Ohio State
What if Kyle McCord had been the Buckeyes’ QB for the 2021 season?
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

What if C.J. Stroud hadn’t started the Minnesota game?

Day was pretty coy until nearly the last minute about who would be the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback for the opening game at Minnesota. Both Stroud and Kyle McCord looked great in the spring game, and, from my outside perspective, it looked to be a tossup. Jack Miller seemed to be clearly in the third slot – and then, of course, Quinn Ewers turns up. Even a couple of games into the season, a lot of us expected McCord to move into the starting role.

If he had been the choice, I think that McCord would have done just fine. He probably would have won most of his games. The offense would have been different, as it would have adjusted to play to his strengths. There might have been more of a running game, even a quarterback running game. But it’s hard to imagine that McCord, as a true freshman, would have been a Heisman finalist or a third-team All American, like Stroud. We’ll probably never know how close McCord was to getting the nod.

What if the Buckeyes had scored late and beaten Oregon in the second game of the season?

At the time, I thought that the loss was devastating. Sure, the Bucks had a good shot of getting to the playoffs if they ran the table. But that was a hard course to run. Actually, had Ohio State beaten the Ducks in that game, I think that they would have been exactly where they were going to Ann Arbor: ranked second in the country, behind Georgia, and holding their own destiny for the playoffs. That brings us to the biggest “what if” of the season.

What if the Buckeyes had beaten Michigan?

As often used to be the case, the OSU season hinged on The Game. I was optimistic at halftime but lost that optimism early in the second half. They couldn’t get close. They couldn’t stop the Wolverine rushing attack. Had the Bucks won, I’m certain that they would have handled Iowa and gone into the playoffs probably seeded second (where UM is now) and looking at Georgia in the first round, another matchup that we all wanted to see. But it wasn’t going to happen. Not in the cards. The loss didn’t come down to a single play or even a single possession. It was simply a loss, through and through.

We live with the “what ifs,” and the 2021 season turned out as it did. Disappointing, to be sure, but not all bad. We’ll now see who sticks around to play in the Rose Bowl and how that game turns out. Then, we’ll start talking about 2022 and start a new set of “what ifs?”