Last season, a hard-to-figure Ohio State team turned some quality leadership, a handful of clutch plays and a bunch of good luck into an unbeaten, bowl-banned season.
This time around, the Buckeyes are playing not only to stay unbeaten under Urban Meyer but for bigger prizes. Some big-time talent is on hand, a bunch of winnable games are on the schedule and a team with a dynamic returning quarterback in Braxton Miller playing a second year under Meyer and a coaching staff that remained intact should be better.
Good enough to win ’em all again? Quite possibly, yes. Especially given the schedule.
No one — including their own coach — considered last year’s Buckeyes invincible, but they just kept finding ways to win. Even in strangely wild games against the likes of Indiana and Purdue. This year, the stakes are different. The Buckeyes are wearing a rather large bullseye, and they’ll have to deal with increased pressure and expectations.
They still should win a bunch. Michigan State and Nebraska are gone from the Big Ten’s cross-divisional schedule rotation, and the non-conference schedule is soft. There are already whispers about things like pushing what’s currently a 12-game win streak into the twenties and playing in really big games at the end of the season. Meyer has insisted his team isn’t ready yet, but he likes the team he has and the momentum his program has built.
Who, really, is going to beat Ohio State in 2013? That’s a valid question.
Buckeye opponents are listed below, from least likely to end Ohio State’s winning streak to most likely. As always, these games still have to be played on the field. Playing them on paper, however, leaves one thinking that Ohio State could go undefeated again.
Florida A&M, Sept. 21
Come for the tailgating. Stay for the band show. Re-watch all seven of Ohio State’s first-half touchdowns on FOX Sports 1 after the game.
Buffalo, Aug. 31
This year’s sacrificial early-season MAC opponent has some talent, led by NFL-bound linebacker Khalil Mack. But on Opening Saturday in the Horseshoe it’s hard to imagine Ohio State not just forcing its will and its tempo on the Bulls, but staying on the gas for most of the afternoon. The Buckeyes will be looking to run a bunch of plays and run up a bunch of numbers, and though Buffalo expects to compete in the MAC East this season, Aug. 31 in Ohio Stadium should be a running (for 300-plus yards) of the Buckeyes, not the Bulls.
Iowa, Oct. 19
The Hawkeyes don’t figure to be much better than they were a year ago when they went 4-8 — and that included some very close wins. A few years ago, Iowa was consistently producing enough talent to compete in the Big Ten’s upper tier and win this type of game, but the Hawkeyes have simply fallen and fallen fast. Bad luck on the injury front has been part of it, too, but the optimism of returning nine defensive starters is offset by the fact that what was a bad offense last season lost key players and has little experience at key positions. Too, Iowa catches Ohio State at a very bad time, with the Buckeyes coming off of a bye week and at the start of a two-game homestand.
at Cal, Sept. 14
This smells like a dangerous game. The Buckeyes must go across the country for their first road game to face a fired-up Cal team eager to make a statement. But some of those same ingredients — Cal has a new coach, a new quarterback and a whole bunch of questions to answer — make it hard to believe this will end up being anything but a double-digit win by Ohio State. The national TV audience and last year’s close call in Columbus will make this Cal’s Super Bowl, but it is hard to imagine the Bears being able to keep up for four quarters. They’ll play fast under new coach Sonny Dykes — and in doing so, play right into Ohio State’s hands.
Indiana, Nov. 23
The Hoosiers are getting better and hung around for 60 minutes last season before dropping a 52-49 decision to Ohio State that would have dropped a bunch of jaws across the country. Indiana figures to score a bunch of points this season, too, and catches Ohio State in late November — and more specifically/importantly, a week before The Game vs. Michigan. But in the case that Ohio State is still unblemished by the time this game rolls around, it’s even harder to imagine the Hoosiers winning in Columbus than it is to imagine that they really almost won last year’s game in Bloomington.
at Illinois, Nov. 16
The Illini were really, really bad last season in Tim Beckman’s first year as head coach, and Meyer showed his longtime friend and former assistant little mercy during Illinois’ late-season trip to Columbus. Neither coach had much choice, really. Illinois should be better, and how much better depends on the defense taking big strides and now-senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase directing the offense like a veteran with his top skill players returning should. It’s almost like Illinois can’t help but be much better and will certainly have this one circled; the Buckeyes come off their second bye week and into the stretch run knowing they should win. Only time will tell just how dangerous this trip will be.
