It’s still 60 days until Ohio State’s football opener at Minnesota on Sept. 2, but it’s never too early to look ahead.
Here’s my preseason ranking of potentially the most challenging to the least frightening games on OSU’s schedule this season:
1. At Indiana, Oct. 23
This game might be the first time in decades the Hoosiers will have more fans in the seats at Memorial Stadium than Ohio State does when the Buckeyes come to town. IU was No. 12 in the final Associated Press poll last season and has 18 starters back from a team OSU hung on to defeat 42-35. If the Hoosiers’ quarterback Michael Penix were any more electric, he’d be monitored by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.
2. Oregon, Sept. 11
Last year COVID-19 canceled the Buckeyes’ trip to Oregon, which was going to be one of the most anticipated non-conference match-ups in the country.
The Ducks were only 4-3 last season and weren’t invited to the College Football Playoff for the sixth time in that event’s seven years of existence. But several of their top players opted out of last season and their last three recruiting classes have been ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and No. 6, No. 11 and No. 7 nationally.
Also, whoever is at quarterback for OSU will find himself playing in a big game in the national spotlight for the first time.
3. Penn State, Oct. 30
Ohio State has beaten the Nittany Lions eight of the last nine seasons, including a 38-25 win last year in State College, Pa. That dominance means Penn State has appeared in only one Big Ten championship game (2016). It also means beating Ohio State would be a statement game for Penn State and its coach, James Franklin.
4. At Michigan, Nov. 27
Michigan’s 16 seasons without winning at least a share of a Big Ten football championship since its last title in 2004 is the longest championship drought in school history. Jim Harbaugh took a pay cut and shook up his coaching staff, which indicates a sense of urgency after a 2-4 record last season.
Michigan has never won a division title, much less been a Big Ten champion in Harbaugh’s six seasons as coach.
With eight starters back on offense and nine on defense and some clarity in its quarterback situation, Michigan could be good. If the Wolverines are good enough to beat OSU for the first time since 2011 remains to be seen.
5. At Minnesota, Sept. 2
Minnesota went from 11-2 in 2019 to 3-4 last season. The big problem was a defense that gave up 49, 45 and 31 points in three of the losses.
Even with a quarterback making his first college start, Ohio State’s offense could have a big game against the Gophers’ defense in the season opener.
6. At Nebraska, Nov. 6
Former Cornhuskers quarterback Scott Frost was expected to make Nebraska a Big Ten contender when he was hired as coach. But so far he has produced three straight losing seasons.
With Ohio State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Oklahoma on the schedule, just getting to six wins might be a tough assignment in year four for Frost.
7. Maryland, Oct. 9
The Terrapins found their quarterback last season when Taulia Tagovailoa transferred from Alabama and he has a solid crew of receivers to catch his passes. Coach Mike Locksley has recruited well in his four seasons at Maryland, as expected. But defense and the offensive line, which have been issues ever since Maryland joined the Big Ten, are still question marks.
8. Purdue, Nov. 13
Purdue is another team whose rebuild has fallen short of expectations. It has lost 2/3 of its games the last two years and has had two winning seasons since Joe Tiller retired after the 2008 season.
The Boilermakers can score points but a defense which gave up just under 30 points a game last season is still a concern.
9. Michigan State, Nov. 20
Michigan State is a work in progress. Twenty-seven Spartans entered the transfer portal after Mel Tucker’s first season as MSU’s coach last year and 17 players transferred in.
10. Tulsa, Sept. 18
Tulsa was 6-3 last season and its losses were by three points to Cincinnati, two points to Mississippi State and nine points to Oklahoma State. It could be more dangerous than the typical Ohio State non-Power 5 non-conference opponent.
11. at Rutgers, Oct. 2
Rutgers raised expectations with three wins last season. Those wins over Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland were as many as the Scarlet Knights had in the Big Ten in the previous four seasons.
12. Akron, Sept. 25
Akron beat Bowling Green for its only win in 2020 and was 0-12 in 2019. A $2 million check for playing the game is about all the Zips can look forward to.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414.