As what likely comes as no surprise to readers of this column, today’s edition marks the final opponent ranking in Michigan State’s fall schedule, and the Ohio State Buckeyes get the nod. The game is scheduled for the second to last week of the regular season in Columbus on Nov. 20.
2020 Record: 7-1 (5-0)
The Buckeyes were one of the more vocal teams at wanting a 2020 fall football season, with the claim that they were a championship contender, and Ohio State managed to generally live up to the hype. After getting Nebraska as a warmup to start the season and shaking off the rust in the first half, the Buckeyes cruised to a 52-14 win. The Buckeyes only played five games in the regular season, the closest being a 38-25 win at Penn State in the team’s second game of the season, and the most lopsided being a 52-12 win against Michigan State in East Lansing. A closer than comfortable win over Northwestern in Indianapolis gave Ohio State its fourth-straight conference title, and fifth in the last seven seasons. A blowout win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff semifinal meant the season would end in dominant form for the Crimson Tide. Alabama waxed Ohio State by a final score of 52-24 in the national title game.
Series History: 34-15
Michigan State has a less than stellar history against the Buckeyes. Ohio State currently owns a five-game winning streak in the series, with the margin of victories in those games averaging 26 points. The Spartans’ best streak was three wins in a row from 1912-1953, and the largest margin of victory for Michigan State was a 32-7 win in 1965. Ohio State’s best winning streak was eight in a row from 1975-1984, and the largest margin of victory was in 2017 when OSU won 48-3.
2021 Offensive Outlook
The Buckeyes have a massive hole to fill in their offense this fall after Justin Fields left for the NFL. In his final season for the Buckeyes, Fields was named the 2020 Big Ten Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, the Big Ten Griese-Brees Quarterback of the Year, and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Despite falling to the No. 11 pick and getting selected by the Chicago Bears, Fields completed over 70 percent of his passes last year and averaged a whopping 9.3 yards per attempt.
Fields’ replacement has not been made clear, at least publicly, through spring ball. Redshirts C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller III are both talented recruits, but neither player has seen real game action. True freshman Kyle McCord is a five-star recruit who enrolled in January as well. Needless to say, quarterback is a big, and important, question mark for the Buckeyes.
Returning for the Buckeyes in the backfield, though, will be All-Big Ten first-team running back Master Teague III. Teague led the team in rushing touchdowns (eight), was second in rushing yards (514), second in carries (104), and second in average yards per carry for those having significant attempts (4.9 yards per carry). He also had five receptions for 46 total yards. Miyan Williams is possibly poised to be the number two back after he had 64 total yards on 10 attempts last season. Also possibly seeing time will be highly-touted recruits and true freshmen TreVeyon Henderson and Evan Pryor. The team loses Trey Sermon in the backfield, Ohio State’s leading rusher last season, after he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in April.
At the receiver position, the new quarterback has no lack of talent to throw to. Returning to Columbus is unanimous All-Big Ten first-team coaches’ selection Chris Olave, who led the Buckeyes last season in yards (729), receptions (50), and touchdown catches (seven). Also back is Garrett Wilson, who earned unanimous All-Big Ten first-team honors from the coaches as well. Wilson was second on the team in yards (723), second in receptions (43), and second in touchdowns (six). Wilson added two rushing attempts for 67 total yards as well.
The line will be happy to return tackles Thayer Munford (unanimous first-team All-Big Ten, coaches) and Nicholas Petit-Frere (unanimous first-team All-Big Ten, coaches and media). However, replacing All-American guard Wyatt Davis and also center Josh Myers (unanimous first-team All-Big Ten, coaches) will be a priority to keep the offense humming like it was last season.
The offense was No. 1 in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 41 points per game. The team also led in rushing yards (256.9 ypg), but was third in passing (262.5 ypg). Finally, the Buckeyes were first in the league in first down conversions, averaging 24.9 per game.
2021 Defensive Outlook
While the Buckeyes’ defense can take a lot of forms, the most common sets included a three-linebacker, two-safety, and two-cornerback look. What is problematic with that defensive set in 2021 is the fact Ohio State’s three starting linebackers from last season — Baron Browning, Tuf Borland, and Pete Werner — are all gone. The spring depth chart listed seniors Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant, along with sophomore Craig Young as the starters. Whether that holds true by Nov. 20 is to be determined as some writers for the Buckeyes think spring showed K’Vaughan Pope getting the edge for the starter role.
However, Gant was the best on the stat sheet in 2020 with 17 total tackles, good for 12th on the team. He totaled 10 solo tackles, seven assisted, 0.5 tackles for loss, one pass defended, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. Needless to say, there is a lot of production to replace in the linebacker corps for 2021.
The secondary was Ohio State’s Achilles’ heel last season. Sevyn Banks was exposed a lot against Alabama in the title game, but was still ninth on the team in total tackles (23) and led the team in passes defended (six). Banks added 38 yards on a fumble recovery for a touchdown to go with 19 solo tackles, four assisted, and 0.5 for loss. Josh Proctor also looks to have a good season at the strong safety spot after totaling 20 tackles last season, along with one interception, one pass defended, and a fumble recovery.
Haskell Garrett returns to the interior of the line and will cause havoc against opposing offensive lines in 2021. He garnered unanimous second-team All-Big Ten media honors while totaling 20 tackles, 12 solo, eight assisted, four tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception returned for a touchdown, and a pass defended. Senior Tyreke Smith and junior Zach Harrison are listed as the replacements at defensive tackle to anchor the line. Harrison had the best stat line of the two in 2021, racking up two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss to go with a fumble recovery and two passes defended. Redshirt junior Taron Vincent is favored as the starter at nose tackle.
The defense was a lot shakier than the offense in 2020. While the team was second stingiest in the league for rushing, giving up just 97.6 yards per game, a shaky secondary left Ohio State dead last in the Big Ten, giving up 304 yards per game on average (Alabama certainly skewed those a little with 464 passing yards in the title game). Despite giving up a lot of yards in the air, the Buckeyes held opponents to just 25.8 points per game, fifth best in the conference. The secondary needs to step up for this unit to improve over last season’s performance.
Why No. 1?
Even with the attrition at a number of key positions from last year’s national championship runner-up squad, the Buckeyes are the most-stacked team talent-wise on the schedule. The game is on the road and is second to last of the season on Nov. 20. Even a healthy Michigan State squad will struggle in this one. The best bet for the Spartans would be to catch the Buckeyes looking ahead to Michigan in the final week of the season, but that hasn’t been much luck for MSU in the other times that situation has happened (2016’s one-point loss, for example).
The Spartans don’t end the win streak this year, as Ohio State moves to six-straight wins in the series. It is probably reasonable, barring injury issues for MSU, to expect the game to be far more competitive this year. When the bar is keeping it under 40, that isn’t exactly setting expectations very high.