Now we've all had a chance to catch our breath now that the full 2015 schedule has been announced. Ohio State will kick off their season with a prime time, Labor Day battle at Virginia Tech. The rest of the nonconference slate looks substantially less exciting, featuring home games against Hawaii, a potentially spicy Northern Illinois squad, and Western Michigan.
The Big Ten league slate is also about as easy as it's going to get for Ohio State in the new realigned divisions, assuming that teams that are currently pretty good stay pretty good. The Buckeyes skip Nebraska, Wisconsin and Northwestern, drawing Minnesota at home and Illinois on the road. Of the team's four B1G road games, only a trip to Michigan, at this point, seems particularly worrisome. The others? Indiana, Rutgers and the aforementioned Illinois.
The full 2015 schedule means Ohio State is mostly "booked up" for the foreseeable future. Ohio State has a roadie with Navy, then home games with Va Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati next year, and kicks off the 9 game league schedule in 2016 with games against Bowling Green, Tulsa and a road trip to Oklahoma. The Buckeyes have one open slot in 2017 (Oklahoma, at UNC) and 2018 (at TCU, UNC, with the previously scheduled game with Cincinnati moved to 2019). Basically, the only way Ohio State is adding a new blue chip school to the schedule for the next several years is if somebody breaks a contract.
Buckeye fans might be a little disappointed in lesser stature of the 2015 noncon games. And at some level, that may be justified. Hawaii is only 3-14 under coach Norm Chow, and only 10-21 since 2011. Using this year's F/+ rankings, the 0-5 Warriors are ranked 102. Last season, they were 121st, one of the worst teams in all of football. The year before that, 87th. The Sagarin ratings are even less kind. This year, Hawaii is ranked 132, just behind FCS Richmond. The gunslingin' days of Colt Brennan are long in the rear view mirror, and the odds are fairly good that Hawaii will be breaking in a new coach by then.
Western Michigan doesn't fare a lot better. Like Hawaii, this year's WMU squad is also winless, losing 27-23 to FCS Nicholls State, and 59-3 to Iowa. They went 4-8 last season, and 7-6 before that. That's a 13-20 record over the last two and a half seasons. Their Sagarin rating is the 5th worst among all FBS squads, at 181, which is below The Citadel, NC A&T, Princeton, and others. Their current F/+ ranking is 118, also near the bottom. If the trends from 2013 hold, Ohio State scheduled two of the worst teams in college football, rivaling recent matchups with Eastern Michigan (a team so bad TRESSEL scored 70) and New Mexico State. Commentators will make jokes about Ohio State's schedule strength, and for those two cases, it will be hard to argue.
Northern Illinois is the wild card. The Huskies have been spectacularly successful over the last few years, making a BCS bowl, and sit at #23 in the polls, flush with wins over both Iowa and Purdue. Advanced ratings are a little less kind to the Huskies though. Despite a perfect 5-0 record, they're only 51 in Sagarin right now, below Indiana, Oregon State, Utah State and Northern Iowa (!). F/+ is a little more charitable, putting NIU at 40, but still below Indiana, Utah State, or recent OSU noncon foe Central Florida.
The one stat where Northern Illinois excels? Wins. To go with their 5-0 record, here are win/loss records for Northern Illinois over the last four seasons. 12-2. 11-3. 11-3. Granted, NIU hasn't been beating premier programs, but with a tiny budget and with a musical chair coaching staff, the Huskies have done nothing but win. They're working on another new head coach right now in Rod Carey. By 2015, he'll have a squad with mostly his own players. Will he continue to succeed, or after several consecutive knockout hires, will NIU regress a little? Either is entirely possible, but I'd be personally more surprised if the Huskies are still a double digit win team in 2015.
It would have been unreasonable to expect Ohio State to add another heavyweight to the schedule. Given the school's budgetary requirements, the Buckeyes couldn't afford to take a road game, and few schools would be willing to schedule a home and home with the return date coming later than 2023. Also, many schools had already booked their 2015 slates, leaving few places to look. It's likely that the school at least talked to a few programs that are stronger than WMU and Hawaii.
It's also worth nothing that a lot can change in two seasons. Virginia Tech, a once perennial ACC contender that has fallen off a step, could very well regain some offensive firepower and be a preseason top 16 team. A road victory to start the season would certainly do a lot for the Buckeye's public perception. Hawaii and Western Michigan could claw their way back into the 5-6 win range, which would help schedule strength a little on the margins. It's entirely possible that both Va Tech and NIU both win 10 games, Hawaii and WMU both win at least 5, and the entire schedule looks at least defensible.
But is that the most likely scenario? Probably not. While Ohio State schedules will get significantly more difficult starting in 2016, it's unfortunate that the 2015 slate, on paper, looks less than appealing, given the very favorable Big Ten slate. Buckeye fans can take cheer though, since 2015 will be a playoff year. An undefeated record may not be enough for the #1 seed, but going undefeated and finishing 5th? That would certainly be something.
The big takeaway from all of this? Assembling a non conference schedule is *really hard*, given all the moving parts, budget considerations, and how far in advance everything needs to be. It's certainly a lot harder than this particular schedule looks.