On paper, Ohio State's 2017 football schedule is not nearly as daunting as the one Urban Meyer and the most inexperienced team in the country navigated to the College Football Playoff a year ago.
The Buckeyes won at Oklahoma and Wisconsin then bested Michigan at home in double overtime to punch their ticket to the Playoff. A close road loss to Penn State in late October kept them out of the Big Ten Championship Game. However, the Nittany Lions must make a trip to Columbus this fall.
We don't yet know the date of the start of training camp but do know when the season kicks off — Aug. 31 in Bloomington, Indiana, against the Indiana Hoosiers. Ohio State's 2017 slate carries intrigue with it and ends with the annual date against the Michigan Wolverines. The Buckeyes also travel to the westernmost point of the Big Ten footprint (Nebraska) as well as the school that sits furthest east (Rutgers).
With that in mind, let's rank the schedule from its least difficult to most based on opponent, location and other factors.
12. At Rutgers — Sept. 30 — High Point Solutions Stadium
Rutgers isn't very good at football. Last season, the Scarlet Knights were outscored by Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State — the four pillars of the Big Ten East — 224-0. Former Ohio State defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash has his work cut out for him moving forward in his first head coaching job.
The only reason this game could provide Ohio State any sort of scare is because it is on the road. Even then, nope. Let's move on.
11. UNLV — Sept. 23 — Ohio Stadium
The Rebels finished 110th in the final S&P rankings for the 2016 season, going 4-8 in the process. Ohio State has never played UNLV before, so there is at least something unique about this matchup. The Buckeyes play host to Tony Sanchez's club a week after facing Army's triple option offense. We all remember what happened the last time Ohio State played the week after it took on a service academy that ran the option.
Even still, UNLV allowed more than 430 yards and almost 37 points per game last season. That's uh, not great. Ohio State should roll.
10. Army — Sept. 16 — Ohio Stadium
Army beat Navy last season for the first time in 15 years. As mentioned above, the Black Knights also run the triple option — something that will give Greg Schiano, Kerry Coombs, Larry Johnson and Bill Davis fits in terms of preparation.
While playing a service academy is awesome in its own right, Ohio State shouldn't have too much problem with Army in Week 3. It's the first time the two schools meet on the gridiron and should end in a relatively convincing victory for the Buckeyes, even if the score doesn't reflect a blowout.
9. Illinois — Nov. 18 — Ohio Stadium
One of two Big Ten crossover games for the Buckeyes — Ohio State visited Wisconsin and hosted Northwestern in 2016 — Illinois had a woeful season in Year 1 under Lovie Smith. The Fighting Illini went 3-9 and dealt with a multitude of injuries. Their only conference wins came against Michigan State and Rutgers, who went a combined 5-19 in 2016.
Smith is doing his best to recruit talent to Champaign in order to get Illinois back to threatening the West. Until that happens, though, the Illini will finish near the bottom of the conference. This matchup is Senior Day for the Buckeyes. Other than that, yawn.
8. Maryland — Oct. 7 — Ohio Stadium
D.J. Durkin led the Terrapins to the Quick Lane Bowl in 2016, which it lost to Boston College 36-30. Durkin must now figure out who is his quarterback after the graduation of Perry Hills.
Ohio State wasted Maryland 62-3 last year in College Park. This fall's matchup closes the east coast expansion part of the schedule for the Buckeyes, as it comes one week after a trip to Rutgers. Maryland should face a similar fate in 2017 as it did against Ohio State a year ago, only in Columbus.
7. At Indiana — Aug. 31 — Memorial Stadium
Indiana isn't higher on this list for one reason: its old head coach is now coordinating Ohio State's offense. Meyer hired Kevin Wilson in January in place of Ed Warinner, who left for Minnesota. Wilson teams up with quarterbacks coach Ryan Day — who stepped in for Tim Beck — as the men charged with leading the offense back to the ways of 2014.
A Thursday night opener on Labor Day weekend will carry with it plenty of hype and is something we all have our eyes on as the offseason trudges along. But the Hoosiers lost their best offensive lineman (Dan Feeney), leading rusher (Devine Redding), second- and third-most productive wide receivers (Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige) and head coach upon completion of the 2016 season.
Quarterback Richard Lagow and star linebacker Tegray Scales are back for Tom Allen, who the Hoosiers promoted from within. This game might be close early but Ohio State should impose its will in the second half and run away with it.
6. Michigan State — Nov. 11 — Ohio Stadium
Sparty would — and frankly, should — be much higher on this list but isn't because of how much crap Mark Dantonio shoveled this winter and spring. Not only did he lose one of his best players, defensive lineman Malik McDowell, to the NFL, and his quarterback, Tyler O'Connor, to graduation, Michigan State is in the midst of multiple police investigations involving players and a staffer.
