Many of the question marks related to this year's team are on the other side of the ball. Ohio State only returns 11 starters for the 2021 season (Minnesota is bringing back 20 of its 22 from last year), but the Buckeyes have fabulous talent in spots where there is turnover.
With that in mind, here are a few matchups I'll be paying attention to in particular.
Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud vs. Minnesota Defensive Coordinator Joe Rossi
I think this could be an interesting chess match. It sure seems like everyone within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center believes that Stroud is capable of leading this team to its lofty goals in 2021. But Thursday night will be his first chance to prove it. He's got a ton of talent around him. If he can avoid turning the ball over, Stroud could get his Ohio State career off to a great start.
Meanwhile, Joe Rossi's defense last year had flashes of good play, but largely struggled against some of the better offenses in the league. He's got three grad transfers bolstering this year's group, including former Clemson defensive lineman Niles Pinckney. Rossi certainly saw the tape from last year's Ohio State vs. Indiana game, and his defense had a rough time getting in the backfield last year. What kinds of blitz schemes might he come up with to try and confuse Stroud and force him into bad decisions?
Ohio State Right Tackle Dawand Jones vs. Minnesota Defensive Ends
Dawand Jones won't necessarily scare the Gophers because their used to going up against Daniel Faalele in practice each day. But by all accounts, Jones has taken football far more seriously the last couple years after his focus was primarily on basketball as a prep player and now he's becoming a legitimate force on the offensive line.
Still, he's likely to be a really important piece of the Buckeye offensive line that has to replace two starters and has all three returners changing positions. The Buckeyes know they can run behind Nick Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford on the left side of the line. With Jones likely slated to make his second career start on Thursday, playing next to highly touted Paris Johnson who will also likely make his first start. I expect the Gophers to try and find ways to make life challenging on Jones and test his mobility.
Ohio State Wide Receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson vs. Minnesota Cornerbacks Terell Smith and Coney Durr
This will be the toughest matchup that Smith and Durr have all season, and perhaps have had at any point in their careers. P.J. Fleck has been extremely outspoken this past week in praising the talent in Ohio State's wide receiver room. He has a fourth year and sixth year player respectively that need to try and play like upper classmen and prevent the Buckeyes from taking the top off the defense early.
If you're a Buckeye fan, you'll take your chances every time with Olave and Wilson. These guys very well might be the best two receivers in America and each have spoken about how they think C.J. Stroud has elevated the quality of their room in general. Look for them to try and make a few plays to take the air out of any hopes Minnesota has of pulling the upset. Plus with a 50 percent chance of rain forecast in Minneapolis, Olave and Wilson are very capable run blockers and could make an impact that way as well.
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