The 2023 Ohio State Buckeyes have gotten off to a strong start by winning each of its first seven games. The highs have been high and the lows have been inexplicably low. Despite everything, the Buckeyes have dominated to a 7-0 mark and an AP Poll top-three spot with the CFP Committee rankings looming.
“The Standard is The Standard,” as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin put it. The standard in Columbus is simple: beat Michigan, win the Big Ten, win the National Title. Thus far in the Ryan Day era, Ohio State is 1-2 against Michigan, has two Big Ten titles, and is 1-2 in the CFP. For most programs, this performance is enough to warrant a decade of leeway.
Despite a 52-6 record, there are some who are antsy in Columbus because of the recent performances against Michigan. The most common comparison of Day is to John Cooper. He was known for winning…but not against Michigan. Cooper was 111-43-4 at Ohio State with five 10+ win seasons. The sticking point? His 2-10-1 record against The Team Up North. Cooper had National Championship-level teams that were upended by Michigan. Imagine if social media was around in the 1990s…
Regardless, the 2023 Ohio State Buckeyes bear a striking resemblance to another team: the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes.
The 2023 Ohio State Buckeyes Remind of 2002
Lackluster Quarterback Play…
The biggest gripe among the Buckeyes’ faithful in 2023 has been the play of Kyle McCord. After a decade of watching the play of Braxton Miller, Kenny Guiton (to an extent), J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Justin Fields, and C.J. Stroud, Ohio State fans have become spoiled. Expecting near perfection from McCord is not good for McCord nor is it good for the fans.
McCord has not been to the level of those previous quarterbacks, that much is true. He is often late on his throws. Receivers have had to stop their routes or adjust in a way that eliminates the separation they’ve created as a result. He has the arm strength to push the ball down the field but he’s been late. Additionally, as evident in the win over Penn State, he is not seeing the field well.
Even then, he’s better than legendary quarterback, Craig Krenzel.
Krenzel may have led the Buckeyes to the BCS National Championship but he was nowhere near the quarterback McCord is. In 14 games, Krenzel threw for 2,110 yards for 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He completed 59.4% of his passes. McCord, in his lackluster play in seven games, has thrown for 1,937 yards, 12 touchdowns, and one interception on 63.9% passing. Krenzel does have a leg up when it comes to his scrambling ability, of course. He finished with 368 yards and three scores while McCord does not scramble.
…But Still Scoring
Through seven games, the 2023 Ohio State Buckeyes’ offense is averaging 33.7 points per game. The 2002 team actually averaged 38 points through its first seven games. When the dust settled on the year, that average dipped to 29.3.
This year, the offense runs through Marvin Harrison, Jr. and his 109.4 yards per game. The best receiver on that 2002 team was Michael Jenkins and his 1,076 yards and six touchdowns. Harrison already has six touchdowns and is headed for 1,532 yards over a 14-game pace.
Of course, the biggest difference in these offenses is the rushing attacks. Maurice Clarett carried the offense with 1,237 yards and a whopping 16 touchdowns. No 2023 Buckeye running back will sniff 1,000 yards or 10 touchdowns.
Regardless of how it’s done, both offenses are scoring despite the bemoaning about the play of their quarterbacks. Through seven games in 2002, Ohio State averaged 432.4 yards per game. In 2023, that number is 431.9 per game.
Jim Tressell‘s Ohio State squads were often known for two things: suffocating defense and field position games. One thing is for certain, Jim Knowles‘ defense would make Tressel smile.
That 2002 defensive squad was led by Mark Dantonio and boasted 11 NFL Draft picks spanning the 2003 and 2004 drafts. Through seven games, the ’02 Buckeyes allowed 14.9 points per game. They gave up chunks of yardage as well with 346.4 yards per game through seven. How does that compare to the 2023 Ohio State squad?
