When C.J. Stroud walked off the field in Ohio Stadium following last month’s loss to Michigan, it was widely assumed he had played his final game as a college quarterback.
The draft-eligible signal caller and likely top-10 pick was a sure candidate to opt out of any consolation Rose Bowl appearance Ohio State was likely to receive, and conversations full of mixed opinions regarding Stroud’s legacy in Columbus were already underway.
On one hand, Stroud had solidified himself as one of the greatest to ever play at Ohio State, going 23-3 as a starter over two seasons while wracking up 7,775 passing yards and 81 touchdowns as a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.
To others, however, Stroud’s legacy would forever be defined — fairly or unfairly — by his inability to win the biggest game on the schedule and, subsequently, lead Ohio State to college football’s mountain top. Last year’s loss at Michigan robbed Ohio State of an opportunity to play for a Big Ten championship, as well as in the College Football Playoff (CFP), and another debacle against its hated rival last month appeared to be equally consequential as Ohio State fell out of the playoff discussion.
Just six days later, following USC’s loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Ohio State’s title hopes had been resuscitated. With it, the external book on Stroud’s Ohio State legacy was reopened as one more opportunity had been afforded to him to land a signature win that has eluded him up to this point.
But while Stroud is undoubtedly aware of the narrative currently being spun outside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, as well as what lies ahead for Ohio State, don’t expect him to approach the situation as anything more than a football game. Georgia will get his best shot on Dec. 31, but Stroud is not viewing the game as anything that will further define his legacy. At least not for those whose opinions he truly values.
“I think I’ve done a lot of good things while I’ve been here, and it’s not done,” Stroud said last week. “That’s the thing that’s keeping me grinding, that I’m not done here. I don’t know how many more games, how many more seasons I have … It’s not done. But at the end of the day, my legacy will live on at Ohio State just with what I’ve left here. If you ask my teammates, they’ll speak highly of me. And my family, too. I think that’s really all that matters. I’ve done a lot of things in Columbus to reach out and try to give back to the homeless, give back to the less fortunate and kids.”
He added, “At the end of the day, Saturdays are Saturdays. One Saturday doesn’t define who I am as a person and my legacy as a football player. I have a lot of football left ahead of me, so I’m excited for that … I’m not going to live in the past of what people maybe think or don’t think, if they think I have the ‘it’ factor or they think I’m not tough. All of that stuff is funny to me, man, because nobody was talking like this before that game. And people don’t know what I was going through during the game. You just have to accept the good with the bad, and that’s ok.”
Still, as a true competitor, Stroud understands what dethroning Georgia and reaching the national championship game would mean for both himself and the program. Asked last week if he feels as if he has a chip on his shoulder heading into the Peach Bowl, Stroud said that chip has existed for much of his life and “I don’t think I’ll ever lose it.”
Whether or not Stroud and Ohio State are good enough to win the game remains to be seen. Win or lose, however, those who wish to debate his legacy won’t sway how Stroud feels about his time in Columbus or how he’ll remember it.
He went on to say, “At the end of the day, I love this school, I love this team. I love being a Buckeye. No one can take that away from me. I had to really adapt to this culture. I wasn’t born here, so I really didn’t understand it. But now I do. I’m actually really appreciative of that, and I think I’m a Buckeye for life. If they don’t think that, that’s on them, bro.”