With three Heisman Trophy contenders, Ohio State has no plans to stop and smell the roses again in 2022

It’s the scent that CJ Stroud got. Well, this, among other things, in the multi-centered attack that was his first Rose Bowl.

Talk all you want about The Rose and its many differences — the sunset over the San Gabriel Mountains, a parade that almost replaces the game itself, Keith Jackson’s voice floating in an ethereal cloud above it all — there’s always that moment for newcomers.

For Ohio State’s junior quarterback, it was, well, everything.

“I’d say roses, that’s what it’s about,” Stroud said. “It’s unique. It smells good. It looks good. It feels good. The best grass I’ve ever played in my life. It’s just everything about it is what I expected it to be. That’s why the Rose Bowl is special.”

This from a kid who grew up within an hour of Pasadena, California. It’s one thing to watch the granddaddy of ‘Em All on TV; it’s another to experience the uniqueness of the game.

In addition to the sights, colors and smells, for Buckeyes No. 2, where the 2021 season ended and the 2022 season began.

Anyone who witnessed that game on Jan. 1 may still be reeling from Ohio State’s 48-45 win over Utah. Stroud threw for a school-record 573 yards and a school-record tying six touchdowns. Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba announced himself with 15 catches for an FBS record 347 yards and three touchdowns.

“It was a combination of great minds and great players,” Stroud said. “… This was the best fun for me [had playing] in my life.”

“Maybe a few spots, 11-2 and a Rose Bowl win is a good year. It’s not at Ohio State,” coach Ryan Day said.

The result revealed that both were true. Combined, the constant smell, feel and sight of the Rose Bowl were a point of explanation for what was ultimately a subpar season at Ohio State. However, it also served as a jumping off point for Stroud and Smith-Njigba.

“That was the goal to get it,” Day said of that springboard for his star offensive linemen. “We talked about going in.”

Now, the two biggest Buckeye weapons are the 2022 Rat Pack, inseparable friends who play with each other. Stroud is a 2-1 Heisman Trophy favorite entering the season, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Just outside the top 10 on that list is Smith-Njigba; arguably the game’s best receiver sits at 40-1. Among them is another budding superstar as OSU running back TreVeyon Henderson enters the year 20-1.

“I don’t want to think about it, but I do,” said Stroud, who finished fourth in the Heisman voting as a 2021 finalist. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.”

Stroud threw for the second most yards (4,435) and touchdowns (44) in school history. Henderson averaged 6.8 yards per carry, racking up nearly 1,600 combined yards and 19 touchdowns with some outstanding performances in one game.

Playing in the shadows of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Smith-Njigba set school records for catches (95) and receiving yards (1,606). Wilson and Olave just combined for 25 touchdown catches on their way to the NFL. In the Rose Bowl, Smith-Njigba had what could have been good month to another player.

“I think I’m the best, so I have to work like that,” he said.

Buckeyes everywhere can afford to dream because this is the best Ohio State team since 2019. That doesn’t sound like much, but at Ohio State, it’s obvious. That team three years ago was good enough to win it all, but was knocked off by Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal.

It took this long for Buckeye Nation to feel so good about itself again. The 2020 team affected by COVID-19 played just eight games and fell to Alabama, 52-24 in the semifinals of the Orange Bowl. Last season, Oregon’s loss was Ohio State’s first to a non-Power Five conference opponent at home since Oklahoma in 2017.

The final non-conference challenge awaits. No. 5 Notre Dame comes to The Shoe as a 14.5-point underdog in Week 1’s tastiest matchup.

The loss at Michigan last November marked another first — Day’s first Big Ten loss in his 24th conference game. That Ohio State team led the nation in total offense. The problem was easily identifiable: The defense — particularly the run defense — was stagnant. The 3.68 yards per rush allowed by the defense was Ohio State’s second-highest average in a decade. In that Rose Bowl, Utah tied a bowl game record with 45 points scored.

Most disturbingly, Ohio State raced out of Michigan Stadium in the second half to take the Big Ten East crown. Actually, MOST Disturbing was the defense that gave up at least 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1891.

Almost everything in the state of Ohio must be viewed through a relative lens. Stroud recently supported for revenue sharing in this age of name, image and likeness. This from a rising junior who is driving a Bentley as part of his NIL deal.

While on vacation in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, he expressed surprise at being recognized.

“It’s kind of cool, but it’s scary at the same time,” he said. “I’m not used to people looking at me.”

It doesn’t matter that there is a lot of viewing going on. After all, Stroud routinely plays in front of 100,000 people. Ohio State is among the top 10 universities in the country with more than 500,000 living alumni.

“I just want to accumulate days,” Stroud added. “If I think about the Heisman, I’m just going to get over myself and put a lot of pressure on myself.”

If the defense doesn’t improve, Stroud, Smith-Njigba and Henderson might just have to carry the Buckeyes past everyone else. And that makes almost perfect sense in this day and age. After all, Alabama claimed the playoff in 2020 with Third worst total defense to ever win a national championship (at least since 1936).

Smell like another headliner?

“We don’t have to prove anyone wrong,” Stroud concluded. “We have to show that we are right”.

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