After Ohio State opens the season against Virginia Tech, they play three straight games against non-power teams, in Hawaii, Northern Illinois, and Western Michigan. Granted, the two MAC teams on that slate are projected to compete for a conference title, and should be quality teams in their own rights, but nobody from that group is likely to excite a casual fan, or impress somebody who isn't a football aficionado. Outside of Virginia Tech, if Ohio State is to prove to the world that they're still a championship caliber team next season, it will have to come during Big Ten play.
Non-power conference programs may be an annual staple of Ohio State's non-conference schedule, but that wasn't always the case. From 1945-1985, Ohio State didn't play a single non-conference game against a team outside of a power conference. Granted, the sport was very different back then, as teams didn't play nearly as many games, and what constituted a power conference was also different (Ohio State played TCU and SMU when they would have been considered power conference programs, as well as a few well regarded independents like Penn State). That changed in 1986 when the Buckeyes scheduled the WAC's Utah Utes (and beat that 2-9 Utah team 64-6). By the mid 1990s, a non-power program team was at least an annual opponent.
That isn't to say that every single major conference team Ohio State faced during that run was good, or that ever Big Ten team was good. In fact, some of the Northwestern squads during that Buckeye run could very well be the worst teams the Buckeyes have ever played post-WW2. But after the number of regular season games expanded and the Buckeyes started looking to the MAC, WAC and beyond for a game, Ohio State has played a few dogs before Big Ten play. So who was the worst?
The best tools for comparing teams don't always go back far enough, so I used three different data points.
- The SRS. On Sports-Reference, each team is given an SRS ranking, or Simple Ranking System. From SR: "The rating is denominated in points above/below average, where zero is average, although it should be noted that margin of victory has been assigned a lower bound of 7 points and an upper bound of 24 points". Teams with large negative rankings are substantially below average. More details on the ranking can be found here.
- The Sagarin Ranking. Sagarin's numbers, which go back to 1998 on the USA TODAY site, are a widely adopted computer ranking system that used to be part of the BCS. It's not perfect, but it's also one of the few ranking systems that includes both FBS and FCS teams, which can provide useful context when we're looking at terrible FBS programs.
- F/+ rankings. Perhaps the most popular advanced stat in recent memory, F/+, from Football Outsiders, looks at efficiency stats and goes beyond wins, losses and total yards. These rankings go back the 2005 season.
- Margin of victory, schedule strength, total scoring and a few other stats were looked at when we didn't have a ton of comparative stats.
1985 Utah (2-9, -8.65 SRS)
So this is a little harder to quantify, since the computer rankings we typically use to evaluate teams (Sagarin, Massey, etc) only go back to 1998. But here is what we do know. The 1985 Utah Utes gave up more than 40 points per game, and had the worst scoring defense in the entire country that season. They lost to Ohio State by nearly 60 points and gave up 715 total yards to the Buckeyes (a school record). That Ute squad went 2-9 that year in a not very good WAC, which included giving up 55 points to a 4 win UTEP team and 47 to an equally bad New Mexico squad. They might not have been the very worst in Ohio State history (and their offense wasn't terrible!), but that team might have thrown out one of the most putrid defenses Ohio State has ever seen in the modern era.
1994 Houston (1-10) (-18.31 STS)
Houston would technically have been a power conference team in 1994 (they would join Conference USA in 1996), but we had to add them to this list given just how terrible they were. This was also in the pre-computer stat era, but the Cougars were second to last in the country in scoring (averaging a paltry 10.5 points per game), and gave up over 36 (103rd out of 107 nationwide). They scored more than 13 points in a game just once, beating equally horrid SMU 39-33, but only got within 16 points of an opponent one time the entire season. The Buckeyes crushed them 52-0. Houston finished 1-10 on the year.
2002 Kent State (3-9, -49.67 Sagarin, #155, -16.47 STS)
I will always remember this game fondly, as it was the first Ohio State game I ever attended in The Shoe. It was also part of Ohio State's unlikely championship season. The Buckeyes crushed the hapless Golden Flashes 51-17, and Kent State would only beat one FBS team that entire season, beating Buffalo 16-12. Kent State was second to last in the country in scoring (16.8 ppg), in the bottom 20 for scoring defense and most other relevant statistical categories, and finished with a final Sagarin ranking of #155. FBS only had 117 teams that season, and the Golden Flashes finished below stalwards like Grambling, Princeton, and Hofstra, which doesn't even have a football team anymore.
2009 New Mexico State (4-9, #120 in F/+, #153 in Sagarin, -17.97 STS)
The 2009 NMSU squad is the first in the F/+ era, and according to that chart, the Aggies were dead last in the entire country, despite winning four games over the year. They were last in the country in total scoring, bottom twenty in scoring defense, and failed to score more than 20 points against a single FBS team (they cracked 21 in a win over Cal Poly). Ohio State beat them 45-0 in a game that could have been much, much worse. Sagarin also had them well behind many FCS squads, like Harvard and Southern Utah.
2010 Eastern Michigan (2-10, #114 in F/+, #183 in Sagarin, -19.07 in STS )
In terms of pure statistical breakdown, this is probably the worst team Ohio State has played. The Eagles gave up over 43 points a game, gave up more than 70 points twice during the season, and lost 52-6 to a Vanderbilt team that won only two games. They also somehow did something to tick Jim Tressel off, as the Buckeyes won 73-20, and could have scored 100 should The Vest had the inclination.
This is the second worst STS ranking of any team on this list, and Sagarin had them as the 3rd worst FBS program that season, ranked below scores of FCS teams. Only Buffalo and Akron were ranked worse.
2011 Akron (1-11, #119 in F/+, #198 in Sagarin, -19.11 in STS)
It is difficult to overstate just how bad this Akron team was. Their only win was against a hapless FCS VMI squad. Only three of their losses were by 10 points or less. They gave up 68 points to a 7-6 WMU team. Their average score was a 39-14 loss. They were blown out, 42-0, by perhaps the worst Ohio State team in the last two decades. They were second to last in F/+, the very worst in Sagarin, and the worst ranked STS squad we could find. Ohio State has played some horrible teams, but it's probable that no modern FBS team was worse than the 2011 Akron Zips.
*2013 FAMU (FCS, 3-9 #230 Sagarin)
Although technically, Ohio State has played a worse team than 2011 Akron. In 2013, the Buckeyes scheduled Florida A&M, who they summarily destroyed, 76-0. STS and F/+ don't evaluate FCS teams, but this is the worst Sagarin ranked squad Ohio State has battled, and given that the Rattlers were a bad team in a bad FCS conference, that doesn't seem unreasonable. But the resource disparity between Ohio State and Florida A&M is so vast that the two schools are barely playing the same sport. On this sort of list, this game almost seems like it shouldn't count.
Ohio State, especially recently, has played a lot of very good teams out of conference, and barring some unexpected dropoffs, should play some other very solid teams in the future as well, like Oklahoma, Oregon, TCU, Notre Dame and Texas. But there's been a few real clunkers on that list, and that Akron team may have been the worst of them all.