Looking ahead to the 2020 season is not what Ohio State had in mind before the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes expected to be in New Orleans playing for the national championship Monday. Instead, it'll be Clemson playing LSU for the title as the Buckeyes wait, probably in vain, for the sting of the 29-23 Fiesta Bowl loss to subside.
Time doesn't stop, however, and the Buckeyes' unofficial start to the 2020 season starts Monday when players begin strength coach Mickey Marotti's grueling winter conditioning program. Spring practice starts the first week of March. The spring game is April 11.
Next year's team will have quite a different look, with defensive end Chase Young, cornerback Jeff Okudah and running back J.K. Dobbins entering the NFL draft along with a group of standout seniors.
But Ohio State again will be loaded with talent and likely will be the Big Ten favorite and a leading contender for a return to the playoff. Here's an early position-by-position look at how the Buckeyes could look next season:
Quarterback: Justin Fields will be back for his junior — and almost certainly final — season after a brilliant Buckeyes debut in 2019. He will be among the preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. The big question is who emerges as his backup? Gunnar Hoak was unable to overtake Chris Chugunov last year. Could one of the blue-chip freshmen — Jack Miller or C.J. Stroud — develop quickly enough to win that job and become the front-runner to succeed Fields?
Running back: Master Teague is the clear favorite to succeed Dobbins as the featured back. He made third-team all-Big Ten as a backup, but carrying the load is a big job. Though Teague has the talent and the body to be a workhorse runner, he'll face tougher competition than he faced in a largely mop-up role. Marcus Crowley is rehabbing from a knee injury and could compete for significant time. Demario McCall and Steele Chambers also will get their chances.
Offensive line: The pledges of left tackle Thayer Munford, center Josh Myers and right guard Wyatt Davis to return instead of opting for the NFL are huge. Nicholas Petit-Frere, who was edged out at right tackle by Branden Bowen last year, is the favorite for that job, though fast-developing Dawand Jones is someone to watch.
Left guard will be an interesting spot. Gavin Cupp impressed in the spring before graduate transfer Jonah Jackson arrived. But the Buckeyes were blown away by freshman center Harry Miller's development. He could break in at guard before eventually taking over for Myers at center. Matthew Jones also should be in the mix.
Receiver: Seniors K.J. Hill, Austin Mack and Binjimen Victor leave a big void, but with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson back, the Buckeyes have plenty of star power. But who else emerges? Jameson Williams showed some flashes. Others were injured or didn't make much of an impact. Jaelen Gill is in the latter group. His emergence as Hill's successor at H-back would be a big plus. The incoming freshmen — Julian Fleming, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Gee Scott Jr. and Mookie Cooper — are a special group. Look for a quick impact from most of them.
Tight end: Senior Rashod Berry departs, but with Luke Farrell, Jeremy Ruckert and Jake Hausmann back, this should again be one of the best units on the team, even if they don't post gaudy stats. This is Ohio State, remember.
Defensive line: You can't lose a talent like Young and not feel it, but Larry Johnson's group remains strong. Jonathon Cooper leads the unit and will be joined at defensive end by Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday. They all have the talent to be difference-makers.
The interior of the line is another matter. With DaVon Hamilton and Robert Landers gone, Tommy Togiai likely will be the starting nose guard. At the three-technique spot occupied mostly by Jashon Cornell, there's no clear front-runner. Haskell Garrett, Antwuan Jackson and Taron Vincent are the leading contenders. Vincent is a highly regarded talent who missed last season with a shoulder injury.
Linebacker: Even with the departure of Malik Harrison, this should be a stacked unit. Pete Werner, Baron Browning and Tuf Borland return, as does Justin Hilliard after the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility. Several talented younger players will push for significant action as well, including Teradja Mitchell, K'Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant.
Defensive back: This is the biggest question mark on the team, though the return of cornerback Shaun Wade provides an immensely needed foundation for a unit that loses its other three starters. Josh Proctor is in line to succeed Jordan Fuller at safety. Proctor has star ability but must prove he can be as reliable as Fuller. The spotlight will be on the other spots. Sevyn Banks, Cam Brown, Amir Riep, Marcus Hooker and Jahsen Wint saw plenty of action in 2019. Will they be ready for full-time duty? Tyreke Johnson and Marcus Williamson were blue-chip prospects but haven't made an impact.
Specialists: Punter Drue Chrisman and kicker Blake Haubeil are back for their senior seasons. All good there, though reliable long-snapper Liam McCullough graduates.