‘What ifs’ are lots of fun. It’s fun to speculate into the future. What if Ohio State puts up 70 points on the Irish? Will they be ranked No. 1? But we can also ask the question about the past. What if the Union line hadn’t held against Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg? What if Donald Trump had lost the 2016 election? What if Joe Burrow hadn’t transferred to LSU for the 2018 season?
I suppose that most people wouldn’t rank the third question above along with the other two in terms of importance. But, if you’re reading this story on LGHL, you understand. Burrow led the Tigers to an undefeated 2019 season and a national championship, with a win over Clemson. Should that title have belonged to the Buckeyes? Burrow claims that he always thought that he’d be holding the championship trophy over his head, but he thought that he’d be wearing a different uniform — a Buckeye uniform.
Burrow’s transferring, however, isn’t really the question that we want here. There are several that precede it. What if Burrow had beaten out Dwayne Haskins for the starting Buckeye quarterback position in the spring of 2018? Or before that: what if Haskins hadn’t pulled the win out against TTUN when he went onto the field in the third quarter of the 2017 game? Earlier yet: what if starting QB J.T. Barrett hadn’t had his knee bumped by “a guy with a camera” (Urban Meyer’s description) on the sidelines prior to that UM game?
The 2017 Michigan game
OK. So, Barrett aggravates a knee injury, throws only eight passes (completing only three of them) and is forced out of the game in the third quarter. The Bucks came to Ann Arbor ranked No. 9 and still in the running (with a slim chance, really) for a playoff berth. But the game was knotted 14-14 at the half, and the Wolverines took a 20-14 lead midway through the third quarter. Barrett, still suffering from the pregame mishap with the camera, goes down on a QB run, and Haskins enters the game.
On his first series, he completes two passes, runs for 22 yards, and hands the ball to J.K. Dobbins for a TD. The extra point puts the Bucks up to stay. A field goal and a Mike Weber touchdown run make the final OSU 31, TTUN 20.
Haskins’ heroics saved the day and put the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship game, in which they beat Wisconsin. Though they didn’t make the playoffs, the Bucks finished their 2017 season with a Rose Bowl win over Southern Cal and a final No. 5 AP ranking. With Barrett leaving, Haskins, the hero in Ann Arbor, looks to be the guy.
Haskins vs. Burrow
All during the 2017 season, we can surmise that Haskins was above Burrow on the depth chart, especially given Burrow’s hand injury to begin the year.
Haskins played in eight games and had completed 34 of 50 passes prior to his Michigan effort. Burrow, on the other hand, saw action in only five games and had completed seven of his 11 passing attempts for 61 yards. Haskins had four touchdown passes and an interception. Burrow didn’t have any of either. Haskins’ rating was 173 for the season; Burrow’s was 110.2. (Barrett’s, by the way, was 160.1.) If Haskins led the way all season, his status was confirmed by his winning the Michigan game.
It was unlikely that Burrow would surpass him in spring camp. He didn’t and transferred to Baton Rouge after the spring game, after his own graduation from Ohio State. A graduate transfer. ESPN reported the transfer story on May 19, 2018. The Buckeyes, for 2018, would have Haskins and Tate Martell as his backup.
The 2018 season
Fans like to speculate at this point. What if Burrow had stayed and started, instead of Haskins? It’s hard to say, but it’s easy to compare their 2018 stats. And Haskins was way better. Or perhaps the OSU offense was way better.
Haskins completed 70% of his passes (373/533) for 4,831 yards, 50 touchdowns, and only eight interceptions. Burrow’s numbers, in his first year as a starter (he had redshirted a season, then sat on the bench for two at OSU), are much more modest. He was 219 of 379 in completions (57.8%) for 2,894 yards. Burrow recorded 16 passing TDs and had five interceptions. The LSU Tigers finished 2018 10-3, ranked No. 6.
Who would you rather have, Haskins or Burrow? Easy. Haskins any day.
Haskins moved on to the NFL – and why not, with those stats? Ryan Day persuaded Justin Fields to leave Georgia and come to Columbus. Martell said that he welcomed the challenge and then was gone before the challenge could take place. Joe Burrow was back at the helm for LSU, and the players around him were better.
We sometimes forget that Fields was a starting QB for the first time in 2019. The Buckeyes were ranked fifth in the preseason polls and moved up to No. 2 after demolishing Maryland on Nov. 9, 73-14. Fields was magnificent all year. He completed 67.2% of his passes for 3,273 yards, 41 TDs, 3 INTs, and a QB rating of 181.4 – better than Haskins’ from the previous year. His receivers? Chris Olave was atop the heap with 840 yards, followed by K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, and a freshman Garrett Wilson.
If Fields was “magnificent,” Burrow was other-worldly, magical. Burrow completed 76.3% of his passes (402/527) for 5,671 yards. He threw 60 touchdown passes and had only six interceptions. His rating that year was an unheard of 202! LSU, the nation’s top-ranked offense in 2019, was loaded with receivers: Ja’Marr Chase (84 receptions, 1780 yards, 20 TDs), Justin Jefferson (111 receptions, 1540 yards, 18 TDs), Terrace Marshall, Jr. (46, 671, 13 TDs), and Thaddeus Moss (47, 570, 4). The top rusher was Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who averaged 6.6 yards a carry, picking up over 1400 yards and running for 16 scores.
What an offense!
What’s the answer?
Again, the numbers are lopsided, this time in Burrow’s favor. Most importantly, he brought home the national championship. Would he have done that at Ohio State in 2019 if he had stayed? Hard to say. Would he have beaten out Martell? Would Fields have gone elsewhere? Was the Buckeye supporting cast as good as LSU’s? Lots of questions.
But here’s my tentative answer to what if Joe Burrows hadn’t transferred to LSU. His decision would have been predicated upon his being the starter for the 2018 season. If he had been, I would think that he would have had a better year as a Buckeye than he had in Baton Rouge that year. Good enough to go pro? Probably? Burrows might not have played for OSU in 2019. Would Fields still have come?
Whatever might have happened, the Buckeye quarterbacks have been fantastic and can’t be blamed for any shortcomings that we’ve witnessed over the past several years. Certainly, the Bucks could have (should have) won that 2019 championship without Burrow. Burrow’s 2019 year was probably the best that I’ve ever seen from a college quarterback. The fact that he took the Bengals to the Super Bowl in his second professional season attests not only to his passing skill but also to his leadership.
It would have been nice to see him play more in Columbus, but he had three seasons to show his stuff to Meyer and Day. And they picked other quarterbacks. No regrets.