Last season fans and commentators alike lamented the lack of schedule strength for the Ohio State football team. As it turned out, it would not have mattered much, but some still feel the soft early games were not adequate to prepare for Big Ten play.
Things will change somewhat in 2014, with OSU opening on the road against a quality opponent for the first time since 1999 and then playing perennial ACC power Virginia Tech in Columbus the next week. The Big Ten should also be an improved conference overall, which makes that part of the schedule tougher.
It's time to take a look at some of the games we are looking forward to in this year's schedule, and provide warnings about some match-ups that might be "trap games" for the 2014 Buckeyes.
Quick trivia question: name one of the four teams that rushed for more yards per game than Ohio State last season. No need to think about it, the answer is at the top of this paragraph. The Midshipmen finished second in the nation in rushing, averaging over 325 yards per game on the ground.
They were less than stellar through the air, passing for less than 86 yards per game, but their offense presents many problems for a team like Ohio State. For one, the cut blocking is something they don't often see, and thus is hard to prepare for. OSU is accustomed to seeing teams that spread to pass, not old-fashioned triple-option teams.
Navy gave Ohio State all they could handle back in 2009, and that was in the cozy confines of the Shoe. Playing on the road in an NFL stadium in week one will test the poise of the team right off the bat.
The Midshipmen wrapped up a 9-4 season by whipping Middle Tennessee in the Armed Forces Bowl. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds returns for his junior season after rushing for over 1300 yards and passing for eight touchdowns against only two interceptions in 2013. The Buckeyes will need to be sharp early in order to pass the opening test in Baltimore.
The Hokies finished second to Duke in the ACC Coastal division in 2013 with a 5-3 conference record and an 8-5 record overall. They finished the season on a sour note, losing badly to UCLA in the Sun Bowl 42-12. Three-year starting quarterback Logan Thomas has departed, but to be honest they didn't exactly roll with him in his last season.
The Hokies struggled on offense in 2013, averaging just over 22 points per game. While Ohio State struggled to defend the pass late in the season, this Virginia Tech squad will probably not be able to take advantage of them. All in all, this is a great opportunity for OSU to score a win over a high-profile team from the ACC, and I expect the Buckeyes to make a statement here.
On October 25th, Ohio State will travel to State College for their annual tilt against the Nittany Lions. Undoubtedly, the PSU faithful will unleash yet another "white out" against the Buckeyes, especially if this ends up being a night game. Combine that with the revenge factor after OSU smacked them 63-14 last season and you have all the makings for a classic Big Ten clash.
New head coach James Franklin runs a pro-style offense, and that means a lot of passing for Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg in his sophomore year. Will this spell doom for the young OSU secondary? This will be the first big test for Chris Ash and a win here would go a long way toward building more confidence in the defense.
This is the game that everyone is looking forward to, and it also might become a night game if the stars align right. The Spartans are a confident bunch these days, and quarterback Connor Cook has to be licking his chops after torching the Buckeyes for over 300 yards last season.
MSU has an open date the week prior to facing Ohio State this season, while the Buckeyes will be entertaining Illinois. It all seems set up right for the Spartans to roll, but if OSU is able to pass the test at Penn State and avoid a letdown against the Illini, they will be on a pretty good roll themselves. In that case, this game might actually live up to the immense hype that it is already receiving.
It is impossible to underestimate what a victory here would do for the OSU program. This is easily the toughest test on the schedule, and if the Buckeyes emerge from East Lansing with their perfect record intact, the rest of the schedule sets up nicely for another run to Indianapolis. Well, except for one more potential trap.
The Gophers had a breakout season in 2013, or at least they were having one until a late-season skid. Minnesota was 8-2 before closing the season with losses against Wisconsin and Michigan State and then they were upset by Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
Ohio State hasn't played Minnesota since traveling to Minneapolis in 2010, and the team they will face is completely different from that one. Quarterback Mitch Leidner, leading rusher David Cobb, and leading receiver Maxx Williams all return to lead the Gopher offense that, though inconsistent at times, showed flashes of brilliance in victories over Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State.
Appearing on the schedule the week after the huge clash with Michigan State, this is a potential trap game if the Buckeyes prevail against the Spartans. If not, it's a "get well" game. Assuming the best, OSU will have to recover quickly for a road game against an unfamiliar opponent in a situation where they have little to gain and everything to lose.
Remember Ohio State's last game against Navy? Bit of a nail-biter, eh? Well, this should warm your heart.