Penn State, Oct. 26
Bill O’Brien’s 8-4 Nittany Lions were a great story last season on many levels. They had a great start to Big Ten play, too, before losing 35-23 to Ohio State in a game that all had sorts of terrible nicknames with both teams banned from the postseason. This year, O’Brien needs to tutor an inexperienced quarterback and Penn State will probably feel the scholarship reductions, especially by late October. Expect this Penn State team to again fight every week. Don’t expect it to win in Columbus.
San Diego State, Sept. 7
As many as 18 or 19 starters could be back for the Aztecs, who are coming off a very successful 2012 season soured by a home bowl loss to BYU that snapped a seven-game win streak. San Diego State won at Boise State and Nevada last year en route to sharing the Mountain West title, but the 229 yards rushing per game the Aztecs racked up were helped by home games against the likes of Army and North Dakota and the up-and-down nature of the MWC. San Diego State has a history of producing NFL-level talent and of coming east in September and giving name programs a battle. But winning in Columbus this September? That will be a very, very tall task.
at Purdue, Nov. 2
Purdue was bad enough last season to get coach Danny Hope fired — and to blow an eight-point fourth-quarter lead in Ohio Stadium in a game that could have changed a whole bunch of things. Instead, Kenny Guiton came off the bench (and out of nowhere) and Ohio State won in overtime. Purdue has experience but not much star power back on both sides of the ball for first-year coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant who will have his guys ready. Again, expect the records of these teams to be vastly different and expect Purdue to give the Buckeyes everything they want on the first Saturday in November.
Wisconsin, Sept. 28
Just when it looked like Meyer and Bret Bielema might be starting a nice little personal rivalry, Bielema bolted Wisconsin for the job at Arkansas. And what’s become an annual battle of Big Ten heavyweights changes after the 2013 season when league expansion changes the divisions, but in this prime-time affair expect Wisconsin to come out swinging. The Badgers need to find a quarterback and will have to play smart, efficient football in what’s sure to be a charged atmosphere, but if there’s any team on the schedule pre-Michigan that has the talent to beat Ohio State, it’s the Badgers.
at Northwestern, Oct. 5
A road night game against a team with an experienced quarterback and a program that needs a signature win to officially take that next step? Yep, all the ingredients for an upset are here, at least now. Come Oct. 5, if the Buckeyes escape the Wisconsin game unscathed, they’ll need their A game for this one. Northwestern won 10 games last year, probably should have won at least one more and gets three straight home games it should win and a bye week directly before this game. Ohio State will have a month to get its defensive front seven important experience and will probably need to score 30-plus, too, to escape Evanston. Lots of Buckeye fans will be in attendance, and tune-ups with Western Michigan and Maine probably won’t do much to help Northwestern prepare for Braxton Miller. Still, this is one the nation will be watching.
at Michigan, Nov. 30
Of course this is The Big One. It always is, and in looking at this schedule it becomes even bigger. Michigan could be really good if the Wolverines get steady play from quarterback Devin Gardner and get the right bounces over the course of the season. In analyzing the schedule, Ohio State really should be favored all season long and should know that the Wolverines are not only the biggest rival, but the biggest threat. This might just be the first of two Ohio State-Michigan games in two weeks — the Big Ten didn’t start a conference title game to have these teams watching on TV, you know — and it’s certainly one that could go either way regardless of what happens in the 11 games that precede it.