Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Ohio State Sits Atop the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings…Should They?

The ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings have been released an Ohio State is number one. Do the Buckeyes deserve to be?
The ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings have been released an Ohio State is number one. Do the Buckeyes deserve to be?

In a move that will be hotly contested across all of college football, the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings debut with Ohio State earning the top spot. The Buckeyes, fresh off of a one-point loss in the CFP Peach Bowl against eventual champion, Georgia, are heading into 2023 with lofty expectations and just as many question marks.

Following the Buckeyes in this way-to-early ranking is perennial contender, Alabama, followed by defending champions, Georgia. LSU and Texas then round out the top five. Now, even the most optimistic fans of at least three of the top five teams may have to do a double-take, but is Ohio State one of those?

Should Ohio State Top the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings?

Porous Defense

Last year, under new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, Ohio State’s defense looked like it had turned the corner. In total, the Buckeyes allowed 321.5 total yards per game, good for 14th at the FBS level. Where it counted, Ohio State allowed 21 points per game, 21st in the nation.

While a superficial look at these stats may seem good, the defense struggled against every half-decent offense it faced. Sure, they held Iowa and Rutgers to 158 and 187 yards, respectively, but were routinely gashed by the likes of Penn State, Maryland, Michigan, and eventually Georgia.

In terms of raw numbers, the defense improved from 2021. However, the issue with the defense was its inability to keep opponents from gaining massive chunks of yards. In 13 games, Ohio State gave up plays of:

70+ yards: Five times (third-most in FBS)
60+ yards: Six times (11th-most)
50+ yards: 11 times (eighth-most)
40+ yards: 18 times (16th-most)

Four of those five gains of 70+ yards came in the final two games against Michigan and Georgia. Not ideal for a team looking to win it all.

In that pivotal game against Michigan, 304 of Michigan’s 530 yards from scrimmage came on just four plays.

Taking the last two years as evidence, it doesn’t matter how good that offense is, if the defense can’t stop a runny nose, the Buckeyes have no shot of winning it all.

Re-Rooled Offensive Line

As a unit, the Ohio State offensive line has been a strength of the program for a while now. Each year, it seems like they are replacing one future NFL player with another. 2023 will be no different.

Paris Johnson, Jr., Dawand Jones, and Luke Wypler will be hearing their names called at this year’s NFL Draft and they leave gaping holes, both in terms of production and sheer size.

Last year, C.J. Stroud was sacked a total of 13 times. Johnson allowed two, Jones didn’t allow any, and Wypler allowed one. Needless to say, they’re losing a lot of talent in the trenches. Replacing these three will be a massive task for offensive line coach Justin Frye.

A weakness, according to Big Ten assistants, was Ohio State’s run-blocking. While the Buckeyes may have finished the year averaging 5.4 yards per carry (second in the Big Ten behind Michigan), a lot of that was thanks to the impressively athletic depth they have at the position, not the offensive line.

Josh Fryar, Carson Hinzman, and Zen Michalski started this year’s Spring Game filling those holes. Overall, there’s plenty of work that needs to be done, to say the least. While the right tackle battle looks like it’ll be a good one, Fryar struggled. He was routinely beaten by J.T. Tuimoloau and Kenyatta Jackson, Jr.

With the Transfer Portal opening up yet again, perhaps the Buckeyes dip their toe in the market for more. Whether or not they do, the way that it is currently constructed, this is not a team that should lead the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings.

Replacing a Two-Time Heisman Finalist

While it has been commonplace for Ohio State to replace a top-tier quarterback, the future is a bit more muddled than it has been in recent memory. With Stroud set to make his NFL dreams come true, who is the next man up?

The competition has been between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown all spring. Each player brings their own set of tools to the table that makes them great and each has their own legitimate argument to be starting quarterback. The Spring Game was supposed to be the culmination of the two’s Spring. Alas, Brown had to have finger surgery, and Ohio State faithful began to have 2018 deja vu. Is McCord Haskins or is Brown Burrow? Perhaps, perhaps not, but either way, only one quarterback had the opportunity to cement his place.

Unfortunately, McCord was not show-stopping. He missed a few routine throws and finished with just 184 yards and a touchdown while completing just under 53% of his passes. Given, that touchdown was a great pass to Carnell Tate, a name college football fans should get to know sooner rather than later.

The scrimmage could have been a coronation for McCord, but he did not fully grasp it. Now, if we remember 2019, Justin Fields looked nothing like himself in his first action in scarlet and gray. The rest is history.

This quarterback competition is far from over. However, taking over the offense from Stroud is going to be a massive ask for either man. That uncertainty alone makes the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings a little confusing. Not knowing who the starting quarterback is will be a point of concern all the way up until the first game at Indiana.

