Ohio State can win it all if 1 thing breaks right

The college football season is upon us and so is our annual Top 25. This year Yahoo Sports revealed the teams from No. 11 to 25 at once before we publish each of our top 10 in separate posts in the days leading up to Week 1. That continues with No. 2 Ohio State.

Previously: 11-25, No. 10 Oregon, No. 9 N.C. State, No. 8 Notre Dame, No. 7 Texas A&M, No. 6 Michigan, No. 5 Utah, No. 4 Clemson, No. 3 Georgia

No. 2 Ohio State

Ohio State is one of the very few programs in college football where winning 11 games and the Rose Bowl is considered a disappointment. That’s the reality in Columbus.

The Buckeyes have been a perennial national championship contender under Ryan Day just like they were under Urban Meyer. During Day’s three seasons, Ohio State’s recruiting has been elite and the Buckeyes have lost just one Big Ten game. But as much as the program has been winning, it’s been a while since they’ve reached the ultimate goal.

Ohio State has one national championship (2014) in the College Football Playoff era despite four appearances in the playoff field. Last year, OSU fell short of reaching the CFP altogether and saw two important streaks come to an end. OSU lost to Michigan for the first time since 2011 and did not win the Big Ten for the first time since 2016.

The main culprit for those setbacks was the defense. The Buckeyes looked shaky defensively in their season-opening win over Minnesota and then lost to Oregon in Week 2. From there, the Buckeyes used their high-powered offense — which led the nation in scoring at 45.7 points per game — to rattle off nine consecutive wins. That set up a showdown with Michigan in Ann Arbor with the Big Ten East title on the line. It didn’t go well.

The Wolverines gashed OSU’s leaky defense for nearly 300 rushing yards in a 42-27 win. Michigan then went on to win the Big Ten title and advance to the CFP. Ohio State, meanwhile, went to the Rose Bowl and capped off an 11-2 season with a shootout 48-45 victory over Utah.

Even though they finished the season on a high note, it was clear that changes were needed and Day was quick to overhaul his coaching staff. The addition of Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator was the most notable change. Knowles revamped the defense over his four years at Oklahoma State and Day is hoping he does the same early in his tenure in Columbus.

If the defense improves, this is a team that should be competing for a national championship at the end of the season.

Ohio State enters the season at No. 2 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto) Ohio State enters the season at No. 2 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

Ohio State enters the season at No. 2 in our preseason top 25. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Amber Matsumoto)

Improvements are needed on Ohio State’s defense

When you turn the calendar back a few seasons to 2019, Ohio State had one of the best defenses in the country. Things began to deteriorate when Chase Young left for the NFL and Jeff Hafley got the head-coaching job at Boston College.

Ohio State hasn’t been bad compared to the rest of the country, but the defense has been a hindrance in the program’s pursuit of a national title. Day is hoping Knowles can quickly fix things after the Buckeyes were pushed around up front by Oregon and Michigan last year.

Knowles coached Oklahoma State to a top-five defense in 2021. It was a gradual process for Knowles to get the Cowboys to that level, but he’s got more talent to work with at Ohio State than he did in Stillwater. That talent starts along the defensive line with defensive ends Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoleau, sophomores who were five-star recruits in 2021. Zach Harrison, another former five-star, is also back for his fourth season at DE. Will any of these guys develop into a dominant pass rusher in the mold of Young or the Bosa brothers? That element has been missing in the past two seasons.

On the back end, Ohio State returns experience in the secondary with safety Ronnie Hickman and corner Denzel Burke. Knowles also brought standout safety Tanner McCalister with him from Oklahoma State, but the Buckeyes could need a couple of underclassmen to step into prominent roles (just like Burke did last fall).

Improvement is definitely needed at linebacker. Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are the main names to know at that position. Malcolm Rodriguez had 131 tackles for Knowles at Oklahoma State last season. It looks like Chambers, a converted running back, is in line to play the majority of the snaps at that Will linebacker spot for the Buckeyes.

No reason to expect a drop-off on OSU’s offense

Ohio State receivers Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were chosen at picks No. 10 and 11 in the NFL draft. Any time two players of that caliber at one position are no longer on a team, it’s fair to project a drop-off at that position, right? In Ohio State’s case, it’s unlikely to occur.

It could be argued that Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the best receiver on the team last fall. With Wilson and Olave in the pros, Smith-Njigba now gets the chance to move into an even more prominent role. Smith-Njigba caught 95 passes for 1,606 yards and nine scores last year. With Olave and Wilson sitting out the Rose Bowl, Smith-Njigba went for 15 catches, 347 yards and three scores. Yes, you read those stats correctly.

And with Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming ready to move up the depth chart, the Buckeyes’ passing game should be just as electric. Having a Heisman finalist returning at quarterback certainly helps that cause.

C.J. Stroud’s first season as OSU’s starter was remarkable. He set 17 program records, including season completion percentage, single-game yards, single-game touchdowns and most 300-yard games. He’s a projected first-round NFL draft pick himself and is among this year’s Heisman favorites.

Elsewhere, TreVeyon Henderson has the chance to emerge as the Big Ten’s best running back and three starters return on the offensive line. The depth on the line is a slight concern, but that shouldn’t hold the Buckeyes back from being one of the best offenses in the nation once again.

Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson plays against Tulsa during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson plays against Tulsa during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson plays against Tulsa during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Biggest game: Nov. 26 vs. Michigan

Ohio State’s schedule is challenging. The Buckeyes open up at home against Notre Dame on Saturday and have road games against Michigan State and Penn State. But the biggest game on the schedule is, of course, the rematch with Michigan.

If the season goes the way many expect, the Big Ten East title will be on the line. This time the game will be played at the Horseshoe in Columbus. Michigan is loaded on offense but has some very significant players to replace on defense, including Heisman finalist pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson.

Will the Buckeyes take advantage?

Impact player: RB TreVeyon Henderson

Coming out of camp, Ohio State is dealing with injuries at running back. That makes Henderson that much more important. As a freshman, Henderson rushed for 1,248 yards and 15 touchdowns on 183 carries. That’s 6.8 yards per rush.

Henderson also caught 27 passes for 312 yards and four scores. He has the explosiveness to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. And with so much focus on OSU’s receivers, he’ll have plenty of opportunities.

Behind Henderson, there are only two healthy scholarship running backs available entering Week 1 — Miyan Williams and freshman Dallan Hayden. Williams rushed for 507 yards last year. Hayden is a four-star recruit from Memphis.

Over/under

  • Pick: Over 11 (-120)

I’m way more confident that Ohio State will go 12-0 than it will lose two games. And the fact that this bet is 11 wins gives you protection if the Buckeyes lose a game.

Before last season, OSU hadn’t lost two regular season games since 2017. The schedule is a bit trickier than usual, but I’m a believer that Knowles can get the defense to improve.