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Can No. 4 Ohio State pass Michigan and compete for a national championship?

With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, Yahoo Sports is rolling out our annual Top 25. We’ve revealed issues #11 through #25 in three installments and are now counting down from #10 to #1 in the days leading up to the official start of the season on August 26.

Earlier: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, No. 10 Texas, No. 9 state of Florida, No. 8 Clemson, No. 7 Penn State, No. 6 LSU, No. 5 U.S.C

After a streak of five Big Ten titles in a seven-year span, Ohio State has been sidelined by its closest rival, Michigan, for the past two seasons.

The Big Ten’s East division was on the line as the Buckeyes and Wolverines went head-to-head on the last Saturday of the regular season in both 2021 and 2022. Michigan dominated on both occasions.

In 2021, the loss ended Ohio State’s eight-game winning streak at UM and cost the Buckeyes a College Football Playoff berth. Last year, the Buckeyes were still able to squeak into the CFP as the number 4 seed. In the semifinals with defending champion Georgia, a refocused Buckeyes team held a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter. But that lead evaporated and a winning 50-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds sailed wide.

Final Score: Georgia 42, Ohio State 41. It was a brutal loss for the Buckeyes, who would have been favored over TCU in the CFP title game.

Not only did Ohio State lose to Michigan again, it almost had a chance to play for a national championship. That double dose of heartache carried over into the off-season for Ryan Day’s schedule. And now there’s an added layer of pressure for Day, who has an incredible 42-6 record in four seasons as OSU’s full-time head coach.

It won’t be easy to beat Michigan and get back to the top of the Big Ten, but Day’s team has the talent to pull it off.

Ohio State was painfully close to advancing to the national title game last season. This year’s team has the talent to have another chance. (Yahoo Sports)

Biggest Offense Question: Who’s the Quarterback?

Ohio State has a track record of outstanding quarterback play with CJ Stroud as the latest star to roll through Columbus. Stroud went out with an epic performance in Georgia’s loss before becoming the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft.

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With the season less than two weeks away, the battle to succeed Stroud is still on. Day said Monday he is not ready to name a starter while Kyle McCord and Devin Brown are still battling for the job.

McCord has been at OSU for a year longer than Brown and was Stroud’s backup in 2022. McCord was thought to have a head start going into fall camp, especially after Brown missed time during spring with a finger injury. Since then, Brown appeared to close the gap and Day said both could see the field in the opener against Indiana on September 2.

“I think our staff has confidence in both of them, which is exciting,” Day said. “I asked the staff after the scrimmage this weekend. I took a straw and it was almost split in the middle. So what does that mean? Well, I think it will continue this week and go from there. Is there any chance they can both play in the first game? I think the answer is yes.”

Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. leads one of the most talented skill groups in the country this season.  (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. leads one of the most talented skill groups in the country this season. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Whoever eventually starts is playing with one of the best collections of skill talent in the country. The receiver group is led by Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming and running back TreVeyon Henderson is finally healthy and could be back to the incredibly explosive player we saw in 2021. Behind Henderson, Miyan Williams rushed over a career-high 1,300 yards and Dallan Hayden is coming off a strong freshman season.

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Aside from QB, the biggest question on this offense is the line as three starters left for the NFL, including tackles Paris Johnson and Dawand Jones. San Diego State transfer Josh Simmons is expected to fill in at left tackle, senior Josh Fryar will be ticketed at right tackle and freshman Carson Hinzman is the projected starter at center.

It’s not an ideal situation, and it could be something that ultimately separates the Buckeyes from the elite teams in college football in 2023.

The defense should improve in Year 2 under Jim Knowles

Day completely overhauled his defensive coaching staff after the 2021 season, with Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles as the new defensive coordinator. Knowles’ units at Oklahoma State were among the best in the country, and the Buckeyes were undoubtedly better in 2022, but not in the biggest games.

The Buckeyes faltered again against Michigan and then late in the loss to Georgia. OSU was especially hurt by big plays. Will the defense take a step forward as they enter Year 2 in Knowles’ system? Based on the staff, it definitely should.

Up front, the Buckeyes JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer return on the defensive end and have plenty of depth on the inside. Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers return as the team’s top linebackers for another year, and there’s a chance the secondary will improve, despite four of the team’s top six defensive backs leaving the program last fall.

Ohio State did not draft any of its outgoing DBs, which is unusual for a program that has produced high-level professionals from high school. At cornerback, Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock both return with Ole Miss transfer Davison Igbinosun coming in with a chance to start.

In safety, Lathan Ransom comes back and Ja’Had Carter is taken out of Syracuse. They should both have major roles, but one guy to keep an eye out for is sophomore Sonny Styles. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Styles was a five-star recruit and is a key breakaway candidate after running a reserve role last fall.

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Ohio State defensive end JT Tuimoloau (44) returns to a defense hoping to take a step forward in 2023 after faltering in some key moments a season ago.  (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Ohio State defensive end JT Tuimoloau (44) returns to a defense hoping to take a step forward in 2023 after faltering in some key moments a season ago. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Biggest Game: November 25 at Michigan

Ohio State has some tough games on its schedule. The Buckeyes head to Notre Dame on September 23, host Penn State on October 21, then make a trip to Madison to play Wisconsin on October 28. Still, this is an obvious choice – it’s the Michigan game.

It’s arguably the biggest rivalry in the sport, and it should once again have major Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff implications. This year it’s in Ann Arbor and the Wolverines will try to get three consecutive wins over the Buckeyes.

And with the Big Ten eliminating divisions and expanding the CFP to 12 teams by 2024, this could be the last time The Game has such a huge stake.

Impact Player: WR Marvin Harrison Jr.

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Marvin Harrison Jr. as the best wide receiver in the country. Harrison showed his tremendous potential as a freshman in 2021 by catching three touchdowns in OSU’s Rose Bowl victory over Utah.

In 2022, with Jaxon Smith-Njigba sidelined with a hamstring injury, Harrison emerged as the Buckeyes’ top pass catcher. By the time the season ended, he amassed 77 receptions for 1,263 yards and 14 touchdowns. Along the way, he had seven 100-yard games and four multi-touchdown games.


Choice: Over 10.5 wins (-110)

I’ve been toying with the idea that the top three teams in the Big Ten East – Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State – will all go 11-1. Aside from that scenario, there are some tricky games on this schedule outside of the trip to Michigan.

No matter who wins the QB battle, having a night game at Notre Dame as one of your first road starts is really tough. And then there’s the home game against Penn State, followed by a trip to Wisconsin the following weekend. I don’t rank as high on Notre Dame and Wisconsin as others, but those are losing games.

The offensive line is a bigger concern than working in a new QB, but the talent level on the rest of this roster is so extraordinary that I have to do it here. There will be a loss somewhere, but only one.

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