As is usually the case for Ohio State, especially since Urban Meyer took over the program, the Buckeyes are among the preseason favorites to win this year’s national championship.
Even though they are replacing the winningest quarterback in school history, as well as several other key leaders and playmakers from the 2017 season, many people – especially Buckeyes fans – believe Ohio State will be better this season, with Dwayne Haskins adding more downfield passing ability at quarterback, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber providing a two-headed monster at running back and star defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones leading the way on the other side of the ball.
That said, the Buckeyes are going to face plenty of competition along the way. Winning their division will be a challenge enough, as the Big Ten East includes four teams that could reasonably enter the College Football Playoff picture. If they win the Big Ten East, a likely conference championship bout with Wisconsin could also mean facing one of the top teams in the country. And if the Buckeyes overcome all of that to win their conference and make the playoff, there are at least a few teams from other conferences that also stand out as major national championship contenders.
The steps necessary to win a championship are clear: the Buckeyes cannot lose more than one regular-season game, and they must win their division, to ensure they have a chance to win a Big Ten title and if they win that, compete for a national title. The potential bumps in the road aren’t as predictable; after all, I didn’t even include Iowa on this list last year (though perhaps I should have), and it ended up being the Hawkeyes who crushed the Buckeyes’ national championship hopes by handing them their second loss of the year.
Nonetheless, we can forecast 10 teams are the most likely to stand in Ohio State’s way of hoisting both the Stagg Championship Trophy as conference kings and the National Championship Trophy at the end of the 2018 season.
No, Purdue isn’t a real threat to win the Big Ten championship or contend for a national title this year, but the Boilermakers have proven to be a threat to beat the Buckeyes in West Lafayette, where the two teams will meet on Oct. 20. And that’s why, like Iowa last year, Purdue should not be written off as a potential spoiler to Ohio State’s championship hopes.
Although Purdue’s roster isn’t nearly as talented as Ohio State’s, the Boilermakers are a team that appear to be on the rise under second-year coach Jeff Brohm. They have enough weapons to be dangerous on the offensive side of the ball, and the Buckeyes will be playing their eighth straight game before their bye week – potentially leaving them primed for a letdown.
If Ohio State plays up to its ability in West Lafayette, Purdue should pose no real threat at all to its title aspirations. But considering what happened at Iowa last year, and the Buckeyes’ also-surprising loss at Penn State in 2016 (costing a chance at a Big Ten title that year), the prospect of a potential championship season being derailed by a game the Buckeyes will be fully expected to win cannot be discounted.
Ohio State suffered its first loss of last season in a non-conference game against a Big 12 opponent (Oklahoma) in September, and the same could very well happen against this season. The Buckeyes should face a real test when they travel to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to play TCU – the best defensive team in the Big 12 – in a neutral-site game that is really in the Horned Frogs’ backyard on Sept. 15.
TCU isn’t expected to be the playoff-caliber team that Oklahoma was last season; Shawn Robinson isn’t Baker Mayfield, and while Oklahoma’s 2017 offensive line was one of his biggest strengths, TCU’s 2018 offensive line is expected to be one of its biggest weaknesses. If Ohio State’s offense can execute and avoid turnovers and its defensive line can play up to its massive potential, the Buckeyes should be able to beat the Horned Frogs.
The bigger reason why TCU isn’t higher on this list, however, is that a loss to the Horned Frogs wouldn’t really derail any of the Buckeyes’ championship hopes. While the loss to Oklahoma last season ultimately contributing to Ohio State missing the CFP, the Buckeyes still would have made the playoff if they had beaten Iowa and won out. If the Buckeyes lose to the Horned Frogs this season, they can still make the playoff if they win the rest of their regular season games – but they’d certainly rather not use their mulligan in September.
Assuming the Buckeyes do make the College Football Playoff, one of the teams they would most likely to meet there are the Washington Huskies, who are widely projected as the favorite to win the Pac-12 this year.
If the Buckeyes were scheduled to play a game against the Huskies right now, Ohio State would presumably be favored. The Buckeyes have more overall talent than the Huskies, who are coming off an underwhelming 10-3 season last year, when they were also expected to be a playoff contender.
That said, the Huskies return one of the best and most experienced quarterback/running back tandems in the country in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin, as well as nine starters on a defense that fifth ranked in the FBS in points allowed per game (16.1) last season. So the Huskies shouldn’t be slept on as a team that can make the final four, and if they can get there, anything can happen.
Georgia is another team that Ohio State wouldn’t play until the College Football Playoff, but is talented enough to derail the Buckeyes’ championship hopes if they get there.
Coming off a run to the national championship game last season, the Bulldogs return a rising star at quarterback in Jake Fromm and have plenty of weapons to line up around him. Even with the departures of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the Bulldogs are loaded with running back talent in D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Zamir White. Wide receivers Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley and tight end Isaac Nauta give Fromm a great group of pass-catchers to work with.
The Bulldogs’ defense could take a step back after losing some key players from last season, including first-round pick linebacker Roquan Smith, but they still appear to be more than talented enough on that side of the ball to contend for conference and national titles.
