Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.
The Big Story: Ohio State
After suffering a blowout defeat to Alabama in the national title game, Ohio State enters the 2021 season looking to prove it deserves to be taken seriously as a contender once again. Since winning it all in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff in ’14, the Buckeyes have made the field three more times (’16, ‘19, ‘20), but came up short of lifting the trophy in each instance. Can Ohio State win the big one in the post–Urban Meyer era?
The Buckeyes’ wide receiver duo of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson is arguably the best in the entire country. They combined for nearly 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns on 93 receptions in an abbreviated 2020 season, with both showing they have the chops to play at the next level. Olave, who returned instead of opting for the draft, was 12th in the nation with 104.1 receiving yards per game while Wilson was 28th with 90.4 receiving yards per contest. Both were named to the Maxwell Award watch list and will be a nightmare for opposing secondaries come Saturdays this fall.
Key Question: Who will be the starting quarterback?
The biggest question for the Ohio State program sticks out like a sore thumb. The Buckeyes have enjoyed plenty of success at the position, most recently behind the likes of Justin Fields, but it remains unclear who will lead the charge in 2021. Coach Ryan Day will have to make a decision among C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III, Kyle McCord and newly reclassified Quinn Ewers, none of whom have much experience in college football, let alone significant play on the field. Stroud and Miller combined for 19 snaps last season but never attempted a pass, while McCord and Ewers arrive as five-star freshmen.
X-factor: The defense
Though the quarterback position remains uncertain, with the wide receiver duo of Olave and Wilson along with running back Master Teague III and a consistent offensive line, the offense should continue to run smoothly in 2021. Many more unknowns lie with the Buckeyes’ defense, which wasn’t up to program standards last season and now faces significant turnover. The continued development of players stepping into new roles on this side of the field, particularly at the linebacker position, will be a big determiner for Ohio State’s success.
Date to circle: Sept. 11 vs. Oregon
The Buckeyes don’t have that vaunted a schedule in 2021, but one nonconference game to keep an eye on will be a September contest against No. 17 Oregon. The two teams haven’t faced since the 2014 national championship, and this should be an exciting top-20 matchup.
The Bottom Line
Ohio State enters the season in a familiar place—atop the Big Ten and in the national title mix—but is this the year it can get over the hump?