A few days ago, Ryan Day, the head football coach at The Ohio State University, made an appearance at the Covelli Center in front of about 100 businesspeople to discuss the Name, Image & Likeness (NIL) phenomenon that’s sweeping through the college sport landscape. At the conference, Day inferred that in order to maintain the Buckeyes’ impressive collection of talent, Ohio State would need $13 million dollars. "One phone call, and they're out the door," said Day. That's a lot of scratch, but when you take a closer look at the Buckeyes’ roster, Day might still be a little short.
When we last saw OSU in action, they were completing an incredible Rose Bowl-comeback against the Pac-12 Champion Utah Utes. Down 35 - 21 at halftime, the Buckeyes, behind the arm of Heisman-favorite quarterback C.J. Stroud and a lifetime performance by wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba, fought back to win the game after kicker Noah Ruggles nailed a 19-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining - the perfect way to end a disappointing season.
Ohio State struggled in 2021. Of course, “struggled” is relative, especially when talking about one of the bluest of the blue bloods in college football. That said, 2021 wasn’t exactly a year to remember for Buckeyes fans. In Week 2, the 12th-ranked Oregon Ducks shocked the college football world when they marched into Columbus and dispatched a discombobulated 3rd-ranked Ohio State team that was still trying to find itself following the departure of two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year QB Justin Fields.
On November 5, the last week of the regular season, the unthinkable happened: Ohio State actually lost to Michigan. I know. My right hand involuntarily tried to choke me to death as I typed that out, but it's the truth. The loss ended a run of eight consecutive victories for the Buckeyes over the Team Up North but given that Michigan has won twice in 17 tries since 2004, and old Jim Harbaugh has just the one, single victory over the Bucks, I think I can live with it.
2022 looks to be a different story. Stroud, who replaced Fields as QB for the Buckeyes, started the season slowly, but by the end, he had made Columbus nearly forget about their former QB. Stroud finished the season with an incredible 186.6 passer rating, good for second-best in the country. If you assumed eventual Heisman-winner QB Bryce Young of Alabama must have been first in passer rating…you’d be mistaken! That honor went to Greyson McCall (who?) of the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. Young was all the way down at #7 - not bad, but not C.J.
And therein lies the biggest difference between the 2021 Buckeyes and the 2022 Buckeyes: Stroud has emerged as a fantastic option at the QB-position and is currently among the favorites for the Heisman Trophy after finishing 4th in the voting last year. Last year, Stroud was an unknown and unproven player. Many were convinced that Kyle McCord should have gotten the starting nod. After the Week 2 debacle against Oregon, that chorus got louder. By the end of the season…silence.
Beyond Stroud, though, Ohio State returns one of the most formidable collections of skill position talent in college football history, headlined by Smith-Njigba, who will almost certainly be the first WR selected in the next NFL draft. In fact, had Smith-Njigba been draft-eligible in 2022, he likely would have been the first WR selected in this year’s draft, ahead of both his first round-selection teammates Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.
In a crowded WR room, Smith-Njigba stood out all year as a dynamic downfield threat and a shifty runner in open space. He tallied 95 receptions in 2021, with nine touchdowns and 1606 yards receiving, good for 3rd most in college football. But Smith-Njigba saved his best for last, and by that, I mean he went absolutely bonkers against Utah in the Rose Bowl, with 347 yards receiving in that game alone. Yup, you read that correctly - 347 yards in a single, solitary football game. My goodness.
While Smith-Njigba may have been the breakout star of 2021, fellow WR Marvin Harrison, Jr. looks like the next man up. As I mentioned, OSU’s WR room was pretty crowded, but that didn’t stop Harrison from making an impact. Like Smith-Njigba, Harrison also saved his best for last, collecting three touchdown receptions in the Rose Bowl. The Buckeyes’ one-two punch at WR is hands down the best in the country.
The Buckeyes also are loaded at running back, with sophomore TreVeyon Henderson returning to continue bulldozing and hurdling and juking and spinning and, well, frankly, sprinting past hapless defenders. Even on a team with a Heisman-candidate QB and one of the most explosive WRs in recent-college football memory, Henderson might have been the most impressive. Despite not receiving the bulk of the carries until after the start of the season, the freshman Henderson racked up 1,172 rushing yards, good for over 7.0 yards per carry. Oh yeah, and he also scored 19 touchdowns - he’s an absolute freak of nature.
With so much offensive talent, the Buckeyes are well-positioned to reassert their dominance in the Big 10 and to return again to the College Football Playoff. Last year was, in many ways, somewhat of a rebuild. The Buckeyes needed to find out who their QB of the future was and they needed to see how all of their young talent would mesh. Good news: it did.
When Ryan Day mentioned that $13 million figure, he broke it down into little bits - $2 million for the QB, $1 million per top pass rusher and offensive tackle, money for WRs, RBs, etc. $13 million sounds like a lot of money, but when you think about how good players like C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison, Jr. and TreVeyon Henderson are, that figure might be too low. Turns out, that’s a great problem to have.