The start of Ohio State’s 2019 football season is officially three months away.
Depending on your perspective, that might mean the start of the season is starting to come into view, or it might mean that there’s still three long months to go until the Buckeyes return to Ohio Stadium for their season opener against Florida Atlantic.
Regardless, the offseason is far enough along at this point that we can look ahead to the regular-season games that the Buckeyes will play this fall and make an educated guess on what each of these games could mean in the grand scheme of the season. We also now know the kickoff times for six of those 12 games, as Ohio State (in tandem with ESPN and FOX) announced game times and television networks for half of its regular-season contests on Thursday.
We won’t know the rest of the kickoff times until the season actually begins, and we can only speculate which games will present the toughest tests and/or carry the greatest implications this year. There are many built-in storylines within this year’s games, though, that we can already count on being topics of discussion when each game week hits.
As such, it’s time to take a look at one to three storylines that are likely to surround each Ohio State game and could be reasons for fans to take a particular interest in each game, starting with the first game against the Owls at noon on Aug. 31 and concluding with the always-anticipated regular-season finale against Michigan on Nov. 30.
Florida Atlantic, Aug. 31, Ohio Stadium, Noon (Fox)
Day’s debut as permanent head coach
Ryan Day was Ohio State’s acting head coach for the first three games of last season while Urban Meyer was suspended, but this will be Day’s first game ever as the permanent head coach of a football team, and that will be the biggest storyline entering the season. The season opener shouldn’t be present too tough a test for the Buckeyes and their new coaching staff, but it will be the beginning of a new era for Ohio State football, which follows an illustrious seven-year run under Meyer’s leadership.
Kiffin comes to Columbus
The head coach on the other sideline will be a storyline entering this game, too, as Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin is one of the biggest personalities among college football coaches. He’s never been one to back down from the spotlight, so don’t expect Kiffin to come into this game quietly. His team will likely be overmatched, but he’ll encourage them to believe they can win.
Brand new quarterback depth chart
Day’s debut, of course, won’t be the only highly anticipated debut in Ohio State’s season opener; it’s also set to be Justin Fields’ first game as a Buckeye. After an uneven spring game, Ohio State fans will surely be anxious to see Fields in action in a real game against a real opponent with the Buckeyes’ full first-team offense around him. It’s likely that fellow transfer quarterback Gunnar Hoak will make his debut as a Buckeye in this game, too, especially if Ohio State can build a commanding lead early.
Cincinnati, Sept. 7, Ohio Stadium, Noon (ABC)
Fickell (and others) return to Ohio State
In his third year as Cincinnati’s head coach, former Ohio State player and assistant coach (and for one year, interim head coach) Luke Fickell will make his return to Ohio Stadium for both teams’ second game of the season. The Buckeyes’ roster still includes some players who were on the team when Fickell last coached at Ohio State in 2016, and he should receive a warm welcome back from Buckeye Nation, having left the program on good terms.
Fickell won’t be the only former Buckeye making the trip back to Ohio Stadium with the Bearcats, either. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is also a former Buckeye star. Former Ohio State wide receivers L’Christian “Blue” Smith and Garyn Prater both announced transfers to the Bearcats this spring (though Smith will need a waiver for immediate eligibility from the NCAA to be eligible to play in this game).
A quietly dangerous game
Ohio State doesn’t have any marquee non-conference opponents this year, but this isn’t a game that should simply be written off as an easy win. Cincinnati went 11-2 last season, and the Bearcats return some of their best players from 2018, including quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren II. If the Buckeyes aren’t firing on all cylinders in this game, the Bearcats are capable of making this game competitive and giving Ohio State a scare, so this will be a solid early test of where the Buckeyes are at.
Indiana, Sept. 14, Memorial Stadium, Noon (FOX)
First Big Ten game of the year
The stakes will increase for Ohio State’s third game of the season, as the Buckeyes will begin conference play at Indiana. The Hoosiers aren’t expected to be a major contender in the Big Ten East, but that hasn’t stopped them from playing the Buckeyes tough in recent years. They held a halftime lead when they hosted Ohio State in their season opener in 2017 before losing 49-21, and had a second-quarter lead before suffering a 49-26 loss at Ohio State last season.