The Spartans finished sixth in the Big Ten in 2017 recruiting according to 247Sports. They still have running back L.J. Scott but lost three of their four top pass catchers from last season — receiver R.J. Shelton, tight end Josiah Price and receiver Monty Madaris — and must travel to Columbus in November. Ohio State lost to the Spartans the last time that happened, but Dantonio's club looks significantly different than the one that stunned Meyer and the Buckeyes in November 2015.
5. At Nebraska — Oct. 14 — Memorial Stadium
This game is where things get interesting for Ohio State. The Buckeyes haven't traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, since the 2011 season, when Joe Bauserman happened in 2011. The Cornhuskers rallied to a 34-27 victory on the legs of Rex Burkhead after Braxton Miller left with an injury.
Mike Riley must replace Tommy Armstrong at quarterback following a 9-4 season in which Nebraska started 7-0 and finished 46th in the S&P rankings. Everything clicked for the Buckeyes in a 62-3 drubbing of the Cornhuskers at home last season, a game where Armstrong left with an injury. Riley is recruiting well — does Nebraska have enough to pull the upset?
4. At Iowa — Nov. 4 — Kinnick Stadium
A week after hosting Penn State in what will assuredly be a night game, Ohio State boards a plane to visit Iowa City for the first time since 2010. That game — a 20-17 victory for Jim Tressel's Buckeyes — no longer exists in the eyes of the NCAA. It can, however, tell us plenty about what it is like to play at Kinnick Stadium. Especially at night.
Kickoff time has not yet been released for this matchup but it isn't too off base to think it will be another night game. Iowa pulled a massive upset at home and under the lights in 2016, when it upended a previously unbeaten Michigan 14-13 on a game-winning field goal as time expired. The Hawkeyes will be without quarterback C.J. Beathard and 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner Desmond King. Running back Akrum Wadley is back, however.
If the Big Ten and its television partners decide to make this a night game (likely) Ohio State will certainly be on upset alert against the Fighting Ferentzs.
3. Oklahoma — Sept. 9 — Ohio Stadium
It was difficult to slot this contest third considering the opponent and because it is the second game of the season. However, the fact remains that Ohio State gets two extra days to prepare for 2016 Heisman Trophy finalist Baker Mayfield and Co. after opening its season on a Thursday night at Indiana. And, Mayfield lost his three best weapons to the NFL — running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and wide receiver Dede Westbrook, another Heisman finalist.
We called last year's matchup between the two teams in Norman was the most challenging game on paper ahead of the start of the season, being that it was the first road game on the docket and Ohio State was the youngest team in the country. It falls down to No. 3 this year since it is played in Columbus and the Buckeyes return a loaded roster.
As the reigning Big 12 champion and on a 10-game winning streak, Oklahoma will absolutely pose a major challenge for Ohio State. But it also has plenty of holes around Mayfield. Advantage Buckeyes.
2. Penn State — Oct. 28 — Ohio Stadium
It is a pretty safe bet this game is circled on calendars all around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. Penn State spoiled Ohio State's chance at a perfect regular season in 2016 and prevented the Buckeyes from playing in the Big Ten Championship Game with a 24-21 victory in State College.
Penn State entered that game against Ohio State after an off week. The Buckeyes get to return the favor in 2017. After a visit to Nebraska on Oct. 14, the Buckeyes do not play again until James Franklin and the defending Big Ten champs come calling. The Nittany Lions also return pretty much everyone offense, led by quarterback Trace McSorley and 2016 Silver Football winner running back Saquon Barkley.
You can also bet this game will be held under the Ohio Stadium lights, as per recent tradition between the Buckeyes and Nits. Buckle up.
1. At Michigan — Nov. 25 — Michigan Stadium
Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines missed their best chance of recent memory to beat Ohio State last season, with more than 40 seniors on the roster falling short to Curtis Samuel, J.T. Barrett and the Buckeyes in double overtime. Harbaugh has to replace 10 starters on defense but gets to play his archrival at home for the second time in three years.
As it should be, this game will once again help decide Big Ten East supremacy. Wilton Speight returns under center for Michigan but must fend off Brandon Peters and others to keep his job. Rashan Gary is a terror on the defensive line and Harbaugh has recruited well during his first two seasons. How quickly those players develop will determine what kind of a season Michigan has in 2017.
But The Game is always a bear, regardless of record or stage. Harbaugh is 0-2 against Ohio State as Michigan head coach and can ill afford to drop another to Meyer and the Buckeyes. Set to be shown on a different television network than we are used to, expect more of the same as long as Meyer and Harbaugh roam the sidelines.