Can Brian Hartline Take the Next Step?

When he’s on his game, Head Coach Ryan Day is one of the brilliant offensive minds in college football. When he’s off, he has had a tendency to overthink things and he has struggled against legitimate competition. With all of the frustration surrounding the program’s second-consecutive loss to Michigan, Day made the decision to take a step back from play-calling duties. Enter wide receiver coach and, former Buckeye, Hartline.

Plain and simple, if Hartline can call plays and coach an entire offense like he recruits elite receivers, Ohio State is going to have a hard time losing games for a while. Given that these are two very, very different beasts, only time will tell.

On one hand, calling plays when you have the weapons that Ohio State has is like coaching on easy mode. On the other, Ohio State fans will be calling for Hartline’s job the second the Buckeyes go into halftime trailing a seemingly inferior opponent.

Again, the sheer uncertainty should be enough to underrate Ohio State, not reward them.

Weapons Abound

While there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings, there are a few reasons that make sense. The first of which is this wide receiver corps.

Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Emeka Egbuka are a duo of receivers any coach would kill to have. Both are projected as first-round talents, just like their predecessors in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Behind them, there’s only more talent.

Julian Fleming and Jayden Ballard are finally coming around after injuries derailed their careers to this point. Xavier Johnson showed last year that he can be a Swiss army knife on offense. But it’s the youth behind them that has people even more excited.

Kyion Grayes, Caleb Burton, Kaleb Brown, and Kojo Antwi are all in their second year in the program, each was highly rated coming out of high school. And, that’s not mentioning the star-studded true freshman class of Tate, Noah Rogers, Bryson Rodgers, and Brandon Inniss.

Let’s not forget the running backs. TreVeyon Henderson, when not dealing with a foot injury, is a star. Miyan Williams is a bowling ball of pure hatred and picked up the slack last year, scoring 14 times. Dallan Hayden and Chip Trayanum stepped up when their numbers were called last year. Add in the wild card of the group, Evan Pryor, and this group is so talented that it will be difficult to not utilize their abilities.

If the rankings were based on skill positions, sure, Ohio State has a legitimate argument for number one. But the whole team?

Rushmen Reborn

During the Urban Meyer era, the defensive line was a place of pride. The Buckeyes touted elite pass-rushers and legit run-stuffers. As the clock turned to Day, things have taken a step back despite Larry Johnson‘s continued presence. Since Chase Young left for the NFL, could a casual college football fan name a single defensive lineman? No, Ohio State has not had a household name in a while.

Aside from his Ndamukong Suh-like performance against Penn State last year, J..T. Tuimoloau has not been able to take over as his predecessors. Jack Sawyer was given the “jack” role, but, again, did not take over.

There were flashes from the interior from Mike Hall, Jr., and Tyleik Williams, but nothing consistent. However, a third season with all four aforementioned defensive linemen could spell a return to the Rushmen ways.

In addition to these, an overreaction to the Spring Game will bring assumptions that Kenyatta Jackson, Jr. will have a breakout campaign in 2023.

The Buckeyes have recruited the defensive trenches well. It’s possible that the defensive line will get back to its ways. However, it’s just as likely that nothing special will happen and they will continue to underwhelm. It’s all projection.

Verdict: 2023 Could be a Must-Win Scenario

Can Ohio State end up as the best team in the nation and deserve its place atop the ESPN FPI Pre-Season Rankings? Absolutely, they have playmakers at just about every level.

Could Ohio State underperform and end up third in the Big Ten East and earn a rousing invite to a mid-tier bowl game? It’s just as likely.

Overall, it is a bit mind-boggling that the Buckeyes are the top-rated team in the FPI. There are too many unanswered questions as it stands here halfway through April. However, another 11 or 12-win season could be ahead of them. That’s the fun of pre-season hype: it’s always everyone’s year!

Expectations continue to stay sky-high for this program. Fans continue to call to Day’s head and will do so until he beats their hated rival for the first time since 2019. There are comparisons of day to John Cooper. If you were an Ohio State fan in the 1990s, you’d know how searing of a comparison that is.

It’s only April, so let’s relax. ESPN got what it wanted with these rankings: discourse.


Photo courtesy: Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK


More Posts

LSU Defense Exposed

Ole Miss outlasted LSU in an offensive explosion in which the fireworks were on full display. In a game that was a joy for fans

2023 Week Five Bowl Projections

2023 Week Five Bowl Projections

Another Exciting Week in the Books Welcome to our 2023 Week Five Bowl Projections. While this past weekend’s slate of games may not have matched

Send Us A Message