This year, Ohio State has allowed just 10 points per game and a meager 260 yards. Only time will tell how many defenders end up drafted, but according to NFL Mock Draft Database, eight players show up in the consensus big board who will have their names called in the 2024 NFL Draft. That’s not including the underclassmen like Sonny Styles, Davison Igbinosun, Jordan Hancock, C.J. Hicks, etc., who are looking like they’ll play on Sundays.
Ohio State’s current defensive squad is playing better with even more high-end talent than that 2002 unit. In just about every game this year, they’ve made the opposing offenses look inept. The way that they were able to render the Penn State offense useless made the nation forget how good the Nittany Lions are.
A strength of 2002 and a head-scratching part of the 2023 squad is its special teams. Tressel loved punting the football to play the field position game. When executed well, punting is just another weapon that can set up advantageous situations. Despite having a full-time Special Teams coach, the 2023 unit has been hit or miss.
Jesse Mirco is an Aussie-style punter for the Buckeyes who has been decent thus far. Against Penn State, he launched a 72-yard punt out of his own end zone with a slim 10-6 lead. The complete flip of field position set the Buckeyes up nicely and were able to get back to controlling the game.
Despite issues with coverage and returns, Mirco has been a solid weapon. That 72-yard bomb would have fit in nicely with Tressel. If Parker Fleming‘s unit can become more disciplined, the third phase of the game can become another strength.
At the time of the game, the 2002 Ohio State team faced off against five ranked opponents, including Miami (FL). If you’re one who prefers to weigh teams based on how they finish in the final AP Poll, that number drops to four top-16 wins. Already in 2023, Ohio State has beaten ninth-ranked Notre Dame and seventh-ranked Penn State teams. On the future slate, only one remains and it could be a one-vs-two classic at the end of the season. Rutgers could have had a shot of being ranked after going 6-2 in its first eight games but it is unlikely that they will jump into the rankings while idle.
The ’02 team battled until the final whistle in all four of those wins. Even in the 25-7 win against Washington State (who finished 10th), Ohio State had to score 22 unanswered to win. Against Penn State, Michigan, and Miami (FL), the Buckeyes had to close out one-score games.
For 2023, it is not just that have beaten a pair of potential top-10-finishing teams, it was how they did it. In the 13-7 win in 2002, Ohio State had to gut out a defensive struggle without its star running back. Against Michigan, they scored the game-winning touchdown with 5:28 to go. While it was not as dramatic as this year’s win over Notre Dame with 0:01 remaining, it was still as clutch as ever. This year, they stifled both Notre Dame and Penn State who have a few impressive wins themselves.
Down the stretch, the 2023 defense will have to replicate the 2002 effort. In the six weeks leading up to the BCS National Championship, Ohio State allowed just four touchdowns. In those two top wins over Penn State and Michigan, they only allowed one. Needless to say, the 2023 Ohio State defense will lead the team to victory over Michigan if they hold the Wolverines to just three field goals.
Ryan Day-ja Vu
Yes, the identities of the 2002 and 2023 Ohio State teams are very different. However, the blueprint remains.
There is a roadmap to success without a first-round quarterback, oddly enough. McCord is not Haskins, Fields, or Stroud. Even then, he’s better than Krenzel. That stance is likely not a popular one due to nostalgia and recency bias but in terms of quarterbacking an offense, McCord is better.
The key the rest of the way will be to allow McCord to manage the game rather than expect him to take over as those aforementioned first-round talents did. The talent on the 2023 squad is better than 2002. One could even make the argument that it rivals the 2014 CFP National Championship team.
Much has been made about McCord’s struggles. Some concerns are well-founded, like his timing or ability to read the field. Those can be fixed. However, 90% of complaints are just that he is not Stroud or Fields. Neither was Krenzel.
Krenzel won a title after knocking off one of the greatest dynasties college football has ever seen. McCord, if everything else works, can do the same against the back-to-back Big Ten Champs and, eventually, the back-to-back CFP National Champions.