Welcome to The Champaign Room Freshman Guide to Big Ten Football! As we’re now a full 15 years from my fall semester on the fourth floor of Allen Hall (pre-air conditioning), it occurs to me that I have a wealth of familiarity with our Big Ten foes that our incoming freshmen simply haven’t accumulated yet. Over the next month, I’ll be hosting this crash course on each of our conference opponents: what’s their deal, how good are they, who do we need to watch out for, and why they suck. My work at SBNation’s Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire has exposed me to a lot of opposing fandom and information on the rest of our conference brethren.
Let’s start with the...
Ohio State Buckeyes
The simplest way to sum up Ohio State is as follows: the final boss of Big Ten football. This has been roughly true for the last 20 years or so, but especially in the last 10. Under coach Jim Tressel (2001-10), Ohio State fans could still reasonably cling to the time-honored Big Ten tradition of looking down on the sleazy programs like Miami and Florida State while claiming that their respected university was doing student-athlete things the Right Way. Tressel won a national title in 2002 and then won six straight from 2005-10, when he resigned due to a scandal where players were getting free stuff they weren’t supposed to get (in particular, tattoos).
In replacing him, the Buckeyes tapped one of the greasiest men in the coaching business, two-time national title winner Urban Meyer, who promptly elevated the talent, won a national title in 2014, and resigned in scandal (as is tradition). Boatloads of Buckeyes are taken in the early rounds of the NFL draft. They’ve always been a big deal (going back to when they and Michigan ran the conference in the 70’s when college football first started getting big TV audiences), but they are currently eating the planet.
It is absolutely hilarious when they lose a game. The only problem is that they’ve only lost 13 games since I graduated in 2012.
History vs. Illinois
Illinois and Ohio State play for a trophy known as the Illibuck. It’s a giant wooden turtle, selected to symbolize the long life of this rivalry. This tradition started in 1925 and was a genuinely big deal for four decades. Outside of a stretch centered in the 1980s where they won 8 of 12 against the Buckeyes, Illinois has won just 3 of its last 35 in this matchup, going just 1-12 in the last 20 years. Overall, Illinois (5 national championships, 15 Big Ten titles) is 30-68-4 against Ohio State (8 national championships, 39 Big Ten titles).
The last two times we beat Ohio State, we went to the Rose Bowl and won the Big Ten.
Notably, two of those 13 losses came last year! Expecting a national title as always, Ohio State lost at home to Oregon (and former Illini safety Bennett Williams), then proceeded to torch the rest of the Big Ten until losing to Michigan for the first time in 10 years. The problem with putting so much talent in the league is that you have to replace those players, and Ohio State lost just enough on the offensive and defensive lines that Michigan pushed them around. They won a thrilling Rose Bowl over Utah 48-45, but are still seething about losing to Michigan.
Coaching Staff & Identity
That performance got second-year defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs fired by head coach Ryan Day, who is 34-4 and 23-1 in conference games as he enters his fourth full season. The 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year basically took over Urban Meyer’s ultra-talented murder machine after just two years as an assistant coach. He’s 43 and OSU’s ultra-competitive recruiting shows no signs of slowing down, but time will tell if he can maintain this trajectory. I’ll discuss what they do on offense and defense but generally their strategy is to overwhelm the rest of the Big Ten with vastly superior athletes at every position.
Day tapped Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to fill that position with the Buckeyes. Coombs had run a traditional 4-3 base defense, which occasionally ran into problems like this:
absolutely howling at ohio state’s #32 struggling to keep up with devonta pic.twitter.com/Ehj3TkE8vB— mike taddow (@MikeTaddow) January 12, 2021
Knowles will implement a 4-2-5 look with three safeties, which will be more effective against speedy receivers in wide-open passing looks, but it remains to be seen how he’ll address the run defense.
On the offensive side, it’ll be 6th-year offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. who was the architect of a phenomenal offense at Oklahoma in 2008 before revitalizing a dead Indiana program as head coach by injecting offensive excitement. Wilson is known as a pass-happy guy but actually tends to run a fairly balanced offense. Its success comes from being difficult to read; he will run the same play out of a wide variety of formations so that what the defense sees before the snap doesn’t really tip them off about what kind of play is coming. If you’re wondering why he’s no longer at Indiana despite taking the Hoosiers from the basement to two bowl games, he was fired in the wake of a player mistreatment scandal.
He was hired by Ohio State immediately, because Ohio State.
Dudes To Watch
Ohio State recently produced prolific NFL edge rushers Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa and Chase Young. However, last year’s unit didn’t have a star of that magnitude. Defensive lineman Zach Harrison got 2nd team All B1G from the media, but the best player on the defense was defensive back Ronnie Hickman. He’ll be playing in a new system that will probably be designed to put him in more playmaking opportunities.
