Ohio State returns to the gridiron this fall off the heels of its first multi-loss regular season since 2017. It wasn’t the year the Buckeyes expected, though anything less than beating Michigan, winning a Big Ten title and hoisting a national championship trophy is seen as subpar in Columbus.
No, not even a Rose Bowl win over Utah where quarterback C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba combined to break countless school and bowl game records is acceptable for the Buckeyes. At least for Ryan Day, it’s not.
“Our expectation is to win every game,” Day said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “Maybe at some places, 11-2 with a Rose Bowl victory is a good year. It’s not at Ohio State.”
The idea that the Buckeyes must go undefeated each season is one that Day has clung to since he took over as head coach of the program, but it hasn’t happened yet during his tenure. His inaugural team fell to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, the 2020 team lost to Alabama in the CFP Championship and last year’s squad lost to Oregon and Michigan.
On the bright side, Day’s team starts the 2022 season with a 0-0 record and one of the most high-powered offenses in college football. Stroud returns as a Heisman Trophy favorite, Smith-Njigba steps into a featured role in the passing attack after a breakout year as a sophomore and TreVeyon Henderson looks to build upon an impressive freshman campaign.
Still, questions remain with the defense, which features a new-look staff outside of defensive line coach Larry Johnson. The Buckeyes brought in Jim Knowles as coordinator, Tim Walton to coach the cornerbacks and Perry Eliano to guide the safeties. The growing anticipation that Ohio State can bring back the lauded “Silver Bullets” is palpable, and an improved defense could be the key to making national championship aspirations into a reality.
Of course, Ohio State has to play its regular-season games before it can win a national title. Below, we take a look at the 12 opponents the Buckeyes will face over the next three months and what kind of challenge Ohio State could face from each of them.
Notre Dame, Sept. 3
The first game might be the toughest for Ohio State. Marcus Freeman’s first season as Notre Dame’s head coach comes with a new-look coaching staff and numerous holes to fill on both sides of the ball. Still, the Fighting Irish will come to Columbus as the No. 5-ranked team, giving the Buckeyes their first top-five matchup in a season opener in program history.
Notre Dame saw starting quarterback Jack Coan, leading rusher Kyren Williams and top receiver Kevin Austin depart the program after 2021. Safety Kyle Hamilton also declared for the NFL Draft and became the No. 14 overall pick to the Baltimore Ravens.
Freeman has turned to sophomore Tyler Buchner to fill the role of starting quarterback for Notre Dame. Buchner has shown a dual-threat ability under center, completing 21 of 35 pass attempts for 298 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions while adding 336 rushing yards and three scores on the ground as a freshman. He will make his first career start against the Buckeyes on Sept. 3.
Buchner’s top target will be junior tight end Michael Mayer, who turned a team-best 71 receptions into 840 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021. Avery Davis was expected to be another weapon for Buchner but suffered a season-ending ACL tear in fall camp. Therefore, the Fighting Irish will look to Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Lorenzo Styles Jr. to step into premier roles at receiver.
Running backs Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs are expected to be a rushing attack by committee in 2022. The pair combined for 452 rushing yards and four touchdowns last season but also flashed pass-catching ability out of the backfield. The Irish return nearly their entire starting offensive line from 2021, and if Jarrett Patterson can play after suffering a preseason foot injury, Tyree and Diggs should be slated for solid contributions against Ohio State.
Freeman landed All-American safety Brandon Joseph from Northwestern in the summer, which lessens the severity of Hamilton’s departure. Joseph has nine interceptions since the 2020 season and recorded 79 tackles in 2021. The former Wildcat joins a talented Notre Dame defense returning eight starters, including preseason All-American defensive end Isaiah Foskey.
Joseph and his teammates will offer Ohio State a stiff test in Game 1, allowing Buckeye fans a glimpse at just how talented Day’s offense will be right out of the gate. It could also be a statement game Heisman voters look to for Stroud, Smith-Njigba or any other player wearing scarlet and gray that shows up in primetime.
