I admit that after Ohio State lost to Michigan on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, and then more than a dozen players entered the transfer portal, I essentially resigned myself to the idea that the Buckeyes were going to lose the Cotton Bowl and that the one good thing that would come out of the exhibition game was an opportunity to see young players who had been blocked by older starters finally get extended time on the field.
But that supposition was based on the assumption that, in addition to the mostly depth players that entered the portal, the Buckeyes would be without a large swath of key contributors who would opt out of the game in order to prepare for the NFL Draft. But a funny thing happened on the way to Arlington; practically no one opted out, and what is even more surprising, almost everybody who could leave for the pros is still apparently considering a return in 2024.
Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
Even though no one has officially said that Marvin Harrison Jr. will not be playing in the bowl game, all signs (and common sense) indicate that he will sit out and protect his over $30 million guaranteed contract for being one of the first few players selected in April’s draft. But other than that, every Buckeye who is healthy is expected to play on Friday when Ohio State takes on the Missouri Tigers.
What’s more is that a vast majority of the draft-eligible starters seem to be legitimately considering returning in 2024, if they haven’t already decided to do so. Veterans Miyan Williams and Tommy Eichenberg are the only players besides Marv who have said that they will be heading to the NFL after the season. We already know that Miyan will not play in the Cotton Bowl following his season-ending surgery in October, and it seems that the injury that Tommy suffered against Rutgers will likely keep him out of the game as well, but I would never count Eichenberg out.
However, other major contributors like Denzel Burke, Emeka Egbuka, TreVeyon Henderson, Lathan Ransom, Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, and Tyleik Williams are all playing in this game, and are seemingly leaning towards coming back in 2024. Now, of course, a lot can change between now and the NFL Draft deadline on Jan. 15, but just the fact that they are playing in the bowl game and considering a return brings a lot more juice to this game than I anticipated just three weeks ago.
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles noted that he expects starting linebacker Steele Chambers to depart following the season, and the vibe around the program is that Mike Hall Jr. will do the same, but everyone else is legitimately on the table to come back, and that should make every Buckeye fan happy.
I know that I was a little frustrated by the timidity that Ryan Day and his staff showed in the early days of the transfer portal period, and if a bunch of these guys do decide that the allure of the NFL is too much to turn down, it will look like a missed opportunity in retrospect. But there’s no way we could have expected that so many All-American and all-conference-level players would be thinking about running it back one more time. Any of those guys who decide to return will almost certainly be better than what the Buckeyes could have gotten in the transfer portal, so sitting pat for the time being makes sense... as frustrating as it can be for fans.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Day shouldn’t dip into the portal following bowl season. Athletes who play in bowl games, including the College Football playoffs, will have a bit of a rolling window for when they can enter the portal — generally the five days following their final game of the season. One of the benefits of the Cotton Bowl being on the front end of this year’s New Year’s Six games is that, presumably, that will give OSU’s staff a better understanding as to who will be back and who won’t, so they know what holes they will need to fill. Of course, current Buckeyes have until Jan. 15 to make up their minds about the draft, but hopefully, they will understand how important it is for the team to have that information as soon as possible.
No matter who returns, I think it will be important for OSU to try and find some more quality offensive and defensive line contributors; maybe another running back or two; depending on how much progress Devin Brown shows, perhaps an experienced quarterback; and another linebacker, preferably USC transfer Tackett Curtis. But, the importance of those, and other needs, becomes far less dire based on who decides to push back their NFL dreams.
When OSU had the mass exodus of most backup players for the portal, still scarred by a third-straight loss to Michigan, I expected the worst, but now that nearly all of the healthy starters are playing in Friday’s Cotton Bowl — and most are considering a return in 2024 — I am nothing by hyped for the potential of this Buckeye team tomorrow and next fall.
Is There Really a Brotherhood of Man?
Beyond the logistical, roster management component of guys playing in the bowl game and potentially returning for another season, I think that these developments tell us something even more important about the team. We have become so used to hearing the term “Brotherhood” bandied about when it comes to the Buckeye program that, for me at least, it has become little more than a cliche that the social media department has used to brand the team as being about something more than football.
Having worked in intercollegiate athletics, I know that every team at every school likes to think of themselves this way, so I dismissed it as little more than propaganda coming out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But, I’m starting to think I was being too cynical and that there is something special going on inside the program.
After three years of losing to your rival, not making the conference championship game, and not winning a national title, it would be very easy for players to take the first available off-ramp and declare for the NFL Draft as soon as possible, but they didn’t. It would also have been easy for a bunch of starters to head to the portal to find a place where the vibes were better, the fans weren’t as demanding, and the media wasn’t as omnipresent, but other than Kyle McCord, they didn’t.
To me, that speaks volumes about the state of the program and the culture that Day and his staff are creating within the program. “Culture” is another one of those buzzwords like “brotherhood” that get thrown around a lot in college athletics, but they really do seem to mean something to these Buckeyes, and that goes a long way to reestablishing my faith in the coaching staff.
While there are certainly things that I think Day needs to do (give up play-calling duties and make some coaching personnel changes), I’ve always maintained that he has what it takes to be the guy for Ohio State’s future. But over the last year, my confidence in that has waned significantly; another regular season-ending disappointment certainly didn’t help either. However, I realize that I have to check my fandom a bit if the players who live and breathe the program’s ups and downs far more than I do are willing to sign up for another go around. If Emeka, Trey, J.T., Jack, Tyleik, et al. think it’s worth coming back, then maybe things aren’t as bad as my pessimistic mind and social media have been telling me they are.
With the whole landscape of college football changing, stability is a good thing, so if Ryan Day has the trust of the players, and continues to make appropriate and necessary changes this offseason, then I think there is every reason to be excited about what Ohio State can accomplish in 2024.