Even before the 2010 season concluded and turned into a seemingly never-ending vortex of bad news for the Ohio State football program, I began trying to forecast what Ohio State’s 2011 season would look like. Ohio State knew after this moment (that has since been vacated, by the way) on January 4th, 2011, that several starters such as WR Dane Sanzenbacher, LG Justin Boren, RG Bryant Browning, DL Cameron Heyward,LB Brian Rolle, LB Ross Homan, CB Devon Torrence, CB Chimdi Chekwa, and S Jermale Hines had played their last games in the Scarlet and Gray. Throw in the five game suspensions of a three year starter at quarterback, starting wide receiver, starting running back, and starting left tackle. Oh, and we have not even contemplated the resignation of the head coach yet.
Ohio State’s 2011 opponents range from the highly-rated (Wisconsin, Nebraska) to the not even considered (Akron), with plenty of room for in-between. In this article, I am going to rank Ohio State’s games, from what I perceive the toughest games to the easiest games. I will categorize the games as to how I believe Ohio State will be considered by the media going into the contest, allowing for considerable speculation by those of you who read this. Of course, I welcome any and all healthy debate and discussion on this topic.
Category One: Ohio State may be/will be the underdog
1. 10/29/2011 vs Wisconsin, Ohio Stadium, 8pm EST (ABC): Yes, I know this is a home game. Yes, I know Ohio State wants payback for last year’s defeat to Wisconsin up in Madison. Here is something else I know – Ohio State usually had their hands full against Wisconsin throughout Jim Tressel’s tenure (Ohio State won five of eight), and I do not see that trend ending anytime soon with Luke Fickell now at the head coaching helm. My cousin John, who is a proud Ohio State alumnus and someone who routinely makes the trip up to Madison for the Ohio State/Wisconsin game, told me he knew Ohio State was in trouble during pre-game warm-up drills, as Wisconsin was visibly physically superior to Ohio State along the trenches. If you think back to last year’s game, when Ohio State needed to step up defensively against Wisconsin late in the game when the Buckeyes rallied, Ohio State just could not stop Wisconsin.
Looking ahead to this match-up, several intangibles favor Ohio State ~ Wisconsin lost several key players (DE J.J. Watt, OT Gabe Carimi, TE Lance Kendricks, OG John Moffitt, QB Scott Tolzien) to graduation/the NFL. This is a night game, meaning Ohio Stadium will be loud, and heavily hydrated from a whole day’s worth of fan activity. And Wisconsin will be coming into Ohio Stadium after playing at Michigan State on October 22nd in another night game that promises to be a physically demanding contest; Ohio State has the week of October 22nd off, so they have an extra week to prepare. Add all these factors up, and Ohio State may come out on top, but I still believe this is Ohio State’s toughest game on the schedule.
2. 10/08/2011 @ Nebraska, Memorial Stadium, 8pm EST/7pm CST (ABC): Ohio State travels to Lincoln in what could potentially be a preview of the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game in December. Originally billed as the return of Ohio State’s five suspended players and suspended head coach Jim Tressel, the game has lost some of its luster with the resignation of Jim Tressel and the early departure of Terrelle Pryor to the (probable) NFL. Even with the departures, Ohio State’s challenges will be many as they battle the Cornhuskers. How will Ohio State assimilate suspended players such as DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, and Daniel “Boom” Herron back in after the first five games for this contest? How will Ohio State handle the Memorial Stadium crowd, in a night-time, nationally televised contest?
Both programs will enter this contest after a challenging contest – Ohio State plays Michigan State on October 1st, and Nebraska will be returning home after opening up Big Ten play at Wisconsin in a nationally televised night game at Camp Randall Stadium.
Category Two: Ohio State As "Even" By The Oddsmakers?
3. 09/17/2011, @ Miami (FL), Sun Life Stadium, 7:30pm/8pm EST, ABC/ESPN: Ohio State's first road game of the 2011 season should pose as the first true test of the season for Luke Fickell's squad. Under the direction of new head coach Al Golden, Miami fans have been waiting for this game for years, as the national media (cough, cough, ESPN) will undoubtedly replay this particular play from nearly eight years ago on the preview shows throughout the week leading up to the game. With Ohio State still without four key players due to suspension, will the Buckeyes have enough to defeat the Hurricanes in this nationally televised contest? Will Braxton Miller be under center for the Buckeyes by this point of the season as the full-time starter?
Ohio State fans are certainly hoping Hurricanes QB Jacory Harris is as charitable to Ohio State’s defense as he was in last year’s contest, when Harris threw four interceptions. While I consider the Wisconsin and Nebraska games tougher, I believe this game against Miami (FL) is the pivotal game of the season. Ohio State wins this game, and Luke Fickell's job candidacy becomes stronger. Lose this game, and doubts about Fickell's capabilities for the position could begin to surface. If Ohio State wins this game, more than likely they will be 4-0 when this next team comes to town...
4. 10/01/2011, vs. Michigan State, Ohio Stadium, kickoff TBA: The last game of Ohio State's suspended players will be the first game of Big Ten competition for the Buckeyes. Michigan State, under the direction of former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio, returns to Ohio Stadium for the first time since the 2007 season. Considering Michigan State's key losses to graduation/the NFL (LB Greg Jones, CB Chris L. Rucker, WR Mark Dell), and rebuilt offensive line, I like Ohio State's chances in this game, but it should be down to the wire.
