Keys to the season for Ohio State in 2019

Bill Rabinowitz,Joey Kaufman
Running back J.K. Dobbins wasn't pleased with his sophomore season and is looking for a better performance. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Key offensive player

Kaufman: Justin Fields. If Ohio State aims to break its two-year College Football Playoff absence, the Buckeyes will need the Georgia transfer to live up to his recruiting hype. It's increasingly difficult for teams to make the playoff without a premier quarterback. All four teams that qualified last season had ones ranked in the top 20 in the nation in pass efficiency, including Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, who were first and second.

Rabinowitz: J.K. Dobbins. The junior has repeatedly called his sophomore season a failure after his yards per carry slipped about 2.5 yards to 4.6. He wants to show that he's the best running back in college football, and the Buckeyes need him to be able to take some of the pressure off Fields. At his best, Dobbins combines elusiveness with power. Too often last season, he tried for the big gain instead of getting the most out of each carry. Getting chunks of yardage consistently will be the key.

>> Read more: Previewing Ohio State's season

Key defensive player

Kaufman: Tuf Borland. The middle linebacker was maligned by some fans last season for what they thought was an underwhelming performance. But Borland was also recovering from an Achilles injury and should be healthier this season, with the benefit of a new defense put in by co-coordinators Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley.

Rabinowitz: Chase Young. The defense starts with its defensive line, and its defensive line starts with Young. The junior, in what almost certainly will be his final season at Ohio State, needs to be consistently dominant. That will be measured in sacks, to be sure, but it is also crucial that he harass the quarterback and be a force against the run.

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Key early game

Kaufman: Nebraska. Though the kickoff time is unannounced, this has all the makings of the Buckeyes’ first primetime bout of 2019, especially if the Cornhuskers begin 4-0, a possible feat considering only one of their first four opponents reached a bowl last season.

Rabinowitz: Cincinnati. No, the Bearcats aren't an Oklahoma or even a TCU in terms of national name, but coach Luke Fickell will have his players ready for Sept. 7. UC rebounded from a 4-8 record in Fickell's debut to 11-2 a year ago and returns most of its players. This is a game the Buckeyes should win, but they'd better be ready for a feisty and capable opponent.

New to view

Kaufman: Marcus Crowley. The early enrollee freshman ran for 50 yards with a touchdown on 10 carries during the spring game and continued to make an impression among coaches in preseason camp for his hard-nosed running style. Without a clear-cut backup running back behind Dobbins, Crowley could work his way into the mix.

Rabinowitz: Garrett Wilson. Wilson still needs to add some bulk to his frame, but he has some skills that can't be taught. He has tremendous body control and finds ways to create space to catch the ball. He's blessed with soft hands that enable him to make highlight-worthy catches routinely. He is down in the pecking order behind more experienced receivers, but his time is coming, sooner rather than later.

Best offseason move

Kaufman: Hafley. One of the reasons for Ohio State's historically poor season on defense last season was its secondary, which ranked 86th in the nation in pass defense. Hafley will coach the secondary in addition to his role as co-coordinator. Though he spent the past seven seasons in the NFL, he is known for stressing fundamentals among his defensive backs, a back-to-the-basics approach that could serve the unit well.

Rabinowitz: Fields. Ryan Day could have played it safe as a brand new coach. He had Tate Martell as the supposed heir apparent to Dwayne Haskins Jr. But when Fields became available, he pounced, even though it cost him Martell. Looks like the right move. Martell wasn't able to win the Miami job, and Fields has the potential needed for a team with national championship aspirations. There will likely be bumps along the road, but would you rather have Fields or Martell?

The pressure is on…

Kaufman: Day. There’s always pressure on Ohio State's football coach, but unlike his predecessors, Day isn’t taking on a rebuilding effort. The Buckeyes’ roster is tailor-made for him to win right away. That also means an underwhelming debut season will be viewed with greater scrutiny.

Rabinowitz: Fields. He came to Ohio State knowing he'd face immediate pressure to win, and that's what he'll face. From all indications, his transition from new guy to starting quarterback came with minimal speedbumps. But the real spotlight shines now.

Stat that must change

Kaufman: The Buckeyes struggled to stop big plays last season as the defense ranked 115th in the nation in defensive explosiveness, according to Bill Connelly's IsoPPP metric. It was the biggest reason they allowed 25.5 points per game, their most in a season.

Rabinowitz: Ohio State ranked 124th in penalties per game and 126th in penalty yards. A lot of those came on defensive interference calls, something the Buckeyes have vowed to fix with a new scheme and technique. Too many came on lack-of-concentration penalties such as false starts. Ohio State wants to be aggressive, and some penalties will come with that. But sloppiness and carelessness must be seriously curtailed.

It's a year to remember if…

Kaufman: These days, the main criteria for a successful season for a college football blue blood seems to be a College Football Playoff spot. The sport increasingly revolves around the four-team playoff. It’s a shortsighted trend that ignores a lot of traditions. So even if the Buckeyes fail to return, other benchmarks — another victory over Michigan, third straight Big Ten championship and New Year’s Six bowl appearance — would still be memorable.

Rabinowitz: Yep, the standard has been set — making the playoff. Usually, winning the Big Ten would seem to be a necessary component in that, but it hasn't been the last three years. Still, a conference title is the first goal and a huge one. But if the Buckeyes aren't headed to Arizona or Atlanta, the season won't feel like a complete success.

Bottom line

Kaufman: Day needs to prove the program isn’t about to drop off as it moves on from the Urban Meyer era. That means at least continuing much of the previous run of success. Enough talent remains for a successful transition, at least in Year 1.

Rabinowitz: This is an intriguing team with an intriguing schedule. The Buckeyes will likely be favored in every game except possibly in Ann Arbor. But there is no shortage of opponents capable of tripping them up. If Fields develops quickly and the defense rebounds, a playoff spot is certainly possible.



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