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

This is the smell that reached CJ Stroud. Well, that among other things in the multi-sensory offense that was his first Rose Bowl.

Say all you want about the Rose and its many distinctions—a sunset over Mount San Gabriel, a parade that almost displaces the game itself, Keith Jackson’s voice floating in some ethereal cloud above it all—there’s always that newcomer moment.

For Ohio State’s junior quarterback, that was it.

“I’d say roses, that’s what it’s all about,” Stroud said. “It’s unique. It smells good. Looks good. It feels good. The best grass I have ever played on in my life. Everything about her is just 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 No. 2 Buckeyes this is 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 six touchdowns, which tied a school record. Wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba had 15 catches for an FBS bowl-record 347 yards receiving and three touchdowns.

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

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

The result showed that both were true. Combined, the Rose Bowl’s lingering flavor, feel and look were an explanation for what ended up being a below par Ohio State season. However, it also served as a starting point for Stroud and Smith-Njigba.

“That was the goal,” Day said of that springboard for his star offensive linemen. “We talked about him coming in.”

Now, the two biggest Buckeye weapons are the Rat Pack of 2022, inseparable friends who play against each other. Stroud is a 2-1 Heisman Trophy favorite entering the season, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Just outside the top 10 on this list is Smith-Njigba; perhaps the best receiver in the game is 40-1. In between 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 wasn’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 standout single-game performances.

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 something that could be good month for 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 Ohio State’s best team since 2019. That doesn’t sound like much, but at Ohio State, it’s remarkable. This team three years ago was good enough to win it all, but was derailed by Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.

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

The final non-conference challenge awaits. Notre Dame comes into The Shoe as a 14.5-point underdog in Week 1’s most delicious game.

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

Most troubling, Ohio State was boated out of Michigan Stadium in the second half to drop the Big Ten East crown. In fact, most embarrassing was the defense, which gave up at least 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1891.

Almost everything at Ohio State should be viewed through a relative lens. Stroud recently advocates revenue sharing in this age of name, image and likeness. This from a rising junior who drives a Bentley around as part of his NIL deal.

While vacationing in St. Thomas in the U.S. 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 staring at me.”

Never mind that there’s a lot of staring going on. Still, Stroud routinely played to 100,000 people. Ohio State is among the top 10 universities in the nation 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 beat myself up and push myself too hard.”

If the defense doesn’t improve, Stroud, Smith-Njigba and Henderson might just have to carry the Buckeyes ahead of everyone else. And that makes almost perfect sense these days. Alabama ended up winning the 2020 playoff with the third-worst overall defense ever to win a national championship (since at least 1936).

Smells like another title?

“We don’t have to prove anyone wrong,” Stroud concluded. “We have to prove ourselves right.”

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