In 2014, Ohio State went to Michigan State in early November and came home with a 49-37 road win. After a tough trip to Minnesota, the Buckeyes got a breather with Indiana at home before hosting rival Michigan.
That was the springboard to wins over Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon in the postseason, and the school’s first football national championship since the 2002 season.
Just a year later, returning most of its starters on both sides of the ball, Ohio State failed to reach the College Football Playoff, or even the Big Ten Championship Game. The conference back-loaded the Buckeyes’ schedule in 2015, putting the season’s presumed two toughest opponents — Michigan State and Michigan — back-to-back at the end of November.
Ohio State fell 17-14 to Michigan State and so a one-loss Ohio State team ended on the outside of the College Football Playoff, looking in. Other teams, with worse-looking single losses on their resume, made it in. By facing Michigan State and Michigan at the end of the year, Ohio State was in a position to have to face its two toughest division opponents in the stretch run, where two victories would have led to a game against Iowa in Indianapolis, followed by (potentially) two games against top four teams.
It would have made for one of the more difficult runs to a college football title title in recent memory.
The last time Ohio State played Michigan and Michigan State back-to-back it also didn't go well. The Buckeyes beat Michigan in 2013 to reach the B1G title game, but then lost to Sparty in Lucas Oil Stadium, 34-24. Prior to 2013, at least according to the OSU Media Guide, the Buckeyes had never played the Spartans and Wolverines in consecutive weeks.
The same scenario awaits a much less championship-ready Ohio State team in 2016. The Buckeyes will travel to East Lansing Nov. 19 for a showdown with the Spartans, before hosting the rival Wolverines a week later. This is on top of a tougher regular season that sees Ohio State travel to Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Penn State, with the latter two in back-to-back weeks.
|Year||Final Five Games|
|2016||vs. Northwestern; vs. Nebraska; at Maryland; at Michigan State; vs. Michigan|
|2017||vs. Penn State; at Iowa; vs. Michigan State; vs. Illinois; at Michigan|
|2018||at Purdue; vs. Nebraska; at Michigan State; at Maryland; vs. Michigan|
|2019||vs. Wisconsin; vs. Maryland; at Rutgers; vs. Penn State; at Michigan|
Again, the odds are stacked against Ohio State. Should this year’s young team come together and play well enough to have a shot at the postseason, the grind will end with consecutive games against the Michigan schools, with a conference championship and two playoff games between the Buckeyes and a natty.
This is a tall ask even for a veteran team.
The schedule must be played, and all teams have their own quirks on the season’s slate of games, but the way the 2016 campaign shapes up, it’s not just a challenge for Ohio State. It’s a challenge for the Big Ten. Ohio State’s 2014 national championship, coupled with other high-profile wins by the conference during the bowl season, pushed the B1G back into the national spotlight.
All of that goodwill was undone in a single season, with Michigan State getting curb stomped by Alabama and Iowa’s lopsided loss to Stanford.
The conference respects the season-ending Ohio State-Michigan rivalry enough to leave it as is (for now). Spreading out the other key games in the B1G East would seem to be in the conference’s best interest. Still, the schedule is what the schedule is, and it was Ohio State’s responsibility to win its games in 2015 and represent the B1G. By failing to mount anything resembling a competent offense against Michigan State, the Buckeyes fell short of that.
So, how do they move forward?
First, for all the “we-don’t-rebuild-we-reload” rhetoric we hear year after year, it’s probably unrealistic to think that an Ohio State team with so many new starters can run the season-ending gauntlet that awaits in 2016. Even if Ohio State does win both, will it have done enough with the rest of the schedule to represent the East Division in the B1G title game? It’s possible, but it seems a loss or two are likely.
Looking ahead, Ohio State gets to split up the Michigan schools in 2017, but that doesn’t mean the end-of-season schedule is more manageable. The two Mitten State teams are split only by one additional week, with a home date against Illinois dropping in between a home game against Sparty on Nov. 11 and a trip to Ann Arbor on Nov. 25. To complicate matters, the MSU game is preceded by a trip to Nebraska, a home game against Penn State and a trip to Iowa.
Assuming the Illini continue to be a bottom feeder in the division, which is never a safe bet in college football, that still sets up to be one of the tougher six-game, season-ending stretches in quite some time. If you tack on a conference championship game and College Football Playoff game(s), I’d be hard pressed to tell you a tougher-looking stretch of eight or nine games in the modern era.
In 2018, a trip to East Lansing and a home date against the Wolverines are split only by one opponent in between again, with a trip to Maryland serving as the buffer this time. The overall end of the season looks a bit easier, despite the Cornhuskers visiting Columbus a week before the Sparty game.
It isn’t until 2019 that the Michigan schools are separated by more than a week. The Wolverines retain their customary spot at the end of the regular season. Moving into the pre-Michigan slot is Penn State at home before the trip to Ann Arbor. Depending on what direction the Nittany Lions go in between now and then, it could be just as daunting as facing Sparty the week before.
But the schedule in 2019 ahead of the final games sets up a bit nicer. A trip to Rutgers and a home game against Maryland precede the Penn State game. Michigan State will come to Columbus on Oct. 5, sandwiched between road games at Nebraska and Northwestern. The third cross-divisional opponent is Wisconsin at home on Oct. 26. The 2019 season will be more typical of what we’re used to in terms of balance, which will be a welcome change after four years of somewhat back-loaded conference schedules.
The Big Ten may not be doing itself, or Ohio State, many favors over this stretch, but these things are cyclical. The way the Buckeyes have recruited and played since Urban Meyer arrived, it could all turn out to be unimportant anyway.