Okay everybody, calm down (she writes while screaming in excitement herself). We’ve got Ohio State football this week — and we don’t even have to wait until the weekend. The No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes face the Minnesota Golden Gophers to kick off their season at 8 p.m. ET Thursday in Minneapolis.
Sure, there are a lot of hopes and dreams awaiting Ohio State this season, especially after the Buckeyes made the College Football Playoff Championship game against Alabama in January, The Buckeyes are certainly looking to get back to the biggest postseason stage once again this year for another crack at the title. But they’ve got a long way to go to get there. And that long journey to get there starts Thursday in Minneapolis.
Wait...I’ve been living under a rock. What happened last year?
Well, the Buckeyes clobbered Clemson in the CFP semifinals last season, which was incredible redemption for what happened the year before. As bitter as the 2020 offseason was when evaluated for purely football reasons, this season’s break was as sweet as the Sugar Bowl where Ohio State earned its semifinal victory. Well, until you remembered that Ohio State fell to Alabama in the CFP Championship game, giving the Crimson Tide their third CFP title.
Of course, the headlining quarterbacks of last year’s football season — Justin Fields, Mac Jones (but more importantly, receiver DeVonta Smith), Trevor Lawrence and also that guy from Notre Dame — have all moved on, and all the CFP teams of 2020 put together impressive draft classes, which means that, in theory, the field heading into 2021 is wide open. It’s anybody’s game now.
Really? Anyone could win?
No, not really. The teams at the top will likely remain at the top until the official expansion of the CFP takes place, which will be no earlier than 2023. Which means probably more Alabama. Probably more Clemson. Maybe (probably) Oklahoma. And, hopefully, Ohio State.
However, there are teams that are looking for their first opportunity in the CFP, including No. 7 Iowa State and No. 8 Cincinnati.
Again, though, it’s a long season, and none of the aforementioned teams have seen the field. And as already stated, many of the playmakers for these teams from last season have since moved on to the NFL. So let’s jump into what to expect for Ohio State.
Okay fine. Tell me about Minnesota.
Well, the Golden Gophers are coming off a season they’d probably like to forget. Minnesota went 3-4, their wins coming over Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska. Their passing offense was abysmal. Their defense was not great. And, because it was 2020 and it was a thing, Minnesota missed two games due to COVID-19.
COVID! How could we have forgotten? (We didn’t)
The bad news is COVID isn’t gone. The good news is Labor Day weekend and the start of college football ranks among the most wonderful times of the year, and it sure feels good to have a real opening weekend for college football again. It might not be filled with Ohio State fans, but Huntington Bank Stadium (formerly TCF Bank Stadium) in Minneapolis will have fans come Thursday.
...But also, since Huntington Bank is based in Columbus, is this really a home game for the Buckeyes?
COVID-19 protocols are certainly in play but, for all we’ve seen in the last 18 months, what we expect to see Thursday night will harken back to nearly normal — including crowd noise that doesn’t have to be piped in.
There are still new factors at play, like forfeiture requirements for teams that have to miss games due to COVID-19 outbreaks. It certainly helps that the Ohio State football team has exceeded a 90% vaccination rate.
What’s the series history?
Sure thing, As one of Ohio State’s less frequently played opponents historically, the Buckeyes hold a 45-7 record over Minnesota. Ohio State has won 10-straight over the Gophers, their last loss coming in 2000. The last time the pair squared off was in 2018, when Ohio State brought home a 30-14 victory over Minnesota in PJ Fleck’s second season as head coach.
In that matchup, quarterback Dwayne Haskins was in tip-top shape, throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns on the day, with receiver KJ Hill the recipient of 187 of those yards and two touchdowns. Unfortunately, the Ohio State running game struggled against the Gophers defense, while Minnesota’s own running game — led by a face we’ll see again very soon — nearly doubled up Ohio State’s yards on the ground. While the Buckeyes emerged with a two score victory, Minnesota was able to exploit Ohio State’s weaknesses at the time and stay in the game through the fourth quarter.
The weird thing about that matchup, though, is some of the players are still around…
What?! But didn’t everyone go to the NFL?
A lot of folks sure did. Fields? Gone. Trey Sermon? Bye bye. Josh Myers, Wyatt Davis, Shaun Wade and the entire linebacking corps? Off to the pros. The Buckeyes had 10 players drafted in the 2021 draft, keeping in line with their machine-like efficiency of turning out pro-level talent.
