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Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: Time for No. 4 Ohio State to worry? Don't bet on it

Kevin Lyttle
American-Statesman Correspondent

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

No. 4 Ohio State

The Buckeyes must replace 10 NFL draft picks, their returning production ranks 121st out of 127 FBS teams, according to ESPN, and they don't have a quarterback who's ever thrown a pass in a game. Total rebuild, right? Guess again. The roster features 17 former five-star recruits — only Alabama has more — and has six of the Sporting News' top 50 NFL draft prospects. And only Alabama and Clemson have been to more College Football Playoffs than Ohio State's four trips in seven years. Still, who's going to throw the ball to Lake Travis ex Garrett Wilson and the most talented receivers group in the country? Redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud is the favorite to hold off fellow redshirt Jack Miller and five-star freshman Kyle McCord. Whoever wins the job needs a quick learning curve. Both lines should be among the nation's best, but a leaky pass defense needs fixing.

Ohio State was No. 2 in our preseason poll last year. The Buckeyes were No. 3 in the final CFP rankings and were No. 2 in the AP and coaches polls.

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Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson runs past Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith after knocking him to the turf after a catch in their game last season. The former Lake Travis star forms one of the country's top receiving corps this year.

About the Buckeyes

2020: 7-1, 5-0 in the Big Ten — the lone loss was to Alabama in the national championship game (52-24). Ohio State beat Northwestern in the conference championship game and Clemson (49-28) in the CFP semifinals.

Coach: Ryan Day, 23-2 — in two-plus seasons at Ohio State. He went 3-0 as the acting coach in 2018 in place of Urban Meyer. Both losses have been in bowl games (the 2019 Fiesta and the 2020 CFP final).

Returning starters: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Shoes to fill: QB Justin Fields (Bears, 1st round); LB Pete Werner (Saints, 2nd); C Josh Myers (Packers, 2nd); G Wyatt Davis (Vikings, 3rd); RB Trey Sermon (49ers, 3rd); LB Baron Browning (Broncos, 3rd); DT Tommy Togiai (Browns, 4th); TE Luke Farrell (Jaguars, 5th); CB Shaun Wade (Ravens, 5th); DE Jonathon Cooper (Broncos, 7th); WR Jameson Williams (transfer, Alabama); WR Mookie Cooper (transfer, Missouri); CB Tyreke Johnson (transfer, Nebraska); OL Max Wray (transfer, Colorado)

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Catching up

Nine Buckeyes made various preseason All-Big Ten teams, including five first-teamers. Three defensive linemen (Haskell GarrettZach Harrison and Tyreke Smith) were consensus choices, along with both offensive tackles, Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere. And watch for freshman DT J.T. Tuimoloau, a consensus top-three overall national recruit. ... The linebacking corps was gutted, but Dallas Gant emerged inside and Teradja Mitchell outside this spring. A huge LB addition could be former USC five-star Palaie Gaoteote, who's enrolled in school but awaiting NCAA paperwork approval. He was nationally rated the 15th most impactful transfer for 2021 by 247Sports. ... A secondary torched for 304 yards per game should be helped by the return of suspended S Marcus Hooker. CB Sevyn Banks is primed for a big senior season. ... RB Master Teague is a dependable plow horse, but the team needs the explosiveness of five-star freshman TreVeyon Henderson.

Ohio State running back Master Teague III finished with 514 rushing yards and a team-high eight touchdowns in 2020, impressive numbers considering he had suffered a torn Achilles tendon during 2020 spring practice.

Returning leaders

Passing: None

Rushing: Master Teague III 104-514-8 (2nd on team)

Receiving: Chris Olave 50-729-7 (led team), Garrett Wilson 43-723-6 (2nd), TE Jeremy Ruckert 13-151-5 (3rd)

Tackles: CB Marcus Williamson 27 (6th)

Sacks: DT Haskell Garrett and DE Zach Harrison, 2 (T-3rd)

Interceptions: S Josh Proctor, CB Sevyn Banks, DT Haskell Garrett and S Marcus Hooker, 1 (T-2nd)

Returning all-conference

Offense: WR Chris Olave (1st team), WR Garrett Wilson (1st), OT Thayer Munford (1st), RB Master Teague III (2nd), OT Nicholas Petit-Frere (2nd), G Harry Miller (3rd), TE Jeremy Ruckert (hon. mention)

Defense: DL Zach Harrison (2nd), DT Haskell Garrett (3rd), DE Tyreke Smith (hon. mention), CB Sevyn Banks (hon. mention), S Marcus Hooker (hon. mention), S Josh Proctor (hon. mention), CB Marcus Williamson (hon. mention)

Ohio State center Harry Miller is one of three returning Buckeyes offensive linemen who earned All-Big Ten honors last season, along with tackles Thayer Munford and Nichols Petit-Frere.