Michigan State does return starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, so Ohio State’s revamped secondary will be the key matchup. Looking at Michigan State’s schedule, Michigan State should enter Ohio Stadium with a record of 3-1 at worst, possibly 4-0. If the latter is true, and both Ohio State and Michigan State are undefeated, look for this to be a 3:30pm kickoff, as this will showcase two probable top ten teams.
Category Three: Ohio State As The Favorite, But Do Not Be Surprised By A Dogfight:
5. 10/15/2011, @ Illinois, Memorial Stadium, kickoff TBA: Ohio State held on last year against Illinois for a 24-13 victory in Memorial Stadium, overcoming an injured quadricep sustained by Terrelle Pryor. Illinois has lost key players (DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson, RB Mikel Leshoure), but return the dangerous QB Nathan Scheelhaase. Illinois has a relatively soft non-conference schedule, with the exception of Arizona State on September 17th. Ohio State fans should keep an eye out for how well Illinois does in that game, as Arizona State is considered a possible Pac-12 contender.
6. 11/19/2011, vs. Penn State, Ohio Stadium, kickoff TBA: Maybe it was simply a case of arrogance or overconfidence on the part of Ohio State last year, but the Buckeyes were stinking up the joint against JoePa's Nittany Lions in the first half of last season's game, which Ohio State won 38-14. While I believe Ohio State can win this game on November 19th, it should not escape any Ohio State fan that traditionally Penn State plays Ohio State very tough. This will be the last home game in Ohio Stadium for Ohio State's senior class, so it should be a good one.
7. 11/26/2011, @ Michigan, Michigan Stadium, kickoff TBA: Yes, I know Brady Hoke is stoking the rivalry fires, and in time, this game will move up the difficulty list I have compiled. Here is the painful reality that Michigan fans simply do not want to recognize - their team's roster is still predominantly comprised of Rich Rodriguez's recruits. All the coaching between now and November will not make them any more prepared to adequately defend against power Big Ten teams such as Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Ohio State.
Michigan will make it interesting, and Denard Robinson is still a very dangerous offensive threat, but I look for the Buckeyes to be too much physically for the Wolverines in this one. Considering Michigan's schedule ends @ Iowa, @ Illinois, and against Nebraska, before the Buckeyes come to town, I wonder if this game will determine Michigan's bowl eligibility. On Ohio State's side of things, could this game seal Luke Fickell's status as Ohio State's permanent head coach with a decisive victory?
Category Four: Ohio State Will Have It Won By The Fourth Quarter
8. 09/10/2011, vs. Toledo, Ohio Stadium, 12pm EST (The Big Ten Network): Yes, I am ranking Toledo as a tougher game than some of the other opponents below. Why? First of all, Ohio State will be without four of its key players, due to suspension. Will the Ohio State offense be in sync? Who will be the quarterback? Throw in the fact that Toledo was a bowl team last season, and former Buckeye assistant Tim Beckman is at the helm (who could add his name to the Ohio State candidate list with a huge upset), and I believe this game could be cause for concern until at least the fourth quarter. Toledo actually beat the next team on the list last season...
9. 11/12/2011, @ Purdue, Ross-Ade Stadium, kickoff TBA: Arguably the worst loss in Jim Tressel's tenure took place in Ross-Ade Stadium two seasons ago. As many key Buckeyes are still on the roster from that defeat, I do not believe Ohio State will overlook Purdue in this one. Purdue suffered through some heavy injury losses to their team last year - even with the healthy return of players such as QB Robert Marve, I do not believe the Boilermakers will be able to hang with the Buckeyes in this one.
10. 11/05/2011, vs. Indiana, Ohio Stadium, kickoff TBA: Considering Mike Vrabel is now on the staff for Ohio State, perhaps he and Luke Fickell can invite their former teammate Matt Finkes to speak to their 1996 comeback win over Indiana that sent the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl. It has literally been almost twenty years since the last time the Hoosiers gave the Buckeyes a real challenge. Perhaps new Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson will be able to turn this program around eventually, but it will not be this year at Ohio State's expense.
11. 09/24/2011, vs. Colorado, Ohio Stadium, kickoff TBA: I will say this much for new Colorado head coach Jon Embree - the Buffaloes are certainly not going to enter into this contest against Ohio State without facing some decent competition. Colorado's first three games: @ Hawaii, vs. California, and vs. Colorado State. All could beat Colorado, leaving me to believe the Buffaloes will be overwhelmed by the Buckeyes in this one.
Category Five: Ohio State Will Be Playing Backups Early And Often
12. 09/03/2011, vs. Akron, Ohio Stadium, 12pm EST (ESPN): Fortunately for new head coach Luke Fickell, he could not pick a better victim, I mean, opponent to begin his head coaching career. Considering Akron went 1-11 in 2010, with many losses in the blowout category, I cannot envision a better opportunity for Luke Fickell to truly evaluate what kind of team he has at his disposal.
Ohio State should be able to substitute multiple players in throughout the game, especially at the quarterback position, where I predict QB Joe Bauserman to be the opening game starter. I predict true freshman QB Braxton Miller to be brought in at some point, but this is the kind of game Luke Fickell needs to work on the Ohio State running game, while also developing wide receivers in the wake of DeVier Posey's suspension. Ohio State should have this game well in hand by halftime, hopefully using it as a springboard for Toledo, Miami (FL), and beyond.
Twelve games, with no guarantee as of this writing that there will be any more after it for 2011, due to the NCAA situation. How will the Buckeyes fare this season? Look back at how I have rated these games, and you tell me. As always, should be a great season for any and all Ohio State fans.