How far Ohio State football goes in 2017 will depend upon a large number of factors. One of those factors will simply be how well the best opposing players on OSU’s schedule play when facing off against the Buckeyes. With a schedule that features 10 Power 5 opponents, there are plenty of good players to worry about.
Oklahoma, Penn State, and Michigan could all end up in the Top 10 this season, and trips to Iowa and Nebraska won’t be easy. Games against Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State also feature a number of players who could fit right in on Ohio State’s roster. But who are the top players Buckeye fans should worry about most? I’ve got 20 names for you.
Top 20 Players on Ohio State’s Schedule
20. Khaleke Hudson, LB Michigan (Soph)
This is a sizable projection considering Hudson has all of eight tackles in his career. However, he is taking over the Jabrill Peppers role at Michigan, which means UM defensive coordinator Don Brown will have him making an impact all over the place. Think of this as the defensive version of Urban Meyer’s H-back spot. The production will follow the position. Hudson can rush the passer and cover receivers. If he can find consistency, look out. I was very impressed by what I saw from him in Michigan’s spring game.
19. Brian Allen, C Michigan State (Sr)
Allen is a two-time Second-Team All-Big Ten selection and has 25 career starts. He is responsible for quite a bit of Michigan State’s interior run success. He only has four career starts at center, but there are no concerns about him there as he has started and excelled all over the interior. Allen has seen a lot in his time as a Spartan and will be looking to finish his career on a much higher note that the one MSU sang last year.
18. Nick Westbrook, WR Indiana (Jr)
Westbrook finished second in the Big Ten last year with 995 receiving yards. His 18.4 yards per reception were good for third. Only one receiver in the B1G last year had more than Westbrook’s 11 receptions of 30+ yards. No player in the conference had more than his seven receptions of 40+ yards.
17. Mark Andrews, TE Oklahoma (Jr)
Andrews caught four passes for 57 yards in Oklahoma’s game against Ohio State last year. He is a big target who took some huge hits from the Buckeyes and kept on going. He’s a dangerous threat all over the field and will provide a great test for OSU’s revamped pass defense.
16. Mason Cole, LT Michigan (Sr)
Cole has 38 career starts to his credit. This year he moves back outside to tackle from center. He has enough experience to play anywhere on the offensive line that he is needed. The Buckeyes will run plenty of defensive ends at him come November and see if he’s good enough to hold up.
15. Simmie Cobbs, WR Indiana (Jr)
Cobbs missed the 2016 season due to injury, but if he is anything like his 2015 form, he might be underrated here. As a sophomore in 2015, Cobbs caught 60 passes for 1,035 yards and four touchdowns. This is obviously a projection based on past production and the assumption that his injury won’t slow him down in the future. Losing Kevin Wilson may provide a bit of a hurdle, however.
14. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, LB Oklahoma (Sr)
Okoronkwo was a First-Team All-Big XII selection last season after finishing with 71 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, and nine sacks. He was pretty well neutralized against the Buckeyes last year, picking up just four tackles. He was a force in wins against TCU and Oklahoma State, however, with a pair of sacks in each game. He’s not the biggest guy (6-1 242), but the Buckeyes will certainly have to be aware of him.
13. Josey Jewell, LB Iowa (Sr)
Jewell finished second in the Big Ten in tackles (124) last year behind Indiana’s Tegray Scales (126). Jewell had 16-tackle games against both Northwestern and Wisconsin last season. Of his 16 tackles against the Badgers, 14 came versus the run, and nine were within two yards of the line of scrimmage. The other five went for 5, 6, 4, 5, and 3 yards, respectively. It wasn’t enough, however, as Wisconsin won that game 17-9.
12. Maurice Hurst, DT Michigan (Sr)
I’m buying into the hype quite a bit here on Hurst. Some are projecting him as a first-round NFL Draft pick next year. He had 11.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last year, so there is certainly production. Hurst isn’t just a run plugger, as he can get into the backfield and disrupt whatever plans an offense has. He was a large part of the domination against Penn State last season, notching 3.0 TFLs and 1.0 sacks. Against the Buckeyes, however, he assisted on just one tackle total, though it was a sack with Taco Charlton.
11. Mike Gesicki, TE Penn State (Sr)
Gesicki may be the best tight end in the nation. Ohio State recruited him hard a few years back, but he chose Penn State and has since compiled 72 career receptions and 918 career yards receiving. At 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds, he’s a difficult matchup for defenders. Only two players in the Big Ten had more receptions of 40 yards or more than Gesicki’s five in 2016.
