Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah | No. 13 Auburn | No. 12 Penn State | No. 11 Oregon | No. 10 Florida | No. 9 Notre Dame | No. 8 Texas | No. 7 Michigan | No. 6 LSU
No. 5 Ohio State
2018 record: 13-1
Returning starters: 4 offense, 9 defense
It’s Ryan Day’s team for real
Not too many coaches get to test drive their new teams before officially taking over in the following season.
Day got the chance to be Ohio State’s interim coach for the first three games of 2018 as Urban Meyer was suspended for his handling of allegations against former assistant coach Zach Smith. And boy, did those three games go well. Ohio State smashed Oregon State and Rutgers and beat TCU by 12 as Meyer got to officially come back to a team that was 3-0.
Now, with Meyer gone in retirement (for now, anyway), this is Day’s team. And boy, does he have a lot of pressure. Because Meyer’s tenure spoiled a lot of Ohio State fans. The Buckeyes never lost more than two games in a season during Meyer’s seven years with the team and went 83-9 over that span.
Asking Day to replicate that success is extremely unfair, though Ohio State is well-positioned to continue its run at the top of the Big Ten.
“I think the easy thing to do is to ask how are you different than Urban Meyer, and that's not something I really like to answer because first off, you don't replace a legend,” Day said at Big Ten Media Days. “You don't replace one of the best football coaches in the history of the game.”
”What you can do is just be yourself, and I think that's what I'm doing, and focusing on what we call tough love. Tough is being tough on the field, and with our strength and conditioning program being the backbone of our program, they have to be tough. Our guys gotta be — it's a tough game. We've got to make tough decisions. Leadership is tough, challenging your teammate.”
”But then also love, love for your brother and creating those bonds with your coach, creating those bonds with your teammates, because that's the ultimate motivator in my opinion.”
Day’s team should look a lot like Meyer’s in the short term, especially offensively. While the Buckeyes will be replacing some notable faces on that side of the ball, there’s still plenty of talent for another great season.
What can Justin Fields do?
One of the new faces is Justin Fields, the Georgia transfer who is immediately eligible and was named Ohio State’s starting quarterback on Monday.
Don’t expect Fields to come close to challenging the Ohio State passing records that Dwayne Haskins set in 2018, however. And that’s simply because Fields’ skillset is more diverse than Haskins’.
Haskins, drafted in the first round by the Washington Redskins, rushed for just 108 yards in 2018 as he threw for over 4,800. Fields should quintuple that rushing total. Or even more.
With Fields in the backfield, it adds the element that Ohio State’s offense had with J.T. Barrett at quarterback. Eight hundred rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns isn’t out of the question for the sophomore.
Fields’ passing numbers won’t also resemble Haskins’ because Ohio State is breaking in new receivers. And, quite frankly, because we expect the Buckeyes to run the ball a lot more efficiently in 2019. Just WR K.J. Hill is back among Ohio State’s top four pass-catchers from last season, but the program has always recruited the position well.
The defense has to be better
It was not a good year for the Buckeye defense in 2018. Ohio State gave up 25.5 points per game last season, the most it’s given up in a season in 30 years. Yes, in terms of scoring defense, Ohio State was worse in 2018 than it had been at any point in its players’ lifetimes.
Things have to get better in 2019, right? With nine returning starters and new defensive coordinators, it really should.
Ohio State does lose Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones off the defensive line, though Bosa didn’t have much of an impact in 2018. He had four sacks early in the season but ended up lost for the year when he went down against TCU and wisely decided to prepare for the NFL draft, where he went at No. 2 to the San Francisco 49ers.
Cornerback Kendall Sheffield is also in the NFL too. But everyone else is back, including the team’s five leading tacklers from last season.
Ohio State was especially prone to the explosive play in 2018 and also suffered against the run. After limiting opponents to 2.9 yards a carry in 2017, opposing offenses averaged a healthy 4.5 yards per carry against the Buckeyes last season.
Gone are Greg Schiano and Alex Grinch, the co-coordinators from 2018. In are Greg Mattison from Michigan and Jeff Hafley from the San Francisco 49ers. Day has said the unit will be more versatile this season. Maybe that versatility will lead to a better performance.
Biggest game: at Nebraska (Sept. 28)
Much like with the Michigan preview a couple days ago, this entry is written fully with the knowledge that the actual biggest game is in the final week of the season.
But we’re going with Nebraska here because the Huskers should be far better than they were in 2018. And Memorial Stadium will be rocking. It’ll be the first big road test for Ohio State in 2019 and the closest thing the Buckeyes will see to the road environment that will exist on Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor.
RB J.K. Dobbins
With Mike Weber off to the NFL, Dobbins is Ohio State’s clear lead back entering the 2019 season. Dobbins had 1,053 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2018 as the Buckeyes struggled to run the football. Ohio State’s yards per carry average was at just 4.2, down from 5.8 in 2017.
Ohio State returns just one starter on the offensive line from 2018, too. But the threat of Fields running the football should help open up rushing lanes for Dobbins. Consider 2018 as his full-season floor and don’t be surprised if he approaches his freshman total of 1,403 rushing yards.
Biggest question mark
From Kevin Noon at Rivals’ BuckeyeGrove.com: While the Buckeyes return a lot from the 2018 team, there are some key departures with none being more visible than the losses of Dwayne Haskins and Urban Meyer. Justin Fields will step into the role at quarterback after seeing some spot time at Georgia and will have a lot of weapons around him, but will also be spearheading a different style of offense than what we saw last year in a pass-first system with Haskins.
Meyer won’t be pacing the sidelines this year and while Chip Kelly told Day that he is “built for this,” how will things be the first time the Buckeyes face adversity? Ohio State went 3-0 in Day’s first run as head coach and while they had to deal with the loss of Nick Bosa, the stakes are about to get much higher.
Buckeye Grove’s breakout player
WR Austin Mack
Mack could be in line to be the big name that people will be raving about after the season. With a receiver room of Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon and KJ Hill last season, it was easy to get overshadowed. And then when Mack went down in October, he was essentially forgotten about by many people.
This year only Hill is back from that talented quartet, and Mack will have ample opportunity to become a primary pass-catcher in this new offensive scheme.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
EDGE Chase Young
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: When Nick Bosa’s 2018 season ended after 2.5 games, Young stepped into the spotlight and delivered. Sure, the Buckeyes had one of the more talented defenses in the country last season, and they likely will again this year. But he absolutely was the difference maker up front and the junior has a chance to be a top-five selection if he keeps expanding his game.
The jump from a promising freshman season to his breakout sophomore campaign was considerable. Some might believe there’s only so much better Young can get, but there’s still room for improvement as a run defender and in diversifying his game slightly.
But even pigeonholed mostly as a pass rusher, he has looked different already. Young basically won the Penn State game for the Buckeyes and later dismantled Washington OT Trey Adams (one of the better tackles in the country) in the Rose Bowl. There’s a special quality to Young’s game, and the 6-5, 265-pound edge rusher not only will test very well when he comes out, but we’re expecting his 2019 tape to match the considerable hype.
WR Binjimen Victor
Victor had just 21 catches in 2018 but averaged nearly 17 yards on each one. If he ups his total to 40 catches in 2019, he’s looking at a potential 700-yard season at that rate.
We have Ohio State ahead of Michigan in our rankings because Michigan needs to prove it can beat the Buckeyes and because Ohio State has an easier schedule. While Michigan visits Wisconsin and Penn State, Ohio State gets both of those teams at home. An 11-1 season seems too lofty to predict in Day’s first season, but 10-2 feels better than 9-3. Don’t bet this total.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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