Arkansas State, Sept. 10
Immediately after a top-five matchup with Notre Dame, Ohio State will play one of the worst teams in the FBS from last season. Butch Jones’ first season in Jonesboro did not go according to plan. His Arkansas State squad went 2-10 after a season-opening win over FCS opponent Central Arkansas, leaving the Red Wolves with one win in their final 11 games.
Arkansas State’s defense was one of the worst in the FBS in 2021. The unit allowed 505.9 yards and 38.6 points per game, including 50 or more points on four separate occasions. The Red Wolves’ run defense ranked last in the country in rushing yards allowed, giving up an average of 261.1 yards per game. Those problems could be even more glaring this season as Jones’ team will be without last season’s tackles leader Elery Alexander and sacks leader JoJo Ozougwu.
On offense, Arkansas State isn’t quite an air raid, but it likes to toss the football around the field. Layne Hatcher and James Blackman split snaps at quarterback last season, but neither player found successful footing. Hatcher transferred to Texas State after the season, which means Blackman will likely take over the starting role for the Red Wolves in 2022. He completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 1,344 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Blackman won’t have a proven tailback by his side this fall. Redshirt senior Johnnie Lang will likely carry the load for the Red Wolves after rushing for 263 yards on 65 attempts in 2021.
Toledo, Sept. 17
While Arkansas State might be a pushover for the Buckeyes, Day and his team must be ready for their Week 3 matchup against Toledo.
The Rockets finished 7-6 last season with similar outcomes to Nebraska's 2021 team. Like the Cornhuskers, many of Toledo’s losses came by a touchdown or less. They nearly even upset then-No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend but fell 32-29 in the closing moments.
Ohio State is favored to win by multiple scores and should win comfortably, but don’t be surprised if the Rockets last a few rounds with the Buckeyes. Sophomore quarterback Dequan Finn is the centerpiece of a Toledo offense that led the Mid-American Conference in scoring last season. Finn was an excellent dual-threat option in 2021, tossing 18 touchdowns with only two interceptions and using his feet for nine more scores. Junior wide receiver Devin Maddox led his team with 567 yards in 2021 and will likely be Finn’s top option out wide.
Toledo’s rushing attack will look different after first-team All-MAC running back Bryant Koback went to the NFL following a season with 1,400 yards and 15 touchdowns. This year, sophomores Micah Kelly and Jacquez Stuart and Maryland transfer Peny Boone will look to fill that void in production.
Defensively, Toledo led the MAC in scoring defense and ranked second in yards allowed in 2021. The Rockets' defense features third-team all-conference linebacker Dyontae Johnson, who tallied 86 tackles in 2021. Former Ohio State linebacker Dallas Gant will also return to Ohio Stadium after transferring to Toledo during the 2021 season.
In the defensive backfield, the Rockets lost first-team All-MAC honorees Sam Womack and Tycen Anderson during the offseason. They will build around last year’s tackle leader, safety Maxen Hook, to fortify the back seven.
Wisconsin, Sept. 24
Ohio State’s first Big Ten opponent will be a familiar one in Wisconsin. The Buckeyes and Badgers have met repeatedly over the years, with most of their matchups taking place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the conference title game.
This year, though, Ohio State will face the rebounding Badgers in Columbus. Fans attending the game are asked to wear black as many expect the team to wear the all-black Nike jerseys featuring red numbers with white trim.
It will be look good, feel good, play good for Stroud and the Buckeyes after two tune-up games against Arkansas State and Toledo. However, Wisconsin isn’t an opponent Ohio State can look past.
The Badgers could have their next great running back in Braelon Allen. After a strong freshman campaign where he rushed for 1,268 yards, Allen will look to continue the legacy of recent Badgers tailbacks such as James White, Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor.
Graham Mertz will be this year’s starter after a rocky 2021 campaign. In Wisconsin’s first four games, Mertz completed only 56.4 percent of his passes and paired two touchdowns with six interceptions. Mertz improved for the rest of the season with a 61.5 percent completion rate, eight touchdowns and five interceptions, leading the Badgers to wins in eight of their last nine games.
