Ohio State Football: Analyzing schedule, other games that could impact Buckeyes

Ohio State football coach Ryan Day said early in the preseason he was not sure yet what to expect from a team that needed to replace five starters on offense and six on defense.

Last week, he conceded the Buckeyes just might be good again.

“I’m pleased with where we’re at in a lot of areas,” Day said. “Now it’s a matter of how well we can prepare for the first game and sort things out.”

Not that he was ready to see his team take the field yet, though.

“If you said we had to play a game -- I got a little nervous there because there is so much that needs to get organized in terms of game-planning and preparing the team to execute the game plan,” Day said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there.”

The winner of the last four Big Ten title games, Ohio State faces an interesting road back to Indianapolis for the championship in December and potentially a third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance.

The schedule might be light on blockbusters, but there are relatively few cupcakes.

The Buckeyes are projected to be No. 4 in SP+ rankings from ESPN, and that measure ranks their schedule 25th-hardest in the land while Alabama checks in with the No. 16 slate. Oklahoma’s is 55th, and Clemson’s is 70th, so the Sooners and Tigers could remain in the top four without doing a lot of heavy lifting — but that’s why they play the games.

Ohio State’s opponents rank from No. 10 (Penn State) to No. 124 (Akron) in SP+ with 10 teams in between.

Overall, nine are in the top 52 with four in the top 25.

Here is a look at how the schedule lays out for the Buckeyes plus a few other games that could impact their perception in the first month of the season:

Two toughies to start.

There is little doubt Day would like to ease into the season with a new starting quarterback, but he won’t have that luxury.

Ohio State opens at a Minnesota team that is No. 24 in SP+ preseason projections and has a potential top 20 offense with senior quarterback Tanner Morgan, veteran running back Mohamed Ibrahim and an offensive line that is expected to be big and powerful. Morgan will have to break in some new weapons — potentially including Springfield High School grad Michael Brown-Stephens — and the Golden Gophers defense is a question mark after struggling last season.

The comes Oregon. The Ducks are No. 11 in the AP poll, but they will be breaking in a new quarterback as well.

Three breathers to follow — then one that could get tricky.

If Ohio State opens 2-0, the Buckeyes should be able to get to 5-0 without much trouble.

Tulsa, Akron and Rutgers are all in the bottom half of the SP+ projections, though the Golden Hurricane defense is ranked No. 44.

Coach Greg Schiano might return the Scarlet Knights to respectability, but they have a long way to go to reach that point.

An Oct. 9 visit from Maryland might bear some watching for Ohio State fans. That has the makings of a trap game as much as any on the schedule. It comes before an off week (could the Buckeyes be caught looking ahead to a break?) and includes an offense with a chance to be dangerous thanks to quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and star receiver Rakim Jarrett.

Back-to-back tests.

Indiana and Ohio State played arguably the game of the year in the Big Ten East last season, and the Hoosiers are sure to be out for revenge after losing 42-35 in Columbus last season.

With quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and a potentially stout defense, Indiana is again expected to be one of the top teams in the division.

Penn State comes to Columbus a week later for a game that could be a matchup of top 10 teams.

Coach James Franklin has a veteran quarterback in Sean Clifford, and the Nittany Lions always have good skill players on offense. Fortified with multiple transfers, the Penn State defense is projected No. 7 in the country by SP+, making it by far the best stop unit Ohio State and Stroud will have seen to that point in the season.

Three more on the easy side — then Michigan.

Nebraska has been disappointing in the Scott Frost era, but the Cornhuskers are still projected No. 32 by SP+ and could have a top 30 defense.

Purdue and Michigan State are ranked 52nd and 51st, respectively. The Boilermakers could have a challenging offense while the Spartans are expected to struggle to score points but be hard to score against in year two of the Mel Tucker era.

Then there is The Rivalry.

Michigan has lost eight in a row to its ancient foe, and the Wolverines are coming off a losing season.

Coach Jim Harbaugh revamped his staff, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to turn the program back around and reverse the struggles that began with a Buckeye blowout late in 2018.

The Wolverines are coming off a losing season under Jim Harbaugh, but he hopes to get a bump from a revamped coaching staff and a return to a normal offseason.

For many years this was a rivalry in which you threw out the records; could it be again?

Strong-armed quarterback Cade McNamara could give the Wolverines a puncher’s chance, but they enter the season with a lot of unknowns.

One more big test?

If Ohio State wins the East again, there is a good chance the Buckeyes get another top 10 test — or better.

Wisconsin is No. 6 in the SP+ projections while Iowa is No. 16.

The Hawkeyes started slow but finished strong last season while the Badgers’ offense was ravaged by health-related issues (involving both COVID-19 and injuries) but could be in for a big bounce-back year.


Ohio State at Minnesota, 8 p.m., Fox, 1410

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