6. Michigan State
No team has been a bigger thorn in the side of Ohio State’s championship hopes in the Meyer era than Michigan State. The Spartans kept the Buckeyes out of the BCS Championship Game in 2013 by defeating them in that year’s Big Ten Championship Game. The Spartans kept the Buckeyes out of both the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff in 2015 by handing them a loss in their second-to-last game of that year’s regular season.
As such, Michigan State can never be ruled out as a team that could prevent Ohio State from winning a title – especially considering that this year’s Spartans return 19 starters and will host the Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium on Nov. 10.
Still, the Buckeyes should be favored to win that game, as the Spartans – who lost 48-3 at Ohio Stadium last year – are more experienced but not more talented. Home-field advantage hasn’t been a huge factor between the Buckeyes and the Spartans, as Ohio State has won its last six games in East Lansing, dating back to 1999. Another November loss to Michigan State, though, could certainly be crippling once again.
5. Penn State
Ohio State’s last trip to Penn State kept the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship Game in 2016. In 2014, the Buckeyes needed double overtime to beat the Nittany Lions in a game that would have ended Ohio State’s chances of winning the national championship it ultimately won that season. And last year, it took a 19-point fourth-quarter comeback for Ohio State to beat Penn State in Ohio Stadium in a game that once again played a decisive role in the Big Ten East.
Given all of that, Ohio State’s trip to Beaver Stadium to play the Nittany Lions on the road on Sept. 29 certainly stands out as one of the biggest hurdles to both a conference and national championship season for the Buckeyes. It will be Ohio State’s first true road game of the season, and the Nittany Lions – led by quarterback Trace McSorley – are expected to be contenders in the division once again.
The Nittany Lions are replacing superstar running back Saquon Barkley as well as six out of seven starters from the back seven of their defense, which is why Penn State is a bit lower on the list this year than it was last year. But even though the Nittany Lions don’t appear quite as likely to be playoff contenders this year as they were the past two years, they still have enough talent to potentially trip up the Buckeyes in front of what will surely be a raucous home crowd.
While Ohio State defeated Wisconsin to win the Big Ten Championship Game last year, it didn’t come without a fight, as the Badgers trailed by just six and had a chance to mount a game-winning drive before Damon Webb finally sealed a Buckeye victory with an interception with just 1:09 left to play.
Winning the Big Ten East usually means a bout with the Badgers in Indianapolis – Wisconsin has won three of four Big Ten West titles since the conference’s divisions became geographic – and this year’s Badgers are expected to be Paul Chryst’s best team yet, perhaps even national championship contenders.
Jonathan Taylor is a potential Heisman candidate at running back, the Badgers’ typically great offensive line returns all five starters and Alex Hornibrook gives them experience at quarterback. They aren’t as experienced on defense, but return a few stars including T.J. Edwards at linebacker and D’Cota Dixon at safety. So even if the Buckeyes win the Big Ten East division, winning the conference championship game will be no easy task.
You probably don’t need me to rehash what happened the last time Ohio State played Clemson, but it suffices to say the Buckeyes’ two postseason matchups against the Tigers in the past five years have not gone well for the scarlet and gray, and should both teams perform up to expectations this year, they could very well meet in the College Football Playoff once again.
Led by a star-studded defensive line that is arguably the best in the country (with Ohio State being the only other team with a real argument) and plenty of playmakers on offense, too, Clemson currently has 6/1 odds to win the national championship (per Vegas Insider), ahead of Ohio State and Georgia for the second-best odds in the country.
Who will start at quarterback is the Tigers’ biggest question entering the season, but they have two promising potential answers; Kelly Bryant performed well for most of last season, yet Trevor Lawrence – the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2018 – could beat him out for the job and start as a true freshman. Either way, Clemson will be favored to win the ACC championship and make the playoff for a fourth straight year.
Ohio State fans have reason to be confident about the Buckeyes’ chances of beating Michigan once again this year. The Buckeyes have defeated the Wolverines in each of Meyer’s first six seasons, and this season’s edition of The Game will be played in Ohio Stadium.
There’s also reason, though, to perceive the Wolverines as a real threat this year. Their defense is loaded with future NFL players at all three levels, and could be one of the best in the country this year, and with the addition of Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson at quarterback, their offense should be much better, too.
Given that, there’s a strong possibility that the Big Ten East title – and perhaps playoff hopes for both teams – could be on the line when the two rivals meet in the Shoe on Nov. 24. And if the Wolverines can find a way to turn the tables in their final game of the regular season, it could be a fatal blow to be both Ohio State’s conference and national championship hopes.
Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, all four national champions have either been Alabama or beaten Alabama in a playoff game.
Until that changes, the Crimson Tide will loom as the top team for anyone to beat if it hopes to win a national title.
Alabama is replacing several key starters on both sides of the ball, but Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide have proven capable of reloading year in and year out. They’re still as talented as any team in the country; national championship hero Tua Tagovailoa returns at quarterback, defensive end Raekwon Davis is a returning star on defense and the roster is loaded with top recruits who should be ready to play bigger roles.
As such, the Crimson Tide are heavy oddsmakers’ favorites to win the national championship (12/5, per Vegas Insider), and like they did in 2014, the Buckeyes will likely need to beat Alabama in a playoff game if they are to win the national title again.