However, Minnesota has had some premier draft picks of its own in the last couple years. First there was Antoine Winfield Jr., taken in the second round of the 2020 draft. Then there was Rashod Bateman, taken with the 27th-overall pick in the 2021 draft by the Baltimore Ravens.
Oh no... so who’s coming back?
The good news for the Buckeyes is that, despite losing their star quarterback from the past two seasons, the offense returns several key playmakers, including its top players on the outside: wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Olave, of course, opted to return for his senior season after three spectacular seasons in Columbus. Wilson, no longer an upstart, is looking to build on the success of his sophomore season. Olave and Wilson had nearly identical stats last season, each catching for more than 700 yards in the truncated season. Both Olave and Wilson will be critical support for Ohio State’s brand new quarterback.
There’s also the rise of Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming, the rising sophomore receivers who are the heirs apparent to Olave and Wilson’s legacy. And a very necessary kudos to wide receivers coach Brian Hartline, who continues to turn out top receiver talent.
Ohio State also benefits from the return of running back Master Teague III, the only returning back from the 2020 with any appreciable yards. Teague started the season as the hot running back before Trey Sermon went off against Michigan State, Northwestern (setting a single-game rushing record in the process) and Clemson. Teague’s best season came against No. 9 Indiana in 2020, where he rushed for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ seven-point victory.
Still on the offensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes return both Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere at left and right tackle, respectively, as well as tight end Jeremy Ruckert.
With the departure of Fields, someone had to fill the power vacuum. Enter CJ Stroud, and the quarterback controversy that never was.
Stroud was Fields’ backup last season and, though neither he nor his competitors (Jack Miller and Kyle McCord) have thrown a pass in a collegiate game, Stroud separated himself enough in spring and fall ball to get the starting gig — even with the late entrance of truer-than-true freshman quarterback Quinn Ewers.
Yes, perhaps the most dramatic turn of this offseason was when the top-rated quarterback of the 2022 class opted to forego his senior high school season, reclassify as part of the 2021 recruiting class and come to Columbus early partially, he revealed, to take advantage of rule changes that would allow him to profit from his name, image and likeness.
And yet, despite the drama, and to the surprise of no one, Ewers’ few weeks on campus without any collegiate experience were not enough to earn him the starting role against Minnesota.
But there’s also defense…
Yep, there sure is. The Buckeyes may have lost all its linebackers, a top defensive back and two defensive linemen, but they return quite a bit on the line and in the secondary that should help to anchor things while the interior of the field takes shape.
Leading the way among the returning defensive players is defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, who had a breakout season in 2020. Garrett recorded three sacks on the short season, good for second on the team. He’ll be joined on the line by defensive end Zach Harrison, who Ohio State fans are just waiting for to become the next Chase Young. Tyreke Smith anchors the opposite defensive end position, rounding out a trio of veteran talent on the line.
While the secondary is absent Shaun Wade, it returns Sevyn Banks, who led the Buckeyes in picks last year with seven. Banks is joined by Marcus Williamson and Josh Proctor, both of whom started last season.
On that note, for the first time in a long time, Ohio State fans will be seeing new faces on the field for special teams, with longtime kicker Blake Haubeil and punter Drue Chrisman graduating. Grad transfer Noah Ruggles is widely projected as the heir to the kicking throne, while Aussie true freshman Jesse Mirco should handle punting duties.
Okay, that’s enough about Ohio State (said no one ever). What about that back you mentioned from Minnesota?
Oh yes, him. Widely regarded as the top returning back in the Big Ten, Minnesota’s Mo Ibrahim is looking to solidify his draft stock heading into his senior season. The senior was the only rusher in the Big Ten to break the 1,000-yard mark in 2020, and he managed to do so in just seven games. His 15 touchdowns were also a conference high. Perhaps that explains why Ibrahim was named the Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year for the Big Ten.
The veteran back has his share of experience playing against Ohio State. In his first outing as a freshman in 2018, Ibrahim recorded two touchdowns against the Buckeyes, each of which put the Gophers ahead in a closely fought game.
For the young and relatively green linebacking corps for Ohio State, it will certainly be a challenge to stop this experienced back on the road. It doesn’t help that Minnesota returns one of the most experienced offensive lines in the nation (projected starters have a whopping combined 140 starts) which is keen to pave the way for Ibrahim.
Well that’s depressing. What about Minnesota’s quarterback?
The Golden Gophers return senior quarterback Tanner Morgan. The returning starter took a step back in 2020 after a solid season in 2019. In 2020, Morgan completed just 58% of his passes for seven touchdowns and five picks. By comparison, in 2019, Morgan had 30 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 60% completion percentage.
