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Ohio State’s brand power extends far beyond the Mason–Dixon line

Ohio State football now truly possesses a national reach.

Cincinnati v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Wearing an Ohio State ball cap while walking around downtown Savannah, Ga., where I’ve lived for sixteen years, I was stopped by a thirty-something guy.

“You down here recruiting?” he asked. “What?” I replied, rather amazed. “You here to talk to Geriner?”

Since I follow football — even high school football — I knew all about Holden Geriner. He’s the quarterback for powerhouse Benedictine College (yes, it’s a high school) in Savannah and has started in the position since his freshman year. During his 2020 sophomore season, he completed 179 of 264 passes (68%) for 2,770 yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s got the size— 6-foot-3, 215 pounds — and the arm strength and the stats to warrant his four-star rating.

Obviously, he has scooped up pocketsful of college offers. Here in the heart of SEC country, Geriner was offered by Georgia, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky. A couple of months ago, Holden Geriner committed to Auburn and will take his official visit to the plains in mid-June.

There’s nothing really strange about any of this. Although Savannah’s more of a basketball hotbed than a football one, a stranger saw my hat and thought (ridiculously) that I was here to see the talent. It’s the logo, the brand, of big-time football.

A few years back, the Buckeyes picked up another local star —Raekwon McMillan — who played high school ball at Liberty County, just down the road from Savannah. As you know, McMillan was a linebacking terror at Ohio State, racking up 275 tackles in his three-year career as a Buckeye before being taken by the Dolphins in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft.

Folks around here remember Raekwon and now kind of expect Buckeye coaches to be visible when there are blue chippers playing on Friday nights in the area. Ohio State has long been regarded as a “national power.” But its talent base, until fairly recently, was primarily found in the Midwest — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan. Sure, there were occasional players from elsewhere, but the Buckeyes were midwestern.

I haven’t done a thorough geographical analysis of Ohio State recruiting, but I looked at the rosters for Jim Tressel’s final year, 2010, and Urban Meyer’s final year, 2018. Tressel’s last team had 76 Ohioans on the squad and another 10 from Pennsylvania. Seventeen players hailed from the South, including nine from Florida, two from Texas, and one from Georgia.

Meyer, with his SEC coaching experience and connections to southern high school coaches, had 26 southern players on his 2018 roster: 11 from Florida, seven from Texas, three from Tennessee, two from Georgia. They apparently replaced midwestern players, as that team had 64 players from Ohio and only two from neighboring Pennsylvania. For the record, the 2021 roster lists only 47 players from Ohio, 25 from the South, and many more from the west and east coasts than previous squads.

No doubt, the Buckeyes’ success under Meyer and now Day — plus the proliferation of televised games — have spread OSU’s image and reputation. But Ohio State football is now clearly national. Yes, Savannah is in SEC territory, and you can see loads of UGA stickers and shirts, but Athens is a four-hour drive. Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Auburn are even farther.

There’s room here for recruiting, and, with its national brand, an offer from Ohio State is really meaningful — maybe even more important than those SEC ones. With eyes focused on quarterback Malachi Nelson from California for the 2023 class, the Bucks apparently passed on Holden Geriner. But they should keep the South in mind too; they have a brand that sells.