When the Buckeyes lost to Michigan 45-23 on Nov. 26, they did so without eight key players who were injured. That included Ohio State’s top two running backs and leading receiver from a year ago.
Georgia caught somewhat of a break Monday when All-American wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba announced he would not participate in the playoffs in order to prepare for the NFL draft. Smith-Njigba led the Buckeyes with 95 catches for a Big Ten-record 1,606 yards last season. But due to a chronic hamstring injury, the 6-foot, 197-pound junior played in only three games this season, finishing with 43 yards on five receptions.
“I want to be out there competing with my brothers more than anything,” Smith-Njigba told ESPN. “The decision to turn pro was made after I was unable to come back on multiple occasions during the season and the doctors determined I would be unable to participate in the playoffs.”
While that’s generally good news for the Bulldogs, there are plenty more wideouts like Smith-Njigba on the Buckeyes’ roster. They have two other 1,000-yard receivers in Marvin Harrison Jr. (72-1,157-12) and Emeka Egbuka (66-1,039-9). In all, 10 different players have caught 37 touchdown passes from Heisman Trophy-finalist quarterback C.J. Stroud.
“It’s going to be great to get guys healthy,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said on the Peach Bowl teleconference call Sunday. “We have been fighting that a little bit. But we’ve also developed some depth in some areas, which also is important. I think if we can push forward and get toward 100% in terms of our health, that gives us the best chance on the 31st.”
Perhaps even more important is the anticipated return of running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams for the semifinal.
Williams, a 5-9, 225-pound junior, started against Michigan but was unable to play past the second quarter due to a “lower-body injury.” He’s the Buckeyes’ leading rusher and scorer with 817 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Henderson, a 5-10, 214-pound sophomore, is considered Ohio State’s star running back. But he was unable to play against the Wolverines and has appeared in just eight games overall due to what he said on social media is a broken foot and torn ligaments. He has 604 yards and six touchdowns on the ground for the Buckeyes.
Nobody is saying yet what Henderson’s availability will be for the semifinal, but indications are he should be available.
“Nobody wanted to get on the field and play more than Trey and Miyan, but they just had some things limiting what they could do,” Day said, referring to the Michigan game. “I give them a lot of credit for keep trying to play every week. … This (break) allows us some time to heal from those, so hopefully we get some of that stuff behind us.”
Meantime, Chip Trayanum converted to running back from linebacker to give the Buckeyes some depth in the backfield, and he had the most carries against Michigan. Dallan Hayden was the No. 3 back most of the season and will come into the game with 510 yards and five touchdowns.
On the Bulldogs’ side of the ledger, the only real mystery is how much of a contribution they will get from wide receiver A.D. Mitchell. The sophomore split end got his most extensive playing time against LSU in the SEC Championship game since going down with a high-ankle sprain in the second game of the season. And while he didn’t have a catch, Mitchell threw a pass to tight end Darnell Washington for a two-point conversion.
Starting right tackle Warren McClendon and flanker Ladd McConkey each left the game with knee injuries. But indications are that both players will be back for the playoffs.