With football season here, Inside the Beat tackles biggest issues for Ohio State

Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman
Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State's 2019 season was a smash until the Buckeyes came up a few plays short in its Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson in a  College Football Playoff semifinal. OSU is hoping to use that loss as motivation in a truncated 2020 season.

At long last, the Ohio State football season is upon us.

The Big Ten’s decision to cancel and then reinstate the football season will result in the latest starting date for a Buckeyes season since 1891, when the second season of the program began in November and featured only four games.

But the adage “Better late than never” certainly applies, and Ohio State is eager to get rolling with a team that is both loaded with talent and filled with questions. Dispatch beat writers Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman discuss the most pressing issues the Buckeyes face.

Rabinowitz: What a shame it would have been if Justin Fields, Jonathon Cooper, Shaun Wade and so many others hadn’t gotten the chance to play for the Buckeyes again. That sad ending looked all but certain two months ago. But given new life, they’re determined to capitalize. The loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal still stings. It’ll always sting. But I sense a resolve with these Buckeyes that, with their talent, they have an opportunity to convert into a special season.

Kaufman: Although Ohio State has the opportunity and motivation to avenge last season’s disappointment, it needs to make a quick impression in the weeks ahead. Other playoff contenders have been playing since last month, and the teams from the Atlanta Coast and Southeastern conferences, which include Clemson and Alabama, are slated to play 10 games this fall. In the Big Ten, the Buckeyes are set for a nine-game schedule, so a fast start is important in gaining the attention of the selection committee. This shouldn’t be too difficult, considering the way they ran through the league a year ago, beating every opponent by double-digit margins.

Rabinowitz: Ohio State is the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten, no question. Penn State has played the Buckeyes tough and probably has the second-most talent, but its best player, linebacker Micah Parsons, opted out of the season. Michigan can't be overlooked, of course, but if I remember correctly, Ohio State has kind of had the Wolverines' number for a while. Could someone else surprise the Buckeyes? I suppose, but it would be a major upset. Looking at the national landscape, the Big 12's powers — Oklahoma and Texas — already are out of the CFP chase. The Pac-12 won't start for another couple of weeks, putting its already tenuous chances in doubt. If the Buckeyes do what they should, they'll be in good shape for the playoff.

Kaufman: On paper, there isn’t an obvious stumbling block, and the Buckeyes should be prohibitive favorites in every game. That presents a pretty favorable path to the playoff, with opportunities to put up style points. Let’s also remember that one advantage of a shortened season is they no longer visit Oregon, a preseason top-10 team, in nonconference. But it’s difficult to assess this fall with much certainty considering the prevalence of COVID-19. What effects could the virus have? That ranges from potential game cancellations to positive cases that sideline top players. It feels like there could be innumerable X-factors that shape teams’ fate. There's little precedent to a season like this except for the 1918 season, which was shaped by the influenza pandemic but obviously otherwise was a very different era.

Rabinowitz: The biggest thing that could derail Ohio State's season would be an injury or COVID-19 issue with quarterback Justin Fields. Not only is he a Heisman Trophy favorite, but the Buckeyes, like last year, don't have a proven backup. Based on the campaign he waged in fighting for a season, I'm sure he's taking every precaution to stay safe. But there are some questions about this team. To me, the biggest issues are in the secondary and at defensive tackle. Replacing Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette and Jordan Fuller is a tall task, as is the loss of DaVon Hamilton, Robert Landers and Jashon Cornell on the line. But the cliche that the Buckeyes reload, not rebuild, is mostly true. But those new starters must develop quickly, and the crazy offseason doesn't help. Expect some growing pains.

Replacing DaVon Hamilton (53), shown here sacking Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the Fiesta Bowl, and two other veteran defensive tackles will be key for Ohio State's success.

Kaufman: The virus-related issues extend to coaches, as well. Purdue announced Sunday that coach Jeff Brohm had tested positive for COVID-19, and he is expected to miss Saturday's season opener against Iowa after a second positive test. Over the weekend, Florida coach Dan Mullen tested positive, and Alabama coach Nick Saban nearly missed a win over Georgia due to what was later determined to be a false positive. How would the Buckeyes respond if Ryan Day was out? They’d be missing their head man and primary offensive play-caller. The same goes for other key coordinators with significant in-game responsibilities.

Rabinowitz: Day said he has contingency plans for that. He's taking extreme precautions, too. He has school-age kids and so to minimize the risk, he's spending a lot of time at his home in a room with its own entrance that has separation from the rest of the house. A coach's job is always to plan for everything that can go wrong. This year, that list has grown exponentially. Nobody knows how this year will play out — whether Ohio State will play its full (but already truncated) season, and what pitfalls it must manage. Everything this year truly will be day-to-day. But it beats the alternative.

Kaufman: Early in his coaching tenure, Day has proved to be adept at managing some of the chaos, giving Ohio State someone who might be capable of managing a season that could become disjointed in an unusual fall. He took over as acting head coach for three games in 2018, along with preseason training camp, while Urban Meyer was suspended for his handling of domestic-abuse allegations against former receivers coach Zach Smith. The Buckeyes didn't skip a beat. He was at control in his first full season last fall, and he's also guided them through the pandemic-affected offseason, which involved an abrupt shutdown of spring practice and start-stop-restart of a fall season over the past seven months. It looks like a challenge Day that is up for.