Ohio State and its fans received an early Christmas present this past weekend when Ryan Day’s team was chosen to compete in the 2022-23 College Football Playoff. Certain pundits and media trolls debated whether OSU made the CFP based on merit or reputation, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be in it to win it. And the Buckeyes are in it, baby!
The scarlet and gray even withstood a last-minute (and nationally-televised) smear campaign from an older gentleman begging the CFP selection committee to break precedent for a two-loss team with one marginally impressive win. So it was certainly an anxiety-inducing week or two for Ohio State and its fans, but calm(er) times are just ahead... Oh, never mind, that would be just about any other sport besides college football.
Regardless, OSU earning a spot in the CFP was great news for an otherwise anxious fanbase. I imagine the same could be said for Day and his guys, especially after a second consecutive loss in The Game. Unfortunately, that joy became short-lived – or just slightly less joyful – when significantly less-than-great news came down the very next day.
A mere 26 hours after CFP teams were revealed, star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba regretfully announced that a seemingly never-ending hamstring injury would not allow him to suit up in the upcoming Peach Bowl, and that he would be turning his attention toward NFL Draft preparation.
JSN only confirmed what most had already suspected, but being prepared as a fan does not exactly soften the blow. It stung Monday. It still stings as I write this. And I imagine that JSN’s absence – for pretty much the entire 2022 season – will be felt months or even years down the road. Unless the Buckeyes win a national championship, which is fully on the table. So before we collectively grieve the on-field loss of a player we never (really) had, let’s appreciate and take solace in a few of the players who put Ohio State in position to, apparently, shock the world.
In JSN’s absence, sophomore Marvin Harrison Jr. has developed into the premier WR in college football. That’s right, I said it: Route Man Marv sits atop the mountain, regardless of whether or not he is named the Biletnikoff Award winner or First Team All-American. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound unicorn has garnered attention throughout the football-watching world, and is already being mentioned as a potential top-5 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. With 72 receptions for 1,157 yards and 12 touchdown so far this season, Harrison Jr. has led the OSU pass catchers and adequately replaced his injured teammate. Some would even say he has surpassed JSN in terms of potential and on-field impact — myself included.
We know that JSN was an electric safety blanket of sorts for C.J. Stroud in 2021, with the added ability to make a house call on any play. You simply do not replace 95 catches and 1,600 yards, so this is the furthest thing from a veiled shot at the Texas native now that he is out of the picture... But Super Marv is a Martian — a physical freak and a matchup nightmare. He gives Stroud something JSN, Chris Olave, and/or Garrett Wilson could never provide: SUPREME SIZE.
If and when all else fails, and an opposing defense has Ohio State in handcuffs, Harrison Jr. is a potential get out of jail free card. There are few players in the country who possess his size, speed, and technique combo, making him the ultimate “break glass in case of emergency” option. And when the Buckeyes go up against a team as talented and well-prepared as the Georgia Bulldogs, they are going to need all the advantages they can get. We saw a few YOLO throws from Stroud-to-Harrison Jr. against Penn State and TTUN – in pivotal moments – and I expect to see a few more in Atlanta. I want Stroud to have a “f*ck it, Marv down there somewhere” mentality, and for Day to trust his guys. Harrison Jr. at least provides ample opportunity; even more so than JSN, in my humble opinion.
Opposite Route Man Marv is fellow sophomore Emeka Egbuka. The dynamic open-field playmaker has been quiet at times, but still finished his regular season with 1,039 yards and 9 TD. Egbuka also racked up five 100-yard games as the Yin to Harrison Jr.’s Yang, essentially giving OSU two No. 1 options. 2021’s top wideout has more than justified his recruiting pedigree, and should be viewed as another threat to UGA’s recent dominance. But I, for one, am hoping the Bulldogs sleep on Egbuka’s potential, freeing him up to create a few of his patented chunk plays.
Egbuka is more similar in style to JSN (than Harrison Jr.), and I do believe that he has proven to be a near-equal replacement. Again, no shots fired at the presumptive 2023 first-rounder, but it’s not as if there has been a huge drop-off from one guy to the other. The Buckeyes have not downgraded. They have simply and slightly altered the DNA of their passing game — which was going to happen anyway, due to the losses of Olave and Wilson. So argue with results and play-calling all you want, but Ohio State is really no worse for wear without last year’s breakout star. They are just different.
And let us not forget about Julian Fleming and Cade Stover, who have combined for nearly 900 yards and 11 TD this season. They are tremendous third and/or fourth options, and help to set OSU apart in this playoff. They, along with Harrison Jr. and Egbuka, are ingredients in a recipe which gives Coach Day and his staff an advantage over every other team in the upcoming CFP. I am talking about four and five-star pass-catching talent all over the field.
Quentin Johnston, Brock Bowers, and Ronnie Bell (only if you’ve had a few martinis)... It is fair to say these guys bring a special skillset to the table. Bowers in particular is one of the best players in the country, regardless of position. But what the TCU, UGA, and TTUN pass catchers do not have is an equal counterpart – or, in some instances, a strong supporting cast – to do heavy lifting as part of their team’s aerial attack.
Georgia fans might throw out Ladd McConkey’s name, but while I admit that he is certainly a weapon, he finished with 675 receiving yards in 13 games. Harrison Jr. and Egbuka both topped 1,000 in 12. Fit and functionality are great, and I understand that different teams run different offenses, but if you need one game-breaking deep call or a contested catch in the back of the endzone, Harrison Jr. and Egbuka should both be in your top-4. Stroud pulling the trigger is a nice little advantage as well.
My larger point is this: Ohio State’s passing attack has more potential than any other (passing attack) in the 2022-23 CFP. TCU’s Max Duggan is nice, and UGA’s Bowers could be a future NFL Hall of Famer, but you will not find a better active trio than Stroud, Super Marv, and Egbuka. Does relying almost exclusively on this group guarantee a national championship? Absolutely not. Hell, it didn’t even lead to 12 regular season wins or a Big Ten title.
But I believe that my team has at least one clear advantage over the rest of the field, even without JSN. And that is all I need to maintain hope and optimism.