Wisconsin’s defense was among the best in the country a season ago, holding opponents to 235.3 yards and 16.2 points per game. But they have to replace Big Ten linebacker of the year Leo Chenal and fellow first-team All-Big Ten linebacker Jack Sanborn, who combined for 204 tackles in 2021.
Rutgers, Oct. 1
The Buckeyes' final home matchup of a five-game homestand to start the season will come against Greg Schiano and Rutgers. Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to their first bowl game since 2014 last season, and he’ll look to do that again in 2022.
The former Ohio State defensive coordinator will have either Noah Vedral or Gavin Wimsatt as his quarterback this fall. Vedral has completed only 60.4 percent of passes for 3,107 yards, 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in two seasons, which leaves room for Wimsatt to win the starting job.
Wimsatt, a four-star prospect who reclassified into the 2021 class, joined the program last year and appeared in four games last season, maintaining his redshirt. But he saw significant time in the Gator Bowl, indicating that Schiano holds him in high esteem.
The quarterbacks will be without Bo Melton after he left for the NFL. Melton led the Scarlet Knights in receiving in each of the last two seasons and was the team’s top threat in the passing game. Wide receivers Shameen Jones and Aron Cruickshank combined for 578 receiving yards and two touchdowns last season and will pick up the pieces Melton left behind after his departure.
Defensively, Rutgers returns six starters from last season, including four in the secondary. With most of its contributors back on the roster, the defensive backfield should improve after the Scarlet Knights allowed 234.9 passing yards per game, which ranked 10th in the Big Ten in 2021.
Overall, the Scarlet Knights aren’t a threat to take down the Buckeyes this season. Still, Schiano has been known to throw everything but the kitchen sink into the playbook when taking on Ohio State. Expect a couple of trick plays, fake punts and maybe a surprise onside kick when he brings his team to Columbus in October.
at Michigan State, Oct. 8
Mel Tucker’s first season in East Lansing was a defining one as he led Michigan State to an 11-2 record with a win over Pittsburgh in the Peach Bowl.
It was a night and day change from the program’s final seasons with Mark Dantonio at the helm, which had primarily been a doormat for Ohio State to walk over. Although Michigan State didn’t provide much of a challenge in a 56-7 loss to the Buckeyes last season, Tucker proved the Spartans can still be a viable program out of the Big Ten East.
This season, Tucker will be without running back Kenneth Walker, who went to the NFL after he won the Doak Walker Award and Walter Camp Player of the Year in 2021, leaving a considerable gap in rushing production that the Spartans will need to fill. Payton Thorne returns under center, while Colorado transfer Jarek Broussard – the 2020 Pac-12 offensive player of the year – is expected to replace Walker as the lead ballcarrier.
Leading wideout Jayden Reed, who hauled in 59 receptions for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, returns for another year. Junior Tre Mosley is another wide receiver to watch.
Michigan State’s defense remains largely intact and will have nine returning starters. The Spartans return their entire linebacker and secondary units and will need only to replace edge rushers on the defensive line. Sophomores Khris Bogle and Jeff Pietrowksi will be relied on to continue the Spartans’ top-ranked pass rush that led the Big Ten with 43 sacks last season, but the Spartans need to improve on the back end after allowing a nation-worst 324.8 passing yards per game last year.
Iowa, Oct. 22
After a mid-season “bye” week, Ohio State returns to Columbus to take on Kirk Ferentz and Iowa. The last time these two programs faced each other, the Buckeyes were embarrassed in a 55-24 blowout in Iowa City, which undoubtedly will be a storyline leading up to the game.
The Hawkeyes won the Big Ten West in 2021, reaching the conference championship before losing to Michigan and finishing the year with a 10-4 record. They’ll look to continue building upon an imposing defense and special teams unit and improve their offensive talent this fall. All things considered, it will be a tough challenge for the Buckeyes as they enter the latter half of their schedule.
Iowa returns seven starters to a defense that held opponents to 328.9 yards and 19.2 points per game in 2021. Linebacker Jack Campbell led the nation with 143 tackles. At the same time, cornerback Riley Moss was a first-team All-American last season. They will be foundational pieces for the Hawkeyes to have legitimate conference title aspirations again this year.
