COLUMBUS, Ohio — Before moving forward, I should probably disclose something: I am a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan who often has trouble removing my emotions and objectively evaluating the beaten-down franchise that has brought me just one playoff appearance, two winning seasons, countless wasted draft picks and an overall 87-189 record since returning to the NFL in 1999.
So when I see a headline like the one I did on Thursday, which revealed a Public Policy Polling poll showed 62 percent of likely voters in Ohio believe Ohio State’s football team could beat the Browns, I’d be lying if I said I was surprised.
In fact, I might even be a part of that majority.
The “Could Talented College Team X beat Lowly NFL Team Y?” debate is nothing new. My earliest memories of it pertained the mid-2000s USC teams and the Detroit Lions. Had Twitter been more prominent, the early-2000s Miami Hurricanes would have likely found themselves in the same discussion. And, truth be told, Butch Davis’ teams at ‘The U’ were more talented than his teams in Cleveland—and those were the good Browns teams of this era.
Often times, these hypothetical debates end up in the same place, a position I usually agree with: There’s no way a college team, no matter how talented, could beat the worst NFL team. It would take a particularly, perhaps even historically, bad NFL team to lose.
The 2016 Browns might just be the bad brand of football.
The only winless team left in the NFL this season, the Browns’ current campaign was seemingly over before it ever began. Without signing suitable replacements, the team let key free agents Alex Mack, Tashaun Gipson, Travis Benjamin and Mitchell Schwartz walk in free agency from a team that compiled a 3-13 record the year prior. Then starting quarterback Robert Griffin III went down with an injury in Week 1. Backup Josh McCown suffered a similar fate a week later. First-round receiver Corey Coleman is nursing a broken hand. Although the Browns lay claim to the league’s top rushing offense, that’s yet to result in any victories a month into the season.
This weekend, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots come to town. They’re already talking 2017 NFL draft on Cleveland Sports Radio.
The same could be said 150 miles south in Columbus, although that’s only because the Buckeyes once again find themselves with a roster stockpiled with NFL talent. After losing 14 players currently on active NFL rosters from last year’s team—many of which would either start or see significant playing time on the Browns—undefeated Ohio State has seen a new crop of pro prospects emerge across its roster.
It may be easy to dismiss the Buckeyes chances in a theoretical matchup with the Browns now, but would the same discussion about the same players be any different a year from now, when several of Ohio State’s starters will actually be in the NFL? And if so, how big of a difference does that year really make?
When I first saw the headline, I didn’t think it was a slam dunk either way. The Browns’ advantages in size and experience can’t be ignored, but then again, neither can the potential talent advantage possessed by Ohio State.
Could the Buckeyes beat the Browns? Let’s look at how a potential matchup might breakdown.
Browns rushing offense vs. Buckeyes rushing defense
Ohio State is the only team in college football yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season. But make no mistake, if the Browns can rush for an average of a league-high 149.3 yards against four NFL teams, they’d find plenty of success on the ground against the Buckeyes as well.
Ohio State middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is a potential first-round pick in next spring’s draft. But next to him, Chris Worley is undersized as an NFL prospect and the platoon of Jerome Baker and Dante Booker is still inexperienced. Most notably, former 5-star prospect Isaiah Crowell, the Browns’ running back, is the type of talent Urban Meyer so desperately covets, and he lines up behind All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas and left guard Joel Bitonio.
This is probably the one matchup that lends the most credibility to the thought the Buckeyes could never beat the Browns. It’s hard to imagine Ohio State’s defense even getting off the field without allowing points.
Browns passing offense vs. Buckeyes passing defense
So long as Cody Kessler—a rookie third-round pick that many believe the Browns reached on last spring—is starting in place of Cleveland’s two injured quarterbacks, I’ll take my chances with the Ohio State secondary.
As currently constructed, the Browns’ passing offense ranks 25th in the NFL with an average of 222 yards per game, although that number is somewhat inflated by the fact Cleveland is so often playing catch-up early. Had Kessler been facing the Buckeyes defense last season, I would have picked Ohio State to win without ever giving it a second thought. Is one NFL offseason really enough to change that?
As far as receivers are concerned, the Browns remain shaky. Terrelle Pryor, Sr. is enjoying a breakout season (of sorts) with 19 catches for 290 yards and a touchdown, but he’s just in his first season as an NFL wideout. With Coleman sidelined because of an injury, the complementary pieces around Pryor are mostly rookies who would have been lucky to crack Ohio State’s rotation a year ago.
Meanwhile, Ohio State cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley will likely be playing on Sundays next fall, and safety Malik Hooker has been one of this season’s fastest-rising prospects.
Could the Buckeyes generate enough of a pass rush to prevent their secondary from being hung out to dry? Perhaps not often enough, but I like Ohio State’s chances with future pro players Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis lining up against Browns right tackle Austin Pasztor, who has struggled in his first season as an NFL starter.
Buckeyes passing offense vs. Browns passing defense
As much as I’d love to pick the Buckeyes here, based solely on the Browns unimpressive secondary, I can’t justify it. So far this season, only Noah Brown has proven to be of NFL caliber among the Ohio State wide receivers.
Assuming former Pro Bowler Joe Haden could lock up Brown, the rest of Cleveland’s secondary should be safe. As highly as I think of Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett, if the Browns can register the seventh-most sacks in the NFL with 11, imagine what they’d do against a still-inexperienced Buckeyes offensive line.
If football is decided in the trenches, the Browns’ advantage might be too much to overcome.
Buckeyes rushing offense vs. Browns rushing defense
Having witnessed Carlos Hyde and Ezekiel Elliott move the ball at will the past four years, it’s hard for me to imagine any OSU offense not being able to do the same against a Browns rushing defense that ranks 24th in the NFL. Yes, Mike Weber is only a redshirt freshman, but he appears to be on an upward trajectory and, at 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, is already built like a professional player. Curtis Samuel also has a future in the NFL as a do-it-all offensive weapon, and is only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.
The argument here, however, is that the Browns defensive line would be too much for the Buckeyes’ O-line to handle. My counter, however, is that center Pat Elflein likely would already be in the NFL had he entered last year’s draft, and guard Billy Price is the strongest player on the Buckeyes’ roster.
Factor in the creative game-planning of Meyer, one of football’s best offensive minds, and though the Buckeyes may not treat the Browns like they’re Bowling Green, I do think they could move the chains enough to maintain possession.
OK, maybe the Buckeyes wouldn’t win a matchup against an NFL team—even against the Browns.
Although I gave Ohio State an advantage in two of the four categories, Cleveland’s advantages likely would be too much for the Buckeyes to overcome. If you can’t pass the ball, generate a pass rush or stop the run, it’s going to be tough to win against anyone.
I do, however, believe that Ohio State—thanks in large part to Meyer—would keep a game closer than expected. Again, I’m not saying the Buckeyes would win (I actually think they might have been able to last year), but I do believe they’d be capable of big plays and surprising success, given the emerging NFL talent on their roster.
They could be close, but not close enough.
It’s a feeling as a Browns fan I unfortunately know all the too well.
Who do you think would win? Vote below.