Day’s first true road game
Day took Ohio State to Dallas to play TCU in his third and final game as acting head coach last year, but that was technically a neutral-site game, and Ohio State had more fans than TCU at AT&T Stadium despite the proximity to TCU’s campus. This game, therefore, will be Day’s first true road game as a head coach – though at Indiana, it’s likely that Hoosiers fans will be outnumbered by Buckeyes fans, too.
Miami (Ohio), Sept. 21, Ohio Stadium, TBA
Time for young players, other backups to shine
OK, I’m not going to pretend that this game presents an intriguing matchup. Ohio State is more talented than Miami University at every position on the field, and unless the Buckeyes totally sleepwalk through this game, it should quickly become a rout. What will make this game intriguing for diehard Ohio State fans, though, is it could be the biggest opportunity of the season to see the Buckeyes’ backups in action, giving a glimpse into the young players who could play bigger roles for Ohio State in the future or potentially even give some of them the opportunity to prove they deserve playing time in more competitive games.
Nebraska, Sept. 28, Memorial Stadium, TBA
Two highly touted young coaches
While Day is the hot new coach in the Big Ten this year, Frost was the same at this time last year. Even after Nebraska went just 4-8 last season, losing its first six games, Frost hasn’t lost his shine. Now that he has a year under his belt, Nebraska is projected by many to be the Big Ten’s breakout team this year, and understandably so – in Frost’s previous job at UCF, he took the Knights from 0-12 to 13-0 in just two seasons. After receiving a pass for his first year, though, Frost will be expected to deliver some big wins in 2019 – a win over Ohio State would surely qualify – to maintain the hype.
The Big Ten’s two most talented QBs?
Justin Fields isn’t the only potential breakout Heisman candidate in the Big Ten this year. Adrian Martinez, who was also recruited by Ohio State, had an impressive true freshman season for Nebraska last year – showing his ability to make plays as both a thrower and runner – and enters the season as a very real candidate to be the Big Ten’s best quarterback this season. The opportunity to watch Fields and Martinez, both true sophomores, go toe-to-toe will be a highly anticipated feature of this game.
Ohio State’s first big test
Ohio State has lost a regular-season game to a Big Ten West opponent in back-to-back seasons, and if Nebraska can get into a groove early in the season, the Cornhuskers are capable of extending that streak to three years. Martinez and Nebraska’s offense should present the toughest September test for Ohio State’s defense, which has a nearly brand new coaching staff and is looking to bounce back from a rough 2018 season, and it will be the first big road test – with the potential to be a primetime game – of Day’s young head coaching career.
If Nebraska starts the season strong, this might not even qualify as a “trap game” for Ohio State, but simply a matchup of two of the Big Ten’s best teams. That could be a good thing for the Buckeyes, but doesn’t change the fact that this game could be a real threat.
Michigan State, Oct. 5, Ohio Stadium, 7:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN)
First Ohio Stadium night game in two years
Ohio State didn’t get the opportunity to host a home night game last year, but Thursday’s release of game times ensured that will not be the case in 2019. The Buckeyes will play the Spartans under the lights, ensuring an electric atmosphere in the Shoe; if Nike follows its script from previous years, there’s a good chance this will be an alternate uniform game for the Buckeyes, too. That will make this one of the most anticipated games of the year for many Ohio State fans who plan on attending this game.
First major Big Ten East matchup
While Indiana will be Ohio State’s first interdivisional opponent of the year, Michigan State will be the first one that looms as a real that to actually win the division. The Spartans won’t enter the year as a frontrunner to win the Big Ten East, but Mark Dantonio typically has them in contention, and they have enough returning talent – at least on defense – to make a run. They probably have to win this game to have a shot, but that means the Buckeyes should expect their best shot and yet another tough game from the Spartans, who have won two of their last three trips to Columbus.
