Thursday night’s matchup between No. 4 Ohio State and Minnesota will be a clash of two Big 10 teams that have NFL scouts drooling over the potential on campus.
Ohio State went 5-0 during a reduced Big Ten schedule and defeated Clemson in the College Football Playoff before falling to Alabama in the national championship game.
Minnesota finished the 2019 season as one of the bigger surprises in the country going 11-2 and capping off the season with a win over Auburn in the Outback Bowl. During the COVID-19 shortened season last year, the Gophers limped to the finish line at 3-4.
Both teams bring star power and NFL potential into the matchup and we’ve provided 15 players to watch.
1. WR Chris Olave
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 01: Chris Olave #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts after his touchdown catch against the Clemson Tigers in the third quarter during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Justin Fields is gone, but CJ Stroud has some big-time weapons. Chris Olave finished last season with 729 yards receiving and seven touchdowns in just explosive seven games. He'll be one of the first wide receivers off the board in 2022. , while Garrett Wilson had 723 yards receiving and six touchdowns. Behind those two, there are other talented players like Julian Fleming and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. To get a better idea of the level of talent, Jameson Williams -- who caught nine passes for 154 yards and two touchdowns last season -- transferred to Alabama (!) this offseason because he felt there was a clearer path to more consistent playing time there.
2. Mohamed Ibrahim RB
Nov 13, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) rushes with the ball for a first down in the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
A workhorse running back, Ibrahim is the focal point of Minnesota's offense. He finished last season ranked 11th in the country with 1,076 yards rushing while playing in three fewer games than any back ranked ahead of him. Ibrahim's 153.7 yards per game ranked second behind only Buffalo's Jaret Patterson.
3. OL Daniel Faalele
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck greets offensive lineman Daniel Faalele (78) after a play during the Quick Lane Bowl NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018, in Detroit. Minnesota won 34-10. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Faalele opted out in 2020 and his first game back will be against the young and talented Buckeyes front.
4. All-America defensive tackle Haskell Garrett
Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes defensive tackle Haskell Garrett (92) against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2021 CFP National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
A first-team All-America selection last year, Garrett anchors the Buckeyes defensive line. The 6-2, 320-pounder has 40 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in his career.
5. Nyles Pinckney, DT, Gophers
Dec 19, 2020; Charlotte, NC, USA; Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney (44) warms up before the ACC Championship game with Notre Dame at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
The graduate transfer from Clemson plays with "grown-man strength'' along the defensive line.
6. defensive ends Zach Harrison
Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison had 22 pressures last season, fourth most on the team, but had just two sacks.
Big Ten Championship Ohio State Northwestern
The freakishly athletic defensive end spent his true freshman season at Ohio State in 2019, as a backup to star pass rusher Chase Young. That season, Harrison played in all 14 games with one start and had 24 tackles and 3.5 sacks. With Young in the NFL, Harrison was expected to take over as a starter in 2020 but had a down season. He's a player to watch.
7. Tyreke Smith
Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Tyreke Smith (11) runs between drills during football training camp at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021.
Ohio State Football Training Camp
A fourth-year senior, Smith enters the 2021 season having played in 29 games with 30 tackles, five sacks, and 7.0 tackles for loss Smith played in seven games last season and had his top performance in the CFP Semifinal win vs. Clemson: two solo tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, one forced fumble, and one pass defended.
8. Thayer Munford
Dec 7, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) reacts to throwing a touchdown pass with teammate offensive lineman Thayer Munford (75) against the Wisconsin Badgers during the first half in the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Thayer Munford has played in 45 games. The school record is 55 by Billy Price and the talented guard will be the next first-round pick.
9. Sevyn Banks
Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Sevyn Banks (7) tries to tackle Clemson Tigers wide receiver Amari Rodgers (3) after a catch during the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.
College Football Playoff Ohio State Faces Clemson In Sugar Bowl
If Ohio State really is cornerback-U, then Banks has next.
10. Josh Proctor
Ohio State Buckeyes safety Josh Proctor (41) celebrates an interception on the Northwestern Wildcats sideline during the third quarter of the Big Ten Championship football game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. Ohio State won 22-10.
Big Ten Championship Ohio State Northwestern
Proctor has appeared in 27 games over the past three seasons, making a mark on special teams while backing up Jordan Fuller at safety in 2018 and 2019 before earning a starting position in 2020. He logged 20 tackles – 16 solo – in seven games last season with one tackle for loss, two pass breakups, and one interception.
11. Gophers defensive end Boye Mafe
Nov 7, 2020; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Boye Mafe (34) sacks Illinois Fighting Illini quarterback Coran Taylor (7) during the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
All Big-Ten Honorable Mention last season, Mafe played in six games and made 27 tackles, totaled 5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.
12. Gophers QB Tanner Morgan
Nov 13, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan (2) drops back for a pass in the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
After a breakout 2019 campaign, Minnesota went 3-4 in 2020. As a junior, Morgan regressed, completing 106 of 183 passes (67.9%) for 1,374 yards and seven touchdowns to five interceptions in seven games. In 2019, Morgan went 210 for 318 (66%) with 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns to seven interceptions. His NFL future could depend on 2021.
13. WR Garret Wilson
Garrett Wilson (5) teams with Chris Olave to give Ohio State one of the nation's best receiving duos.
Ohio State Buckeyes Football Faces The Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Olave's running mate in Columbus, Wilson had 723 yards receiving and six touchdowns in 2020.
14. OL Curtis Dunlap
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 15: Curtis Dunlap Jr. #51 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers looks on as he walks through mist during the fourth quarter of the game on September 15, 2018 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers defeated the Redhawks 26-3. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Dunlap missed the 2020 season with an injury, but in 2019, he started 12 games at right guard (missed the Iowa game with an injury) and helped block for an offense that totaled 5,616 yards (third-most in school history), threw for 3,293 yards (school record) and scored 443 points (second-most in school history in the modern era).
15. WR Chris Autman-Bell
Nov 20, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell (7) rushes with the ball for first down as Purdue Boilermakers cornerback Cam Allen (18) and linebacker Jaylan Alexander (36) attempt to make a tackle in the in the first quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Autman-Bell is an intriguing talent. He's a very fluid wideout who can create some separation against talented cover guys. He'll lock up with Sevyn Banks of Ohio State.