clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘What if’ Ohio State never landed this collection of transfer portal players?

Looking back on some recent transfers and the alternate history without them.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about players to watch this upcoming season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”What If?” articles here.

One of the most volatile conversation topics of any college football offseason over the last two years has been the transfer market. With the addition of NIL and the one-time transfer rules being instated, there has been an entirely new variable added to roster building.

Over the last few seasons, Ohio State fans and others across the country have clamored for their coach to go get that one name that will take the team over the hump. Joe Burrow left the Buckeyes and won a championship two years later, Jameson Williams went on to have an All-American season at Alabama, and on the flip-side, many names have gone places to lesser results.

With the constant roster turnover now a regular occurrence in the news cycle of college football, there is enough history to revisit a few of the more notable transfers Ohio State has taken in. Looking at the impact of the Buckeye transfers, there is a tough alternate timeline where some of these players do not choose Ohio State.

This is the biggest of ‘What ifs’ because these few key names had a huge impact on the stability of the program. Without them, Ohio State probably does not make back-to-back playoffs, and most importantly does not maintain the elite level of play associated with the program.

In the first real season of the one-time transfer, the Buckeyes did not take full advantage of the rule. Now there is no choice, and the Buckeyes will be relying on some new faces to bolster the already elite arsenal of talent.

Looking back at what would have happened if the Buckeyes didn’t land a few of these players previously, the history looks much different.

Justin Fields (2019-21)

When it comes to Ohio State transfers, Justin Fields is the standard. Fields came from the University of Georgia after Kirby Smart made it clear that the team’s future was going to be in incumbent Jake Fromm’s hands, and an incident of racism made the path immediate.

Ohio State was heading into an offseason replacing a record-breaking first-round pick at quarterback in Dwayne Haskins Jr. The quarterback room at Ohio State included the legendary Tate Martell, Matthew Baldwin, and Chris Chugonov. That was a room that was losing a graduate transfer backup, had an oft-injured quarterback, and another who was not going to fit the new scheme Ohio State was moving toward.

One of the biggest contributing factors to Ohio State landing Justin Fields was the work that Ryan Day did with Haskins. Fields was looking for a place that could raise his level of play, get him on the field, and still play championship-contending football. Looking back at Fields’ recruitment, it was a quick and decisive decision after a visit to Ohio State.

If Ohio State did not land Justin Fields, the program would have either ended up finding another transfer quarterback or handing the pigskin to Martell to lead the Buckeyes.

We’ll start with the transfer quarterbacks of that offseason. The other diamond in the quarterback market at the time was Jalen Hurts — an experienced and raw passer who played in two national championships. The rest is history with his 3,800 yards and 52 total touchdowns. Instead of Fields leading the Buckeyes against Clemson in back-to-back years, there is a likely chance the Buckeyes would have pursued Hurts.

The other names that had some potential were Kelly Bryant, Jacob Eason, and Shane Buechele from Texas. None of these guys would have been enough to break the status quo of the current situation.

That leaves Martell as the champion of this alternate history. Odds are he fills the shoes of J.T. Barrett, a winning quarterback good enough to set some records, but having some weak areas that teams can expose. Crazy enough Martell’s career stats at Ohio State were pretty solid: 23-for-28 passing with 269 yards and a touchdown. He was even the red zone quarterback for a little bit, scoring himself a pair of rushing touchdowns.

We all know how his career ended, but to me, it looks a lot different if he becomes the guy in Columbus. If Urban Meyer was not let go, this could have been a very real scenario given the quarterbacks Meyer liked to deploy. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Fields lived up to the billing, and we are not left wondering what could have been.

Trey Sermon (2020-21)

Next on the list is legendary running back Trey Sermon. His career wasn’t always legendary in the eyes of Ohio State fans for a multitude of reasons. First off, Sermon scored against Ohio State in the flag plant game. Second, he did not get off to the most explosive start with the Buckeyes,

The reason Sermon was brought in was to bolster a room that was replacing the single-season record holder in rushing yards, J.K. Dobbins. Over a few seasons with Dobbins, there was an under-appreciated consistency Dobbins brought to the table. This was a huge year given Ohio State brought back Justin Fields, and needed offensive firepower in the backfield to go along with the loaded receiver core.

