8:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Ohio State -14.5, Over/Under: 62
College football has returned, ladies and gentlemen, with it’s true opening weekend kicking off in style with the (No. 4) Ohio State Buckeyes visiting the Minnesota Golden Gophers tonight from TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Though they came oh so close to claiming their first National Championship since winning the inaugural Playoff back in 2015, Ohio State (7-1, 1st in BIG Ten East) is looking to put the disappointment of getting blown out of last January’s Final (24-52 against Alabama) behind them, as they’re no doubt eager to hit the gridiron running in what is expected to be one of the most wide-open BIG Ten campaigns in recent memory. Though they’ve certainly earned the right to be branded the favorite to win the league no matter what state they enter, the reason that 2021 appears to be full of possibilities for their opposition is due to a wealth of turnover in Columbus; (Head Coach) Ryan Day has just eleven starters returning from last year’s conference champions, including only four on a Defense that was utterly embarrassed against the Crimson Tide, with ten players selected in the NFL Draft. Of course, the most significant departure was that of (former Quarterback) Justin Fields, who over the course of three seasons accounted for eighty-six touchdowns en route to amassing a stellar 20-2 record and back-to-back BIG Ten titles from 2019 to 2020. Replacing his leadership and production is going to be no easy task for Day & Co, with a trifecta of Freshmen battling it out throughout Spring Practice into the Preseason. Indeed, each of C.J. Stroud, Jack Miller III, and Kyle McCord possess the requisite talent to lead OSU into a new era, but the bottom line is that whomever Day would choose to start tonight’s opener would possess a CV that included ZERO pass attempts. Simply put, they’ll be learning on the job in a league that isn’t particularly kind to young signal-callers. Ultimately, Day decided to tab Stroud as the starter, having impressed the Coaching Staff enough following his impressive performance in the Spring Game, in which he completed 16-of-22 passes for 185 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Furthermore, the Redshirt saw the most playing time of his competition last season, appearing in three games, highlighted by a 48-yard rushing score in the latter stages of a 52-12 romp over Michigan State. While there are always concerns over transitioning to a Freshman Quarterback, there will be no shortage of talent around Stroud to help facilitate his growth; three Offensive Linemen return, including both Tackles (Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere), along with a deep Backfield headlined by (Junior) Master Teague III (514 YDS, 8 TD), and the most experienced Receiving Corps in the conference, including the likes of (Senior) Chris Olave (729 YDS, 7 TD) and (Junior) Garrett Wilson (723 YDS, 6 TD). Olave’s return was a major boost for the group after the upperclassman decided to pull his name out of the list of NFL Draft declarations, while Wilson was a speed merchant averaging 16.8 yards per catch in 2020, with the tandem combining for 1,452 yards and thirteen touchdowns last season. Defensively, the Buckeyes are hoping that a full and proper Offseason without the influence of the pandemic will help further the growth of what remains a young (yet promising) unit, but must nonetheless replace seven starters, including all three first-choice Linebackers. (Defensive Tackle) Haskell Garrett (20 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 TD) is a major disruptor in the trenches, but he’ll need to shepherd along a slew of new faces within the Front Seven that will comprise the next generation of defenders. The Secondary on the other hand was in that very same predicament last season, and after some ups and downs hopes for a more consistent showing in 2021; (Senior Cornerback) Sevyn Banks (23 TKL, 0.5 TFL, 6 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD) is primed for a breakout campaign and has the talent to be Ohio State’s next high-profile Corner, while the healthy return of Cameron Brown from a torn Achilles should complement him nicely, with (hard-hitting Safety) Josh Proctor (20.0 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FR) setting the tone in the middle of the park. While we’re not going to hold their evisceration at the hands of Alabama against them (621 yards!!!), it bears saying that this Defense slipped considerably from 2019, when they allowed the fewest yards per play in the nation (4.13) in comparison to 5.85 in 2020, which fourth-largest increase in the country. Minnesota’s experienced attack should provide a solid early test before Ohio State welcomes in (No. 11) Oregon to the Horseshoe next weekend, though the Buckeyes haven’t lost to the Gophers in Minneapolis since 1981 and haven’t dropped a Season Opener since 1999.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes aren’t the only team taking the field tonight looking to put 2020 behind them, for you would be hard-pressed to find another team in the league that was hurt more by the pandemic’s influences than Minnesota (3-4, 4th in BIG Ten West). Surely for a quick and efficient builder such as (Head Coach) P.J. Fleck, the regression that his charges experienced following their stellar 2019 campaign (11-2, 1st in BIG Ten West) was a humbling blow; the Golden Gophers were ravaged by injuries and opt-outs to key personnel last season, while two games were called off due to COVID-19 concerns, and lost another pair in crushing fashion in overtime. Furthermore, they declined from participating in a bowl game altogether (due to the pandemic). Needless to say, it was quite the experience for a team that hopes to be much stronger having gone through it together, with a plethora of experience of both sides of the football, including nine starters on the offensive side of the football. Five returning starters along the Line should prove the foundation for the revitalization of a once-prolific Offense, opening holes for (Heisman dark horse) Mohamed Ibrahim (201 CAR, 1,076 YDS, 5.4 Y/A, 15 TD), who despite their struggles in 2020 still managed to rush for 1,076 yards and fifteen touchdowns on a healthy 5.6 yards per carry in only seven games. The reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year may lack the top-end speed of an elite draft prospect, but few have proven as patient at the Line of Scrimmage. Joining him in the Backfield is (Junior Quarterback) Tanner Morgan (57.9%, 1,374 YDS, 7.5 Y/A, 7 TD, 5 INT), who set school records in 2019 with 3,253 passing yards and thirty touchdowns, but will be looking to bounce back after a season in which both his completion percentage (66.0% to 57.9%) and yards per attempt (10.2 to 7.5) dipped considerably. Granted, not having the likes of (former All-BIG Ten Receiver and midseason opt-out) Rashod Bateman for the whole campaign was a blow, particularly when you consider he was targeted on over 50.0% of the passing plays in which he was on the field. With better protection and their first full (and proper) Offseason within (Offensive Coordinator) Mike Sanford’s scheme, this group should be back to moving the football with ease, even with a young and unproven Receiving Corps. However, the biggest improvement needs to be made on Defense and Special Teams, and Fleck has turned to the Transfer Portal for reinforcements. Minnesota acquired nine transfers during the Spring, none more notable than (former Clemson captain) Nyles Pinckney (22 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 SK, 1 FR); at an athletic 6-1, 290 lbs, the Graduate Transfer is the kind of talent that the Gophers have rarely seen in the trenches, arriving to Minneapolis after starting for the Tigers over the last three seasons, including last year’s loss to the Buckeyes in the National Semifinal. The hope is that he and the other new faces will considerably improve a unit that was gashed for 415.4 total yards per game, including a miserable ninety-four points and 1,156 yards in season opening defeats against Michigan and Maryland. Furthermore, Minnesota registered just eighteen tackles for loss over the course of 422 defensive snaps, parlaying to the worst percentage of negative plays in the country (4.3%). And then there is the lingering issue of Special Teams, which cost Fleck dearly in 2020; each of their two overtime losses boiled down to missed kicks, including a crucial failed extra point against the Terrapins and a blown field goal against Wisconsin. Fleck outsourced in this regard, bringing in a two new Kickers and a Punter to solve the problem. While besting the Buckeyes may indeed be a task too tall for these Gophers, there is reason to believe that they’ll be better suited to navigate the wild of the BIG Ten and challenge in the Western Division, though ending an eleven-game losing streak to Ohio State would certainly serve as a statement that Minnesota is indeed back.