However, Campbell and Moss can only take care of their side of the football. Spencer Petras will likely be the starting quarterback for the third straight season. He was inconsistent last year and threw only 10 touchdowns with nine interceptions. If Iowa wants to go anywhere, they’ll need a more explosive offense.
The Hawkeyes found reasonable success on the ground last season, with running back Tyler Goodson accounting for 1,151 yards. With Goodson off to the pros, Gavin Williams is expected to be the primary ball carrier in Iowa’s rushing attack after collecting 305 yards last season.
at Penn State, Oct. 29
The Nittany Lions battled rumors surrounding head coach James Franklin’s future for much of last season, but those rumors were put to rest when Franklin signed a 10-year contract extension to stay with the program.
Sean Clifford is back at quarterback for his fourth season as the starter. He faces a growing pressure to perform since 2022 five-star quarterback Drew Allar of Medina, Ohio, joined the program as an early enrollee in the spring. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson is now in the NFL, leaving sophomore wideouts Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley to carry the receiving load.
Penn State’s most prominent question marks are with the offensive line, which only returns two starters. Even worse, last season’s offensive line allowed a conference-worst 34 sacks in 2021. Leading rusher Keyvone Lee will work behind them after a 530-yard 2021 season, and all eyes will be on five-star running back Nick Singleton as he hopes for a breakout freshman campaign.
The Nittany Lions also have questions with their defense, which return only four defensive starters from a season ago. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown led the Big Ten with six interceptions last year and will be the unit’s primary leader, but Franklin will need contributions from his mostly unknown and unproven talent this season for his team to contend for a conference championship.
Penn State will need some dominoes to fall its way to beat the Buckeyes, but the Nittany Lions have played the villain to Ohio State before. They’ll have home-field advantage, and the environment in Happy Valley – regardless of whether or not it is a “White Out” – can always cause issues.
at Northwestern, Nov. 5
With a roster near the bottom of the Big Ten in production and talent, head coach Pat Fitzgerald will need to be a miracle worker to bring the Wildcats to the Big Ten title game, a feat he accomplished in 2018 and 2020.
After boasting one of the nation’s strongest defenses in 2020, Northwestern took a significant step back the following year. That regression could continue after Brandon Joseph’s transfer to Notre Dame. Fitzgerald’s teams usually thrive on that side of the ball, but his team may be heading for another subpar year of stopping opposing offenses.
The Wildcats will return three starters in the secondary – A.J. Hampton, Cameron Mitchell and Coco Azema — which should help fill Joseph’s void. Linebacker Bryce Gallagher and defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore also reclaim their roles in a unit that allowed 29 points per game last season.
Offensively, Northwestern failed to find a consistent quarterback last season, as three signal-callers attempted at least 75 passes. With Hunter Johnson and Andrew Marty departing the program, South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski will likely be the leader of Fitzgerald’s offense. Hilinski collected 978 passing yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 54 percent of his passes in 2021 and will benefit from an offense returning nine starters, including running back Evan Hull and a potential first-round NFL draft pick in offensive tackle Peter Skoronski.
Indiana, Nov. 12
Tom Allen led his program to a breakthrough in 2020, creating high anticipation for the following season. Instead, the Hoosiers were marred with a host of injuries and poor play on both sides of the ball in 2021, leading to a Big Ten-worst 2-10 record.
What was Ohio State’s most challenging regular-season game from two years ago quickly became a snoozefest in Bloomington last year. Still, there is hope that the Hoosiers could rebound this fall and become more like the 2020 iteration of Indiana rather than the misfire that occurred last season.
Michael Penix Jr. transferred to Washington in the offseason, so Indiana will turn to Missouri transfer Connor Bazelak to head its offense in 2022. Bazelak was the Tigers’ starter for two seasons, completing 66.2 percent of passes for 4,914 yards, 23 touchdowns and 17 interceptions before his transfer to Indiana.