Northwestern, Oct. 18, Ryan Field, 8:30 p.m. (FS1)
The trap game?
If you’re looking for this year’s edition of Iowa or Purdue on Ohio State’s schedule, this might be the opponent that best fits the formula. The Wildcats are projected to be a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team – like Purdue was last year and Iowa was two years ago, when both earned blowout wins over the Buckeyes in their home stadiums – and could be just dangerous enough, especially with new quarterback Hunter Johnson, to trip up the Buckeyes if they don’t bring their A-game to Evanston.
One key difference: The Buckeyes will have a bye week before this game, so they’ll have more time to focus specifically on this game to ensure they don’t overlook it, though Northwestern will also be coming off a bye week.
Messing with tradition
Advocates of high school football have been outspoken against the Big Ten’s move to start playing Friday night games, and that conversation will certainly come up again as Ohio State prepares to play in one of those games for the first time. Many Ohio State fans will be forced to make the choice between watching the Buckeyes or attending their local high school football game, and some could choose not to watch the game in protest – or at least claim they will. This storyline is irrelevant to the game itself, but it’s a topic enough people feel passionate about that it will be discussed.
Wisconsin, Oct. 26, Ohio Stadium, TBA
A history of close games
Ohio State has played Wisconsin six times since 2011, and with the exception of the 59-0 bloodbath in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, every other matchup has been decided by seven points or less. It’s unclear whether the Badgers will be the typical Big Ten West frontrunner this year that they have been in most recent seasons; they lost some of their best players from last year and could have a true freshman starting quarterback in Graham Mertz. History would suggest, though, that this game between the Buckeyes and Badgers in late October will be a competitive one.
J.K. Dobbins vs. Jonathan Taylor
This game should be a showcase of the Big Ten’s two best running backs, a pair of juniors who could both also potentially be entering their final college football seasons. Taylor has been the Big Ten’s leading rusher for the past two seasons – he was the leading rusher in all of college football last season – but Dobbins will look to challenge him, though he still probably won’t get nearly as many carries, now that Mike Weber is in the NFL.
Maryland, Nov. 9, Ohio Stadium, TBA
Matt Barnes vs. his former team
Ohio State’s new special teams coordinator and secondary coach will be quite familiar with Ohio State’s ninth opponent of the season, as he spent the last three seasons at Maryland as the Terrapins’ linebackers coach and special teams coordinator. This won’t be the most anticipated reunion between a new Ohio State assistant coach and his former team (more to come on that), but it will be a storyline leading up to the game, nonetheless.
Keandre Jones returns to Ohio Stadium
Jones is still waiting to find out whether he will receive a waiver from the NCAA for immediate eligibility this season, but if he does, the former Ohio State linebacker will be back at Ohio Stadium and playing for Maryland in this game, likely as a starter on the Terrapins’ defense. Jones never started a game in three seasons with the Buckeyes, and likely still would have been a backup on their deep linebacker depth chart this year, but he has the potential to be an impact player for his home-state team.
Don’t sleep on the Terps
As bad as last year’s loss at Purdue was, a loss to Maryland – which came very dangerously close to happening last season – would have been even worse. In a road game that came just one week before the Buckeyes hosted Michigan, they clearly weren’t as prepared as they needed to be and needed overtime to beat the Terrapins, 52-51.
A home game followed by a game against Rutgers won’t be quite the same this year, especially if Ohio State’s defense is better, but the Buckeyes will certainly be reminded of what happened last year to make sure they don’t overlook what could be a quietly dangerous Maryland team led by new head coach Mike Locksley, graduate transfer quarterback Josh Jackson and returning running back Anthony McFarland.