10. Tracy McSorley, QB Penn State (Jr)
McSorley had the best quarterback rating in the Big Ten last season (156.93) by over 16 points. His 29 touchdown passes were four more than anybody else, and his 3,614 yards passing also led the conference. McSorley’s receivers made a ton of plays for him on 50/50 balls, but give him credit for putting the ball in a place for that to happen. He’s also mobile, as his 81 yards rushing against Maryland and 63 yards rushing against Ohio State showed. Can he repeat his stellar performance from last year, though?
9. Marcus Allen, SAF Penn State (Sr)
Allen is being talked about as a first round draft pick next year, and for good reason. His 110 tackles last year were good for No. 3 in the Big Ten and led all defensive backs. He didn’t come away with any interceptions, and his three passes broken up aren’t very impressive, but his six tackles for loss give you an idea of how closely to the line of scrimmage he can be found.
8. Jordan Thomas, CB Oklahoma (Sr)
Thomas finished No. 4 in the nation last year with 19 passes defended. He only came down with two interceptions, but it’s easy to see why he was named First-Team All-Big XII in 2016. Oklahoma didn’t have much success stopping Ohio State’s passing game last season. Thomas is a year older now, however, and the Buckeyes are still looking for a consistent outside threat.
7. Akrum Wadley, RB Iowa (Sr)
Wadley rushed for 1,081 yards last season, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He’s a home-run threat on every snap, be it a running play or passing play. He pretty much beat Michigan on his own last year, rushing for 115 yards on 23 carries and catching five passes for 52 yards. He might be bottled up some this year due to the turnover around him, but he is still a very dangerous running back.
6. Rashan Gary, DE Michigan (So)
I initially had Gary at No. 3 on this list, but that’s way too much of a projection for a defensive end who had all of 1.5 tackles for loss and zero sacks in Big Ten play last year. I expect him to be very good and very productive this season, but I can’t decide if he is overrated or underrated on this list. I guess that means he’s right where he needs to be. He and Ohio State’s Nick Bosa are frequently mentioned together because they were both 5-star prospects in the 2016 class. For comparison, Bosa had 4.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in Big Ten play last year. Gary should explode this year, but let’s see him do it first.
5. Tegray Scales, LB Indiana (Sr)
Scales led the nation with 23.5 tackles for loss last season, which was good enough to earn him Second-Team All-B1G honors. He’s one of the most active and versatile linebackers in the nation. He finished with 12.5 tackles for loss in his final four games, which featured matchups against Penn State, Michigan, and Utah. No, it’s not normal to have to worry about a Hoosier defender. He should maybe even be higher on this list, but it’s difficult to get too worked up about Indiana’s defense.
4. L.J. Scott, RB Michigan State (Jr)
Buckeye fans saw what Scott could do against them last season, even in a depleted offense. Michigan State came into their game against Ohio State with a 3-7 record. Scott rushed for 160 yards on 19 carries and caught two passes for 76 yards, scoring both of MSU’s touchdowns in a 17-16 loss to OSU. If Michigan State can avoid some blowouts this season, Scott is a 1,400-yard back waiting to happen.
3. Orlando Brown, OT Oklahoma (Jr)
Brown was the Big XII Offensive Lineman of the Year last season and is projected to be drafted in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. He is big — 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, but agile enough to play left tackle for the Sooners. Ohio State recruited him out of high school, but now they will face him for a second year in a row. The Buckeyes sacked Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield three times last season. They’ll attempt to top that number this year.
2. Baker Mayfield, QB Oklahoma (Sr)
Mayfield threw for 3,965 yards last season, completing 70.9% of his passes. He threw 40 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His worst game of the season last year came against the Buckeyes, but he was still dangerous throughout that game. He will be facing a new secondary when the Sooners come to Columbus, which should help. Fortunately for Ohio State, Mayfield’s top two receivers and top two rushers are gone. Don’t get too comfortable, however.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB Penn State (Jr)
Barkley may very well be the best player in the nation. He has played Ohio State twice in his career, rushing for 194 yards as a freshman and 99 yards last year on just 12 carries. He is a complete running back with tremendous speed and dynamic agility. The Buckeyes will have their hands full at all levels against Barkley. Given the focus that the OSU defense will place on Barkley this season, perhaps Trace McSorley should be a bit higher on this list.