So close last season, Ohio State is looking to make it two trips to the CFP in three seasons. What is the Buckeyes’ Path to the Playoff?
Ohio State underperformed last year and still came really, really close to defending its College Football Playoff championship. Had Michigan not gagged away the Michigan State game, and/or had the Buckeyes not forgotten about the run against the Spartans – more on that in a moment – the Buckeyes would’ve gone on to play Iowa in the Big Ten championship, they would’ve won, and then they would’ve been off to the CFP.
They would’ve lost to Alabama, but they would’ve been far more competitive than Michigan State was.
It’s a rebuilding year with the 2016 NFL Draft taking almost all the key parts, but this is still a good enough team to get back to the promised land. What’s Ohio State’s Path to the Playoff?
Step One: The receivers have to be great out of the gate
Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall, Braxton Miller and tight end Nick Vannett are all gone. Curtis Samuel returns, but the top three targets are done and if you throw in Ezekiel Elliott, five of the top six pass catchers have to be replaced. J.T. Barrett might be a good enough quarterback to make everyone around him better, but against Bowling Green and Tulsa, the receivers have to find their place before the big games start to kick in.
Step Two: The defense has to be up to its normal snuff
With so much attention paid to the mediocre offense last season, the defense didn’t get enough credit despite finishing ninth in the nation and never allowing more than 28 points.
Chris Ash might be gone to Rutgers, but the coordinator combination of Greg Schiano and Luke Fickell will be even better, even with so many key parts of the puzzle gone.
Eight starters have to be replaced, and while the cupboard is hardly bare, there’s no grace period – the Buckeyes must be every bit as strong with the new starters expected to be future NFL talents, too. Bowling Green and Tulsa have high-powered Group of 5 offenses to use as tune-ups.
Step Three: Establish the running back rotation, and …
Don’t forget to run and keep running. The offense might change a little bit and be more of a quick-hitting, up-tempo attack at times, but it’s still important to keep on pounding away with the ground game whether it’s rising star Mike Weber, or one of the other talented options to replace Elliott.
Name the really big losses over the last few years in the Urban Meyer era – Michigan State last year and in the 2013 Big Ten Championship, and the Virginia Tech gaffe in 2014 – and it had a lot to do with not keeping the ground game enough. The offense will do whatever it must with Barrett as the conductor, but grind it out with rushing attack and OSU can get to 10 wins. To do more, though, the Buckeyes need everything in place by Week 3 to …
Step Four: Beat Oklahoma
The Buckeyes can be fine in the College Football Playoff chase with the loss, but there are a whole bunch of nasty road games over the second half of the season – four in the final seven – and with Northwestern, Nebraska, and Michigan all dangerous games at home. It would be nice to have some margin for error, and it would be a plus to have the one monster road win in Norman to fall back on in the Ohio State deserves a playoff spot argument even if it’s 11-1 and doesn’t win the East.
Step Five: Get through the dog days
Four of the first five games are at home – wrapped around the road date at Oklahoma – and then come two gut-check games against Wisconsin and Penn State on the road. Both defenses are going to be fantastic, both environments are going to be insane, and both of these games are dangerous traps to fight through. Just get by these, take care of Northwestern, and …
Step Six: Be healthy in November
Every team has to be in one piece if possible during the key month, but the Buckeyes’ week off comes in late September between Oklahoma and the start of the Big Ten season against Rutgers. They’re going to have to fight through a run of nine straight games with the intensity growing week after week.
The early November home game against Nebraska could be dangerous if the Buckeyes aren’t focused, and going to Maryland isn’t a big deal except that it’s a road game coming just before going to Michigan State. Tie it all up with what could and should be an epic showdown against Michigan. Get by that, and there’s still a Big Ten championship to win.
So, What Are The Chances To Get To The Playoff?
Great. The defense is going to be as good as ever – even with all the replacements – and the offense will have a new snap to its step compared to last year’s underwhelming attack. There will be a loss along the way, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It might be as a four-seed, but OSU won’t care as long as it’s in the College Football Playoff.