Last year, I wrote a similar article evaluating Ohio State's 2008 opponents. This year, in a similar vein, I am going to rate Ohio State's upcoming 2009 opponents in terms of strongest or toughest opponents to the weakest opponents. As always, I am eager for comments and discussion.
Category 1: Ohio State will probably be the underdog
1. USC, September 12th, 8pm EST (ESPN): Everyone remembers the shellacking USC applied to Ohio State last season, and the typical Ohio State fan’s mentality is one of “Wait till we get them in Columbus…”. All I can say to that mindset is be careful what you wish for, as this USC team has the talent again to contend for the national championship. Like just about anyone else, Stewart Mandel of SI ranks USC @ Ohio State as the best of the early non-conference games. If Ohio State loses this game, no matter what happens the rest of the season, they are out of the national championship discussion.
2. @ Penn State, November 7th, kickoff TBA: A popular selection to win The Big Ten, Penn State is always a tough place to play, especially with the Penn State fans in vaunted “white-out” mode. This game will not be a night game, as The Big Ten has recently enforced new policies with the networks, but even with a probable 3:30pm EST kickoff, this game will continue long after the sun has set and will have a primetime atmosphere. If this game lives up to its billing, it could determine The Big Ten championship.
Category 2: Ohio State should be favored but the game will potentially go down to the wire
3. Illinois, September 26th, kickoff TBA: I was somewhat surprised that Illinois was not ranked in the top three in the recent Big Ten Kickoff Meetings. While Illinois disappointed last season, I agree with Coach Tressel who stated that Illinois has as much talent as anyone in The Big Ten. The last time Illinois visited Columbus, Ohio State wound up losing in Ohio Stadium. Last season, Illinois was leading Ohio State going into the 4th quarter last season.
4. Iowa, November 14th, kickoff TBA: Despite losing RB Shonn Greene to the NFL, Iowa returns several key players from last year’s team. I agree with Bucknuts.com's Heath Schneider when he writes that Ohio State fans may be overlooking the Hawkeyes. Iowa traditionally gets better under Kirk Ferentz as the season progresses, and this will be one week after Ohio State has traveled to Penn State. Ohio State cannot afford a letdown in this one.
Category 3: Ohio State traditionally struggles with this opponent
5. Wisconsin, October 10th, kickoff TBA: Even though Ohio State has won the last two games, neither game was easily won. Ohio State traditionally struggles with Wisconsin, regardless of whether the game is in Columbus as it was in 2007 or in Madison last year. Coach Tressel has struggled against Wisconsin ever since becoming Ohio State’s head coach back in 2001. I look for Ohio State to win this game, but this one could be closer than fans may want to admit.
Category 4: Ohio State should put this game away by the beginning of the 4th quarter
6. @ Michigan, November 21st, kickoff TBA: Yes, I know this is THE GAME. Yes, I know that the game is in Ann Arbor. Yes, I know that Ohio State has never won six straight games against That Team Up North. Yes, Michigan will be improved in 2009…but Ohio State is still better. Tate Forcier is a better fit for Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense, but will Forcier be able to take the pounding that style of offense exposes its quarterback to over the length of the season in The Big Ten? Will Michigan’s shaky offensive line depth hold throughout the season? What about Michigan’s defense, which was bad last season and has a new defensive coordinator in Greg Robinson? All of these questions and concerns lead me into thinking this is another win for Ohio State in this rivalry. This could be a game that could determine Michigan’s bowl eligibility this season.
7. Navy, September 5th, 12pm EST (ESPN): This game concerns me, as it is the season opener. Navy will not be intimidated by the huge crowd, having played (and won) at Pittsburgh, at Notre Dame, and at Wake Forest over the last few seasons. No, those programs are not as good as Ohio State, but my point is Navy will not back down from the Buckeyes throughout this contest. Navy does not have the same level of athletes that Ohio State has, but Navy’s triple option offense will be enough to keep them in the game into the second half. Remember – Ohio State has several new defensive starters this season, and defending the triple option well requires exceptional discipline on defense. Throw in the fact that it will be challenging for Ohio State’s scout team to effectively simulate Navy’s triple option offense in practice preparations, and you can see my logic on why this game will be interesting throughout the first half and well into the second half.
8. Minnesota, October 24th, 12pm EST: In a strange scheduling quirk, Minnesota comes to Ohio State in back-to-back seasons. While I still believe Minnesota made a huge mistake in firing Glen Mason after the 2006 season, Tim Brewster did a great job in getting Minnesota into a bowl last season. With QB Adam Weber and WR Eric Decker returning, and new QB MarQueis Gray arriving on the scene, I look for Minnesota to be offensively entertaining but to struggle on the defensive side of the ball. Ohio State was handling Minnesota last season in The Horseshoe before taking their foot off the gas late in the game.
Category 5: Ohio State should have this game won by the end of the first half
9. @ Purdue, October 17th, kickoff TBA: While Purdue fans are excited about new coach Danny Hope, Purdue will realistically struggle during this transitional year. The last time Ohio State visited Purdue, Ohio State dominated Purdue in a night game. My biggest fear is that this game will be a noon kickoff on the same date as the much-anticipated Texas & Oklahoma contest that will be undoubtedly the biggest game that weekend.
10. @ Indiana, October 3rd, 7pm EST (The Big Ten Network): Ohio State has not visited Indiana since 2006, and I am anticipating a similar end result when this game is played on October 3rd. This is a night game scheduled for The Big Ten Network, and it will be interesting to see how many Ohio State fans make the trip to Bloomington for this one.
Category 6: Ohio State should be embarrassed for having this on the schedule
11. @ Toledo, September 19th, 12pm EST (ESPN Plus): With the game at Cleveland Browns Stadium, Toledo is technically the home team and Ohio State the visitor but Ohio State will have the overwhelming support of the fans in the stands. Ohio State fans should outnumber Toledo fans, and Toledo will be well-compensated for this beating. I suspect QB Joe Bauserman to get substantial playing time in this one, as Coach Tressel likes to give his quarterbacks playing time in these early season contests.
12. New Mexico State, October 31st, kickoff TBA: This Halloween game will not be a trick or a treat for the Aggies, and I suspect it will not be a treat either for the fans who have to pay full price tickets - that is probably Ohio State's worst trick to play on its season ticket holders. Arguably the worst program in Division 1 football, this will be the game where Ohio State will (or should) empty its benches, resting key players for the big November stretch run of the season. I am guessing Ohio State scheduled New Mexico State because they believe the mighty Avon Lake Shoremen will be in the midst of the Ohio high school playoffs at this time.