On the offensive side though? Hoo boy. The Buckeyes had two receivers drafted in the first round last year, and both of them agree that returning junior Jaxon Smith-Njigba is better than them. He had 15 receptions for 347 yards in the Rose Bowl and is the clear-cut #1 option. Last year’s Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, CJ Stroud, returns at quarterback, but perhaps the biggest threat is sophomore back Treyveon Henderson. He’s an absurdly complete back who tallied 1,560 yards last year on only 210 touches, taking 19 for touchdowns. He’s the unquestioned lead back this year, so I expect his numbers (and film) to be eye-popping.
Season Prediction & Fan Expectations
The most reasonable expectation is for Ohio State to win the conference with a 9-0 B1G record and go to the Playoff. They face a tough non-conference test in Notre Dame, but have the most talent in this conference by far. Penn State is the most likely to stand up to them, but the vibe in the Ohio State community is that this is yet another “The Year,” more so than last year given that the defense is being re-tooled. They expect to play for a national title.
Illinois Game Prediction
They do not expect to play Illinois. We aren’t on their schedule and aren’t especially likely to make the Big Ten Championship game, but if they did, I genuinely think the Illini would struggle to stay within five touchdowns.
Why Ohio State Sucks
This series is intended to raise some awareness of our conference foes and this part of it is intended to educate or remind folks of the various grudges we have here. That shouldn’t be necessary with Ohio State. They’ve been eminently hateable at least since Jim Tressell’s rise to power, but their hateability launched into the stratosphere when Urban Meyer took over. All the things you hate about what college football is becoming? They’re spearheading those things.
The buckeye is an inedible, often poisonous nut. The school is in a city still named for a brutal colonial slaver/Genocide Guy despite Columbus native Guy Fieri voicing support for the numerous petitions to change the name to Flavortown.
In their scandal-fueled 2011, everyone got to beat up on them for the first half of the season, but their numerous suspensions lasted just long enough to be over when 6-0 Illinois hosted them. Typical, right? I had the cigars in my pocket. I had a good idea of (Buckeye superfan) Big Nut’s exit path. Had the vaunted Illinois offensive brain trust of Paul Petrino, Jeff Brohm, Chip Long et al been able to find 20 points, or found 13 points without setting up Ohio State with short fields, I would have enveloped Big Nut in a tremendously rich cloud. Ohio State fans probably would have applauded me for doing this.
Ohio State cancelled its 2020 game with Illinois despite AD Gene Smith making it abundantly clear that they could have played. Ohio State didn’t want to risk it against Lovie Smith. Nevertheless, the fated Lovie vs. Justin Fields matchup is scheduled for September 25th.
Hear some more voices on the subject:
Raul Rodriguez - They are an A- version of the ‘Bama Death Star, yet their fans have a conspiratorial based victim complex with ESPN and the SEC. It makes their fans miserable to deal with on the internet or in person. They are a bully who plays the victim.
The worst part is that the Fox Big Noon Crew coddles this mindset.
He Was A High School Quarterback (Off Tackle Empire) - I fucking hate an Ohio State University. First off, you’re a mediocre academic B1G institution. Drop the insistence on using the capital THE. Lou Tepper and Ron Turner both achieved multiple wins against you. It took John Cooper six tries to get a single win against Illinois. You’re not special. Also, fuck you for grooming John Groce who managed to be the first Illinois basketball coach to lose a talented prep player from central Illinois to another B1G school; he did it twice! Keita Bates-Diop and EJ Liddell both went to…..??? That’s right, Columbus. You’ll never convince me that Groce to Illinois wasn’t a long con by Thad Matta. By the way, take Matt Sylvester and shove that right up your butt.
Matt Rejc - It’s easy to forget that former Illinois AD “Mid-Major” Mike Thomas was responsible for completing some of the no-brainer face lifts for Illinois Athletics that Guenther neglected. And it’s the lettering that he put on the Memorial Stadium press box showing championship years and retired numbers that immediately comes to my mind when I think of obnoxious Ohio State fans. While I was watching the Illini mildly annoy #3 OSU from Block I in 2013, I’ll never forget the OSU fan in front of me at some point during the game pointing to the press box and saying to her Illini friend “YOU GUYS HAVEN’T WON A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SINCE 1951??!?!? THAT’S SO LONG AGO!!!” The pearl-clutching was palpable, and it made me realize then and there just how much the success of OSU football had warped their fanbase. Their sheltered fans truly don’t even know how the other half lives in college football.
Take care of business when a prohibitive favorite (and don’t fuck up the probation game in 2011-2012) and you deprive Texas (twice), Nebraska, Oklahoma, Florida, and Alabama of nattys and have a clear claim to being THE defining program of the last half century.
But you’re too busy smelling your own farts, projecting dominance, instead of, actually, you know, winning these games, to get the job done. So, instead, for all your regular-season glory, you’re stuck with nouveau riche programs like FSU, Clemson, and Florida, and that’s only because I’m letting your reach back to 1968...
OSU IS the giant of the B1G. And this is unfortunate. Because when it comes to winning it all, nobody has left more on the table.
Hear it from an active Ohio State player during the 3rd quarter of an Ohio State game!