Rutgers, Nov. 16, High Point Solutions Stadium, TBA
Jonah Jackson returns to Rutgers
After starting on Rutgers’ offensive line for the past two seasons, Jackson will likely be starting on the Buckeyes’ offensive line after joining Ohio State for his final season of college football as a graduate transfer. After spending the past four years in Piscataway, this game will surely mean a little something extra to Jackson, and will be his first opportunity to get a win in this annual Big Ten East matchup.
Last chance to clear the bench
Ohio State has won each of its first five matchups with Rutgers by at least 39 points, and this year’s game isn’t likely to be much closer. There’s still an enormous gap between the Buckeyes and the Scarlet Knights, and Ohio State should be able to win handily once again. That makes this game the likely final opportunity for the Buckeyes to get some of their reserves extended playing time, as their final two games of the regular season will be major tests.
Penn State, Nov. 23, Ohio Stadium, TBA
Final home game for many Buckeyes
Ohio State has 19 seniors on scholarship for the 2019 season, so this year’s final home game will include plenty of Senior Day honorees. Per usual, the Buckeyes will also have several non-seniors who opt to declare for the 2020 NFL draft and will go into this game knowing it is likely their final game at Ohio Stadium, including Dobbins and star defensive end Chase Young. This will be one of the Buckeyes’ biggest games of the season, but also a day of celebration.
Another thriller on tap?
Ohio State’s last three games with Penn State have all been riveting football games. After the Nittany Lions pulled off a shocking upset over the Buckeyes in 2016, Ohio State has stolen victory from the throes of defeat with fourth-quarter comebacks in each of the past two seasons. Regardless of how these teams stack up with one another on paper this year, this matchup will present the potential for fireworks and suspense, and the recent history will be fresh on everyone’s minds.
Battle for the Big Ten East?
The games between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions haven’t just been thrilling in the moment for the past three years, they’ve also decided which team ultimately went on to win the Big Ten. Ohio State’s final game of the regular season will be circled as the one that will likely decide this year’s Big Ten East champion, but depending on the season shakes out, it’s very possible the Buckeyes’ penultimate game of the regular season could have division championship implications for both teams, too.
Michigan, Nov. 30, Michigan Stadium, Noon (FOX)
Assistant coaches across enemy lines
As if there wasn’t already enough bad blood between Ohio State and Michigan, even more fuel has been added to the rivalry’s fire this year after two coaches from Jim Harbaugh’s staff – Greg Mattison and Al Washington – defected to become members of Ryan Day’s staff at Ohio State. Mattison’s move across rivalry lines has particularly drawn ire from Michigan players and fans, as he had spent the past eight years with the Wolverines, and it will likely serve as added motivation for the Wolverines leading up to this year’s game.
The movement across enemy lines goes both ways, though, as Ed Warinner is entering his second season as Michigan’s offensive line coach after his tenure as an Ohio State assistant coach ended unceremoniously in 2016. It’s not as if the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry needed any more kindling, but thanks to Mattison, Washington and Warinner, it has it.
Potential playoff implications
A lot needs to go right in the first 11 games for Ohio State or Michigan to make this year’s College Football Playoff, but this game certainly carries the potential once again to not only a play-in game to the Big Ten Championship Game, but also potentially propel a team into the CFP. Most preseason top-25 lists project that both the Buckeyes and Wolverines will be top-10 teams this year, and if they can live up to the hype, this game could have a significant impact on the playoff conversation once again.
Can Day pick up where Meyer left off?
Of everything that Meyer accomplished in his seven-year tenure as Ohio State’s coach, his 7-0 record against Michigan stands out as perhaps his defining achievement. That’s how big The Game is at Ohio State, and fair or not, that’s the standard Day will be judged up against.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, is 0-4 against the Buckeyes as Michigan’s head coach, which stands out as the black mark on his record. Meyer’s departure has opened up what many Michigan fans see as a window of opportunity for Harbaugh to turn the tables. It will be up to Day – and as important as anything else he will be expected to achieve in his first season as Ohio State’s head coach – to ensure that doesn’t happen and continue the Buckeyes’ winning streak against the team up north.