As is often the case at this time of the year, expectations for Ohio State’s upcoming football season are sky-high.
With a roster that is loaded with talent on both sides of the fall, there is plenty of optimism among Buckeyes fans that Ohio State could run the table and/or make a national championship run this year.
In order to make that happen, though, the Buckeyes will have no shortage of challenges to overcome along the way.
Between clashes with three other contenders in the Big Ten East as well as a couple other opponents who could put the Buckeyes to the test, the following five games are those that will likely make or break Ohio State’s 2018 regular season.
TCU, Sept. 15
As I wrote about in more detail on Friday, TCU is Ohio State’s first marquee opponent of the season. The only non-conference foe that should present any serious threat to the Buckeyes, TCU will be looking to follow in the footsteps of its Big 12 brethren, Oklahoma, who earned a September upset over Ohio State last season.
On paper, Ohio State is more talented than TCU, which isn’t as talented as the Oklahoma team that beat the Buckeyes last year, either. Still, the Horned Frogs have enough talent on both sides of the ball to contend, and although the Sept. 15 game is technically a neutral-site game, it’s basically in TCU’s backyard (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas).
Offensively, new TCU starting quarterback Shawn Robinson will be surrounded by a talented group of weapons, led by Darius Anderson and Sewi Onilula at running back and Jalen Reagor and KaVontae Turpin at wide receiver. Defensively, the Horned Frogs have quality starters returning at all three levels, led by defensive end Ben Banogu, who earned first-team All-Big 12 honors last year.
TCU’s inexperienced offensive line could be overmatched by Ohio State’s ultra-talented defensive line, which could make the difference in the game. But the Buckeyes, in their first real test of the post-J.T. Barrett era, will need to be at their best if they are to come back from Dallas with a win.
Penn State, Sept. 29
There’s no question that a trip to Beaver Stadium, where the Buckeyes suffered a 24-21 loss in 2016 and needed two overtimes to beat Penn State in 2014, looms as a game that could make or break Ohio State’s 2018 season.
Ohio State’s annual game against Penn State has been the decisive game in the Big Ten East for each of the past two seasons, and it very well could be again this season. With Trace McSorley back as one of the nation’s most accomplished quarterbacks, the Nittany Lions are positioned to challenge for the conference title once again.
The Nittany Lions are replacing Saquon Barkley, their star running back from last season, and substantial talent on defense, including all four of last season’s starting defensive backs. But the Nittany Lions have recruited well enough over the past few years that they still have plenty of talent on both side of the ball, and they’ve given the Buckeyes major problems in their home stadium even when they’ve been the less talented team in recent years.
Penn State’s defense will likely take a step back this season, and its offense and return game probably won’t be as explosive without Barkley. But the Buckeyes will still need to be on their A-game when they make their biennial trip to State College.
Purdue, Oct. 20
If we learned anything from Ohio State’s losses to Penn State two years ago and to Iowa last year, it’s that the most dangerous game on the schedule might actually be one that the Buckeyes will be heavily projected to win.
While the trip to Iowa was a somewhat predictable "trap game" going into last season, especially since it immediately followed the Buckeyes’ highly anticipated rematch with Penn State, there’s no obvious trap game going into this season. The game that history suggests could be dangerous, though, is the Buckeyes’ trip to West Lafayette in late October.
Although Ohio State typically has a clear talent advantage over the Boilermakers, and will again in 2018, the Buckeyes have had problems in West Lafayette in the past, losing three of their last five games there dating back to 2004.
The Boilermakers made enough strides in year one under Jeff Brohm, earning their first winning record since 2011 while showing a more explosive offense, to emerge as a dangerous team if they can continue those strides this season. And the Buckeyes’ trip to Purdue will be their eighth straight game to begin the season without a week off – while it will be just the Boilermakers’ second game after their bye week – which could make fatigue a factor.
One other popular choice for a trap game could be the Buckeyes’ Nov. 4 tilt against Nebraska, with new coach Scott Frost injecting new life into the program and its fanbase. But while Frost’s bunch likely will win a game or two that it shouldn’t this season, it would be a big surprise if the Buckeyes lost to the Cornhuskers – who they defeated 56-14 in Lincoln last year – on their home field with an extra week of preparation.
Michigan State, Nov. 10
Still the only Big Ten team that has beaten Ohio State twice since Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus, Michigan State has already spoiled two undefeated and potential championship seasons for Meyer’s Buckeyes in both 2013 and 2015. So no matter how well the Buckeyes perform in their first nine games of the season, their 10th game of the season in East Lansing will certainly loom as a game to watch.
The good news for the Buckeyes is that they’ve actually performed well in Spartan Stadium – winning all six of their true road games against the Spartans since the turn of the century – and were the clearly superior team last season, when they throttled the Spartans 48-3 in Columbus. That said, the Spartans return the vast majority of their starters from last season, giving them the potential to be significantly better depending on how well those players develop.
Brian Lewerke is among the Big Ten’s top returning starting quarterbacks, and outside of center Brian Allen, nearly his entire offense returns around him. Outside of linebacker Chris Frey, all of the Spartans’ top defensive players – including defensive linemen Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams, linebackers Joe Bachie and Andrew Dowell, cornerback Josiah Scott and safety David Dowell – also return.
Most of those players aren’t the four- and five-star talents that Ohio State’s top players are, but Spartans coach Mark Dantonio has a track record for getting the most out of his talent, and they certainly have a track record of playing the Buckeyes tough. And even if Ohio State enters this game as a playoff frontrunner, history has shown that won’t scare the Spartans, either.
Michigan, Nov. 24
The Game, of course, will be a make-or-break game for the Buckeyes no matter how their first 11 games have gone. Regardless of whether there are playoff or conference implications on the line for either team, Ohio State’s annual clash with Michigan remains a season-defining game for both teams, and a game the Buckeyes will want to win as badly as any other game they play.
Considering that Ohio State has won all six of its games against its rivals since Urban Meyer’s arrival in Columbus, and this year’s game will be played in Ohio Stadium, it’s easy for a Buckeyes fan to feel confident about their chances to get another win over Jim Harbaugh’s squad this season.
That said, Harbaugh might have his most talented team in Ann Arbor yet, led by Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, who has the tools to be a huge upgrade at quarterback. Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black have the potential to be the Big Ten’s top pairing of wide receivers. And the strength of the 2018 Wolverines should be their defense, where they are loaded with stars including defensive ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, linebacker Devin Bush and cornerback Lavert Hill.
Going into his fourth season at Michigan without a signature win to his name, Harbaugh needs to prove he can win the big game in 2018, and there’s no game bigger than The Game. Recent history and home field favor the Buckeyes going into this year’s matchup, but the Wolverines should certainly be motivated to turn the tables, and they just might have enough talent to make it happen.