FYI

How the pandemic affected Ohio State: The Big Ten decided Aug. 11 not to play football last fall. Many players, led by Fields, and their parents passionately protested. The league, under pressure as other conferences made plans to play, reversed course Sept. 19 and outlined an eight-game schedule to begin Oct. 24. COVID-19 outbreaks in November and December forced the cancellation of three games — Maryland, Illinois and, most notably, Michigan. There was controversy over whether the Buckeyes should play for the Big Ten title with only five games under their belts. They navigated that, but COVID-19 struck again before the national title game, knocking out several players, mostly reserves.

Recruiting powerhouse: Only Alabama and Georgia haul in more elite players than Ohio State. Three of the Buckeyes' last five classes ranked No. 2, the others No. 5 and 14, according to 247Sports' composite ratings. The next class is far away No. 1, led by five-star QB Quinn Ewers of Southlake Carroll. Ohio State has 51 active NFL players and 43 NFL draft picks in the last five years, both second only to Alabama.

A show of hands: The Buckeyes cherry-pick Texas, especially at wideout. Wilson, who was the state's No. 1 overall recruit in 2019 out of Lake Travis, is Pro Football Focus' No. 8 NFL prospect, described as a "polished route runner with very good lateral quickness after the catch and the ability to get open and extend the play against almost any cornerback in the country." Wilson and Chris Olave are widely regarded as the nation's best WR duo. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, a five-star from Rockwall, is a '21 breakout candidate, and next year, Lake Travis WR Caleb Burton, a transfer from Del Valle, will join the roster.

2020 national stat rankings

Where Ohio State ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Buckeyes ranked in 2019.

Scoring: 11th (2019 — 3rd, -8 spots)

Scoring defense: T-43rd (4th, -39)

Total offense: 7th (4th, -3)

Total defense: 59th (1st, -58)

Passing: 37th (36th, -1)

Pass defense: 122nd (1st, -121)

Rushing: 8th (5th, -3)

Rush defense: 6th (9th, +3)

Sacks: 37th (3rd, -34)

Interceptions: 58th (13th, -45)

Red zone offense: 100th (30th, -70)

Red zone defense: 84th (2nd, -82)

Turnover margin: 3rd (T-17th, +14)

Time of possession: 19th (25th, +6)

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with

No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season

No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions want to keep the momentum going

No. 21 Oklahoma State: Cowboys have offensive questions, for a change

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes hope this is the year to bump the Buckeyes

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Upstart Chanticleers look here to stay, ready or not

No. 18 Texas: Longhorns are starting over at coach, quarterback, offense, defense

No. 17 Wisconsin: Badgers eager for a bounce-back season in Big Ten

No. 16 Miami: Hurricanes banking on D'Eric King's return from injury

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks out to make it three straight Pac-12 title game wins

No. 14 LSU: Last year's hard knocks may pay off for this year's Tigers

No. 13 Indiana: Hoosiers have restocked their shelves with transfer talent

No. 12 USC: Trojans are trending in the right direction in Pac-12

No. 11 Florida: Minus the big names, Gators starting over on offense

No. 10 North Carolina: Tar Heels work transfer portal to keep things going

No. 9 Notre Dame: Irish should lean on Williams and the running game

No. 8 Cincinnati: Bearcats have risen to the Group of Five mountaintop

No. 7 Iowa State: Returning star power has Cyclones looking strong again

No. 6 Texas A&M: Aggies are set to make another run at a CFP berth

No. 5 Georgia: Bulldogs have reloaded after their NFL exodus

No. 4 Ohio State

Coming tomorrow

Our No. 3 team. Want a hint?

This school has made it to four College Football Playoffs — but is 0-4 in national semifinal matchups.