The Hoosiers’ receiving corps will be without tight end Peyton Hendershot and wideout Ty Fryfogle this season, which means senior wide receiver D.J. Matthews and junior tight end AJ Barner will be counted on to step into more featured roles. Indiana also lost its top three tailbacks from last season and will turn to Auburn transfer Shaun Shivers and several young players to take over the running game.
Leading tackler Micah McFadden departed in the offseason, but the Hoosiers are expected to improve on the defensive end after allowing a conference-worst 33.3 points per game in 2021. The Hoosiers return seven defensive starters in 2022, including junior cornerback Tiawan Mullen, who had an injury-shortened 2021. Jaylin Williams will play opposite Mullen while safety Devon Matthews is set to provide coverage over the top.
at Maryland, Nov. 19
Mike Locksley led the Terrapins to their first bowl win in 11 years last season when they beat Virginia Tech 54-10 in the Pinstripe Bowl. However, it wasn’t exactly the year Maryland had hoped for after an impressive start.
Maryland was firing on all cylinders until a fateful Friday night in Iowa City when the Hawkeyes put a brutal 51-14 beatdown on the Terrapins. The following week, Ohio State sent Locksley’s squad into a nose dive, demolishing Maryland 66-17 in Columbus.
Still, Maryland has shown it can be dangerous with Taulia Tagovailoa leading the offense. Tagovailoa is entering his third season as Maryland’s starting quarterback and will have nine returning starters to work around.
The Terrapins return their entire starting offensive line from a year ago and bring back two future NFL wide receivers, Rakim Jarrett and Dontay Demus, while adding talented Florida transfer Jacob Copeland to the receiving corps. Sophomore Colby McDonald looks poised to take over at running back for the departing Tayon Fleet-Davis.
No matter how talented the offense is, Maryland won’t go far without an improved defense. The Terrapins will have to do that without their top two tacklers from a season ago, Jordan Mosley and Nick Cross. Senior cornerback Jakorian Bennett should step up as the defense’s leader after a 2021 campaign where he collected 12 pass-breakups and three interceptions. Locksley will need him to be stellar, as his team allowed 403.5 yards and 30.7 points per game last season, ranking 12th and 13th in the conference in those categories.
When Ohio State takes on Maryland at this point in the season, the Buckeyes will know if they have a contender or a pretender in the Terrapins. It will be necessary, though, that Day and his players not look past their 11th opponent on toward Michigan. If the eyes gaze too far, Locksley and Tagovailoa could make them pay for their lack of discipline.
Michigan, Nov. 26
Jim Harbaugh accomplished something in 2021 that he had not yet done during his tenure: He beat Ohio State. The Wolverines also won the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time and made their first trip to the College Football Playoff before falling to Georgia in the semifinal, and they’re looking to be one of the top four teams again this fall.
Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy are expected to operate in a two-quarterback system in 2022. They will have their top five receivers from a season ago and add star wideout Ronnie Bell to the mix after he missed nearly all last season with a torn ACL.
Running back Hassan Haskins departed for the NFL, but junior Blake Corum will step into the spotlight after a tremendous 2021 season as the No. 2 running back in Ann Arbor. He rushed for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns behind an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award, an honor given to the best offensive line unit in the country. Three of those starters are back in 2022, while Rimington Trophy finalist Olusegun Oluwatimi arrives as a transfer from Virginia.
Although the offense remains primarily intact, the Wolverines’ defense suffered some significant turnover this offseason, including the departures of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who combined for 25 of Michigan’s 34 sacks last season. With only four returning starters, there will be a steep learning curve for those who jump to the first team. Still, expect Harbaugh to have his players ready for that challenge.
When Michigan comes to Ohio Stadium on Nov. 26, it will be the biggest game on Ohio State’s campus in a long time. The Buckeyes have everything riding on this matchup after an unexpected defeat in Ann Arbor last season. While Day might not “hang 100 on ‘em,” his team will be highly motivated to avenge a loss that’s been plastered over the Woody Hayes Athletic Center since Nov. 27, 2021.