Ohio State football: Injuries present weekly challenges for Buckeyes

COLUMBUS -- One change Ryan Day instituted when he took over for Ohio State football program from Urban Meyer in 2019 was the pregame availability report.

He hoped publishing a list of game-time decisions and players who are unavailable on Saturdays would head off injury talk during the week.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way this season.

ExploreDay optimistic about return of running backs before Michigan game

No projected starters were listed unavailable for the seasonopener against Notre Dame, but that is the last time that has been true.

And that bill of health only remained clean until star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba left the game against the Fighting Irish with a hamstring injury.

Smith-Njigba has had two abbreviated comeback attempts since then, and the Buckeyes have played a game without either of their starting cornerbacks, another without their right tackle and multiple games without one of their top two running backs.

“I guess it’s part of being a college football coach right now,” Day said. “There’s a lot of changes that go on and you try to do the best you can to prepare for being in November in the Big Ten.”

The uncertainties as far as personnel have made for some adventures in game-planning.

“There’s a lot of variables that come into play, and the only way to do that is to build a tremendous amount of depth,” Day said, recalling a feeling of foreshadowing when the coaches discussed the depth chart in August.

“You guys are asking questions about each position group and it’s like, ‘Well, who’s gonna get on the field?’ They’re all gonna get on the field. That’s just the way it usually works. It’s rare that a position would just play one guy the whole the whole year just because it’s such a long season — nine conference games plus Notre Dame — so it’s just something you plan for and try to have contingency plans in place.”

ExploreBuckeyes, Wolverines remain 2nd and 3rd in CFP rankings

Will Ohio State also need a contingency plan for a College Football Playoff path?

The easiest way to the postseason is direct, of course, and that calls for beating Maryland this week, Michigan next week and the Big Ten West champion on the first Saturday night in December.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines are second and third, respectively this week in the CFP committee rankings, and the winner of The Game figures to have a spot in the final four all but locked up.

Already college football pundits are speculating if the loser could get in, too.

There is precedent as Georgia made the playoff last year despite losing the SEC Championship Game to Alabama, and the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes have both made the playoff without qualifying for their conference championship game in previous years.

Ohio State could be in better shape than Michigan if the Buckeyes are the ones with the loss on Selection Sunday.

That is because Ohio State has two wins over teams currently ranked — No. 11 Penn State and No. 18 Notre Dame — while the Wolverines have just one (Penn State).

Ohio State also has the tougher schedule overall, at least on paper. The Buckeyes’ slate is 64th in the nation per opponents’ winning percentage while Michigan’s is No. 101.

Both play a team with a winning record this week — Maryland is 6-4 while Michigan opponent Illinois is 7-3 — but whoever makes the conference title game is not likely to draw a ranked foe in Indianapolis.

CFB committee chair Boo Horrigan said the committee views Ohio State and Michigan as “two well-balanced teams” but cited the win over the Fighting Irish as the differentiator.

“I believe at this point as a committee, as we talk about it that stands out a little bit to us as we’re going through this,” he said.

Meanwhile, other variables include what happens in other leagues the rest of the way.

No. 1 Georgia and No. 4 TCU surely are in if they continue to win, and Georgia seems likely to make it even if the Bulldogs lose to No. 6 LSU in the SEC Championship game.

No. 5 Tennessee has one loss but like the OSU-Michigan loser won’t be playing for a conference championship. UT lost to Georgia, but it’s schedule is No. 7, and the Volunteers beat Alabama (No. 8 this week) and thrashed LSU.

LSU has two losses, but the Tigers could make a strong case for inclusion in the playoff if they knock off the Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game. Brian Kelly’s team already has wins over Alabama and No. 14 Mississippi, but a two-loss team has not made the CFP yet.

Then there’s No. 7 USC.

While the 9-1 Trojans must win out to stay in the CFP conversation, they would notably improve their resume if they do. USC’s schedule is 89th at this point, but the Trojans play No. 16 UCLA this weekend, Notre Dame next week and then could face No. 10 Utah (the only team to beat them) in the Pac 12 Championship game.

“We’re going to go through each week with a clean sheet, look at every team, continue to evaluate, continue to compare statistically (and) continue to compare their schedules,” Corrigan said. “But all that being said, the strength of schedule is different as we look at it, but again, we’re looking at so many different factors as opposed to just one.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Ohio State at Maryland, 3:30 p.m., ABC, 1410

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