As the Ohio State football team stacked up impressive victories throughout the regular season, it became impossible to ignore that the Buckeyes were a legitimate national championship contender.
Ohio State looked the part of a locomotive traveling down a steep hill, at least until an equally talented Clemson team yanked the hand brakes eight days ago in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl.
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Since that 29-23 loss, many OSU supporters have looked the part of Ralphie Parker’s old man after the Bumpus hounds have devoured the Christmas turkey — “No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey hash!”
There’s a void, but still Buckeye Nation has to eat. So The Dispatch’s Ohio State beat reporters, Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman, join columnist Rob Oller to chew the fat on a 2019 season that ended abruptly, and what lies ahead for the Buckeyes.
Oller: Do you believe in a Woody Hayes curse? Me neither. What I believe is that Clemson, the only team that is 4-0 against Ohio State, has become an elite program under Dabo Swinney. It showed in the Fiesta Bowl. Combine the Tigers’ talent with OSU miscues — toss in officiating issues if you like — and that was the playoff game in a nutshell. Dropped passes. Too many penalties. Failure to score touchdowns in the red zone. And a Buckeyes defense that bent and broke when it most needed to stay strong. Tailback J.K. Dobbins went so far as to call the season a “failure.” Thoughts?
Kaufman: The finality of the season does not fit a team that overwhelmed every team it faced in the regular season. But the 2019 Buckeyes nonetheless join the company of the school’s all-time great teams that fell short of a national championship. Their legacy is aligned with the dominant 1973, ’98 and 2015 Buckeyes rather than the title winners of 2002 or ’14. A brutal facet of college football is how much one game or one play can alter a season.
Rabinowitz: There were many plays in that game that the Buckeyes will rue for a long time. Shaun Wade’s targeting ejection was a game-changer, as was the reversal of Jordan Fuller’s scoop-and-score and the final interception. But Clemson is a great program led by a superstar quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Still, the Buckeyes allowed the Tigers to go 94 yards in four plays for the winning drive. It was a magical season that won’t be forgotten. But it will always be bittersweet.
Oller: The entirety of Buckeye Nation is still discussing it, so we might as well, too. What are your thoughts on the two most controversial officiating calls: targeting on Wade and the replay reversal on the catch-and-fumble by Clemson’s Justyn Ross that was changed to an incompletion?
Kaufman: I’ll defer to the officiating experts from the television networks who have chimed in on this over the last week. The consensus seems that the targeting call was correct, but the catch-and-fumble should not have been overturned. I’ll add this as far as targeting: The penalty doesn’t seem to fit the crime. Did Wade lead with the crown of his helmet? A little, yes. But it didn’t strike me as malicious. They should consider having different levels of targeting, like a flagrant 1 versus flagrant 2 foul in basketball or yellow card versus red card in soccer.
Rabinowitz: The targeting rule is a tricky one because the intent — preventing helmet-to-helmet contact — is so important. But inadvertent or unavoidable hits like that are an unfortunate part of the game. There was no malicious intent with Wade’s hit; Lawrence lowered his head. The fumble forced by OSU’s Jeff Okudah should have stood. Ross had made the catch.
Oller: The early departures to the NFL saw Dobbins, Okudah and Chase Young leave Ohio State. Looking toward next season, what will be the biggest holes to fill?
Kaufman: I’d start in the secondary, particularly at safety. As much as the Buckeyes will miss their cornerbacks, they’re also going to lack Jordan Fuller. Coach Ryan Day expressed a preference to play a single-high safety defense, an aggressive scheme they could use in 2019 because Fuller, a senior, was manning the deep part of the field. But can Josh Proctor handle the same role? Or do they need to adjust things by putting two safeties in the back?
Rabinowitz: The secondary is the obvious spot. Wade’s decision to return obviously is a welcome development for the Buckeyes, who must replace three other starters and will be working under a new assistant coach leading them now that Jeff Hafley has departed for Boston College. I think the offensive line will be fine even with Branden Bowen and Jonah Jackson exhausting their eligibility. Master Teague III has big shoes to fill at running back. And Young’s departure clearly will be felt, though the defensive end group is loaded with potential.
