The Road to a 2023 National Championship for Ohio State Will Be Paved Goes Through Defense, Not Quarterback

Many top programs are going through QB transition in 2023, including Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State. In the Twitterverse (is it now, Xverse?), there's a lot of rival fan sentiment that replacing another 1st round QB will prove too much to overcome for the Buckeyes this season.

But you read the title, right? So you know where I'm going. Before we go there, let's talk QB performances under Ryan Day first, to illustrate why I'm not concerned about the offense:

1st Year QBs Under Ryan Day Put Up Heisman Level Numbers

Here's the average season of a 1st year QB under Ryan Day:

  • Yards: 4179
  • YPA: 9.9
  • TD/INT: 45/6
  • AVG# Career pass attempts before 1st start: 32

Here's the average season of the last 3 Heisman winning QBs (including Burrow's outlier monster 2019 season):

  • Yds: 5,026
  • YPA: 9.6
  • TD/INT: 49/6

Round these parts, we put a lot of weight in YPA numbers, as well as ratios and ratings. Clearly, the QB, whomever it is, is gonna be alright.

But The Defense Must Improve

The common thread among, close but not quite, recent OSU teams vying for a title is that the defense has let them down in major games. Here's all the games under Ryan Day vs teams finishing in the top 10 since 2019:

  • 2019 Penn State (28-17) W
  • 2019 Clemson (29-23) W
  • 2020 Clemson (49-28) W
  • 2020 Clemson (52-24) L
  • 2021 Michigan (42-27) L
  • 2021 Michigan State (56-7) W
  • 2022 Michigan (45-23) L
  • 2022 Georgia (42-41) L

Outside of the 2021 Michigan State aberration, Ohio State has given up 36 PPG against top 10 teams. And against truly elite teams, the defense has been throttled since that 2020 win over Clemson.

Defense Is Showing Consistent Improvement

What's really interesting, however, is the consistent improvement since parting ways with Kerry Coombs in 2020. Bringing in Knowles has had the following impact on OSU's scoring defense:

  • 2020: 43rd
  • 2021: 38th
  • 2022: 24th

What many Buckeye fans have said for years is that OSU's defense doesn't have to be Georgia or Alabama good, just not be an actual liability. OSU fans are right, and that's the trend.

Another offensive minded head coach has faced similar please from his fans, but not been able to improve defensively: Lincoln Riley. Let's look at Riley's defensive rankings:

  • 2017 (Oklahoma): 68th
  • 2018 (Oklahoma): 101st
  • 2019 (Oklahoma): 64th
  • 2020 (Oklahoma): 28th
  • 2021 (Oklahoma): 58th
  • 2022 (USC): 93rd

The difference in success of the two coaches is noteworthy. Ohio State has been competitive in the playoffs, while Riley teams were either blown out or didn't make it at all - in spite of being in less competitive leagues.

Where Riley has yet to prove he can keep a high powered offense while steadily improving a defense, Day has shown he can. The question is if another step towards a good, not merely passable, defense is in store for 2023. If OSU is holding the trophy at the end of the year, it'll be because that defense is ranked ~15th or better, because we know the offense will be just fine.

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