In the room, Ohio State had Master Teague, who was the heir apparent coming off an Achilles injury, a freshman Miyan Williams, pre-linebacker days Steele Chambers, and the one we can never forget, Demario McCall. Given the limited production from the room the year prior, due to Dobbins being an every-play back, Ohio State was either going to need to bring in depth or trust a room with no real snaps.

So what if Ohio State never landed Sermon? Eddie George would still be a record holder, and Ohio State’s matchup against Clemson gets a little hairier.

Sermon had one of the biggest games in Ohio State history against Northwestern with 331 yards rushing. The Buckeyes needed every single ounce of those yards, so if he was not there it might be a fair assumption that Northwestern is able to pull out their first Big Ten Championship since 2000. Even if Ohio State got by, could they have even made the championship game without Sermon?

That is the question. Ohio State probably wins all six games in the regular season. They probably beat Northwestern — albeit differently — and even Clemson (Justin Fields threw six touchdowns). The real ‘what if’ with Trey Sermon is what happens if he never injures his shoulder against the Alabama Crimson Tide.

The only way Ohio State beats Alabama is if the Buckeyes keep the ball out of Alabama’s hands — and not having Tuf Borland chasing Devonta Smith, but that’s neither here nor there. That being said, Sermon became a fond memory to Buckeye fans, but the alternate history is probably not much different.

Tanner McCalister (2022)

McCalister was a grad transfer from Oklahoma State who came over with Jim Knowles. For the Buckeyes, they needed a player with experience in Knowles’ scheme and at the nickel safety position.

Coming to Ohio State, McCalister did not bring a ton of accolades but was a highly respected player of Knowles. The Buckeyes lost quite a few transfers in the secondary, meaning they needed depth as well. At the nickel position, the only other real option was the raw Cam Martinez, who was coming off a year where he struggled to maintain consistency.

This meant the Buckeyes had a huge question on their hands, which is the case for Ohio State any time a transfer decision is made. McAlister was one of the first names brought up, and one of the key transfers of the 2019 class due to him being a plug-and-play starter. Knowles and Day were clear that he needed to earn the role.

What if McCalister never earned the role, and never came to Ohio State? The Buckeyes go into the season with Martinez as their starter. Martinez had moments in his time, including a pick-six against Rutgers, but the real concern would have been his consistency.

Against Notre Dame McCalister was huge. This was also the case through the early parts of the season. Even against Michigan, the big play to the tight end came when McCalister was not on the field. This was troubling and showed a glimpse into what the early world would have been like without McCalister.

Young defensive backs need room to grow, but even this season Ohio State decided to bring in another nickel safety to compete for the job with Martinez still in the fold. The athletic ability has failed to translate in a consistent manner with Martinez at defensive back, but with a second year in Knowles’ scheme, this could be his year.

The McCalister transfer is a sliding doors moment, as Ohio State’s defense was not in a place where they could afford a sink-or-swim player at a key position. If the Buckeyes don’t land McCalister, the defensive success probably takes longer to establish and maybe falls even shorter at the end of the season.

Ohio State went much heavier into the transfer portal this offseason than the first year of the one-time transfer rule. The Buckeyes bolstered their offensive line with Victor Cutler and Joshua Simmons. In the secondary, they brought in Ja’Had Carter and Davison Igbinosun to add talented depth for competition's sake.

The many names that have come through the doors after going through doors elsewhere first are growing exponentially, and in a few years, this might be an even more extreme exercise. Over the last four years, Ohio State has only brought in transfers who were certain to make an impact. In the new modern version of college football the roster management aspect will play a larger part.

With the names brought in this offseason, I’m sure Ohio State doesn’t win a championship without a few of them, and that will be the case from here on out. Transfers will once again hold significant roles in this team, and the key for the Buckeyes moving forward is to always add value through the portal.