Oller: Let’s talk some more about coaching changes. Getting the new defensive co-coordinator hire right will be crucial. And Corey Dennis as the new quarterbacks coach in place of Texas-bound Mike Yurcich is interesting. Thoughts?
Kaufman: Other than potential curiosity over his family background — he’s Urban Meyer’s son-in-law — I’m not sure there’s great significance to Dennis’ promotion. Day will continue to have a heavy hand in the quarterbacks room, be it Dennis or Yurcich as the position coach.
Rabinowitz: Replacing Hafley with someone comparatively effective is a must. Would Kerry Coombs, now with the Tennessee Titans, consider a return? He’s one of the few that can match or exceed Hafley in the enthusiasm department, though OSU’s scheme this season is different than the one Coombs used here.
Oller: There’s also the Big Kahuna to discuss. Ryan Day was a home-run hire who fashioned a 13-1 debut, including a win against Michigan, a Big Ten championship and a playoff appearance. What’s left to prove? Maybe that he can win with his own players?
Kaufman: Remember when Day was being compared to Lincoln Riley, another hotshot offensive coordinator who was elevated to lead Oklahoma’s program? Though still a favorable parallel, Riley has overseen continued high-scoring teams with the Sooners without capturing the top prize. Day faces the same obstacle at Ohio State: reaching the pinnacle of the sport and slaying the juggernauts from the South.
Rabinowitz: Ohio State is closer than Oklahoma to winning it all. The Buckeyes weren’t outclassed by Clemson like Oklahoma was by LSU. Day’s first recruiting class ranks third nationally. The biggest short-term test will be filling Hafley’s spot and rebuilding the secondary. Replacing Dobbins’ production at running back also is crucial. But Ohio State remains a powerhouse, king of the Big Ten and a perennial national contender. It’s just tough to win a national title. You need luck and mostly error-free play. That didn’t happen against Clemson.
Oller: Urban Meyer handed Day the recipe for success. It’s up to Day to keep cooking up a storm. Fortunately, the main ingredient in any successful offensive concoction is the quarterback, and Justin Fields returns for another season. In what areas does the sophomore need to improve?
Kaufman: It’s hard to find much fault with Fields’ debut season as a starter. He helped the Buckeyes return to the playoff and finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. But considering two of his three interceptions came against Clemson, and his passer rating in the semifinals (122.13) was his lowest of any game (he was banged up, yes), it’ll be critical for Fields to be at his best in the postseason for Ohio State to get over the hump.
Rabinowitz: Fields was better than anyone had a right to expect after arriving last January. He can make all the throws, is a great runner when healthy — I suspect he was less than the 80% to 85% he said he was for Clemson — and developed as a leader. The only quibble, and it’s minor, is that he took too many sacks. Next year, Fields and Trevor Lawrence will be the Heisman front-runners. Maybe they’ll meet again on the field, too.
Oller: An Ohio State-Clemson rematch in 2020? That brings us full circle. The Tigers should be the team to beat next season. The Buckeyes face a more difficult schedule, including trips to Oregon and Penn State, but still will have enough talent to challenge for a national championship. Was this year the window to win it all? Or will Day in Year 2 be even better than the first act?
Kaufman: Well, 2019 was a pretty big window. Teams don’t usually have three players in the top six of the Heisman voting, at least not since the 1973 Buckeyes, who coincidentally didn’t win it all, either. But as long as Ohio State recruits at its current level, it will be favored to win the Big Ten and return to the playoff, where it should be in the mix and maybe get some better fortune.
Rabinowitz: With Fields back, the window is open. We should have learned long ago not to worry when a supposed window opens or closes. The 2002 and 2014 championships came out of nowhere. Juggernauts like this year’s team fell short. Eight months is a long time away, but Ohio State should be favored against rebuilding Oregon. Happy Valley will definitely be a challenge. But until proved otherwise, the Buckeyes are the clear kings of the Big Ten, and that puts them in position for another crack at the CFP.