As previously mentioned, Morgan will be without Minnesota’s star receiver Rashod Bateman, but he *may* have senior wideout Chris Autman-Bell back for the season opener. Autman-Bell suffered a lower body injury during fall camp and, though head coach PJ Fleck is impressed with the receiver’s recovery, remains questionable against the Buckeyes.
What about their defense? Special teams?
It’s not great. Rushing defense was 12th in the Big Ten last year, passing was sixth and total defense was ninth. Moving on.
Minnesota’s special teams also struggled last season (punting average was 126th of 127 programs nationally, and the Gophers lost two games on missed kicking opportunities. Oh, also, the Gophers haven’t made a field goal of 40+ yards in two seasons), leading to the program pursuing grad transfers to fill roles. The Gophers ended up with Kent State transfer Matthew Trickett at kicker and Louisiana-Monroe’s Daniel Sparks at punter.
Any other big personalities?
Well, there’s Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck. Fleck famously spent 2013-16 with Western Michigan, with the Broncos famously finishing 13-1 in 2016 and heading to the Cotton Bowl, propelling Fleck and his “row the boat” mantra to instant fame.
Since taking the helm at Minnesota in 2017, Fleck has achieved a 26-19 overall record and taken the Gophers to two bowl wins. In 2019, the Gophers tied Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten West — their highest finish ever in their division.
As previously mentioned, Fleck’s program at Minnesota has turned out some extremely high profile draft picks, and Fleck has been moderately improving the team’s recruiting rankings. In all, he seems to be taking the program on an upward trajectory after years of decline.
A must win
Not to be dramatic, but looking at the season on the whole, every game is practically a must-win in the current College Football Playoff format. While expansion would allow some room for error, until that happens, teams have to be practically perfect — because there are still only four spots available.
Complicating things is the fact that the Big Ten is no pushover and, for Ohio State, things will come to a head early. Minnesota didn’t get much love in the preseason’s predicted order of finish for the conference, with the Gophers selected to finish behind Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern in the Big Ten West. Is that really fair? (Even though, yes, those three teams are the only ones to win the Big Ten West since divisional realignment in 2014.)
Of course, the conference did not get off to the most auspicious of starts. Perhaps the only time the entire college football universe will tune into Nebraska at Illinois is when it is the literal opening kick for the 2021 season. Yes, pretty much everyone who cares saw some of Illinois’ 30-22 victory over Nebraska. While the score doesn’t tell us much (even though the first score of the season was a safety, which is kind of fun), the game was sloppy in a way we might expect in more of a spring game situation.
Of course, there will always be some level of sloppiness in the season opener. That’s why it behooves teams to have good discipline.
Enter, Coach Day.
Ryan Day is entering his third full season as head coach of the Buckeyes, and already has managed to build on the towering success of year one (yes, if the trend continues, we just might have a national title on our hands). In two seasons, Day has accrued a 23-2 overall record, including a pristine 15-0 mark in conference play. He’s taken Ohio State to the Playoff twice, and won a Playoff semi-final game last season. Yes, Day has shown nothing but sound preparation in his limited time in Columbus, and has risen as one of the top young (or old) coaches in the nation.
Of course, with more success, the expectations only get higher. And they start now for 2021.
The Buckeyes are favored by 14 over the Gophers with 64.5 points on the over/under , which feels perfectly reasonable. With a new quarterback for Ohio State and the general sloppiness that naturally plagues season openers, expect a slower start for Ohio State than what we saw, say, in January against Clemson.
But with veteran receivers for Ohio State and a Big Ten-best back for Minnesota, expect a high-scoring affair in Minneapolis Thursday as defenses sprint to keep up.
On the Minnesota sideline, Fleck’s got a little extra motivation in this matchup, as Ohio State was the first stop on his coaching journey. Fleck spent the 2006 season as a graduate assistant with the Buckeyes under Jim Tressel before moving onto his alma mater, Northern Illinois.
Of course, Ohio State has a different type of motivation on the line — the kind that comes when every game matters, and one false step knocks dreams off a postseason into a nightmare scenario.
On the field, we really don’t know what to expect. We have no data points for the 2021 season with the players on either side. Sure, Minnesota returns its quarterback and running back, but other personnel changed. Ohio State has about half its starters back, but with questions outstanding for whole position groups. While we can generally surmise that Ohio State on the whole has a better squad, we don’t actually know if that is true, and by what margin. And that’s kind of fun.
But what’s even more fun is having Ohio State football back. Happy kickoff, everyone.