When Ohio State took the field in the season's opening week, the swell of anticipation was palpable. The defending national champions entered the season with more questions than answers despite a roster deep with world-class talent -- so deep, in fact, that the roster itself was the main issue. But they took care of business on the road in a big way, and perhaps exorcised a few demons to boot.
When Hawaii took the field last week, it was to the collective, exhausted sigh of a nation wondering if they were really going to stay up that late on a Thursday to watch a middling Mountain West team take on a sorry excuse for a Pac-12 team. The answer, of course, was yes, and those zealous enough to stick through the whole damn shootin' match were treated to a competitive, if not exciting, matchup.
This weekend, the two programs -- one, the until-we-see-otherwise best team in college football; the other, a former upstart whose glory fades each passing day like the sunset over Pu'u Kukui -- will face off. There is plenty of history on both sides of the ball, though not between it; this will be the first-ever game between the two programs, and though the result is pretty easy to predict, there's still plenty to watch for in this one.
Ohio State's biggest advantages
Back at full strength. The suspensions that hung over the Buckeyes in Week 1 have been lifted, meaning that both the offense and defense are regaining key contributors. The most notable name back in the game is Joey Bosa, who could very well be the first pick in this year's NFL Draft, and who can do to offensive linemen what you or I might do to a plate of boneless wings. While his return will make for phenomenal television, it might not even be the most impactful of the night. Jalin Marshall, the cardiac kid himself, returns to the Buckeye lineup, and while some of his decision-making as a freshman probably hospitalized a few Ohio State fans with chest pains, he'll bring experience back to a punt/kick return unit in sore need of it.
A stable of Heisman contenders. When your third-string quarterback is actually a hybrid running back/wide receiver (and two-time Big Ten Player of the Year) who can do this to one of the best defenses in the country, you're probably in good shape. When your star tailback rushes for 122 yards and a touchdown on so few carries that fans are apoplectic with rage at the coaches' neglect of him, you're probably in great shape. When your future No. 1 overall draft pick might not even be the best player on his own defense, you're probably in phenomenal shape. When you have two quarterbacks who would literally start for every other team in the country, you're probably Ohio State.
Wideouts. Michael Thomas, Ohio State's best option in the passing game (at least until Braxton Miller pulls a 720° McTwist over a hapless defender), put one of the best defensive backs in America on skates last week in a bad, bad way. Thomas has wheels, has moves, and the hands to go with his family pedigree -- Keyshawn Johnson is his uncle. He might not possess Devin Smith's rare combination of raw speed and preternatural ball sense, but he's going to get an awful lot of touches with Cardale Jones behind center slinging the ball around. Add Miller, the video game create-a-player brought to life, Curtis Samuel, who looked like he had pine tar on his gloves against the Hokies, and Jalin Marshall, simultaneously the most dynamic and the most frustrating player on the team, and you have a recipe for a single game passing total that might eclipse a Jim Tressel season's-worth of yards in the air.
Hawaii's biggest advantages
The serial killer corollary. It's the quiet ones you've got to watch out for. Nobody expects the Rainbow Warriors (best name/jersey combo in college football, for my money) to make noise this year, which seems like a pretty good time to go balls-to-the-wall and sell out to steal a win from the best team you'll play in the next decade. Will they commit to an all-wheel route offense? Call 45 delayed tight end throwbacks? There are weaknesses to exploit here, small as they may be, and really, what does Norm Chow have to lose by getting crazy against the Buckeyes? (Don't discount the fast-flying takes all over the internet the last few days as bulletin board material, either -- when you're routinely clowned on as one of the teams headlining a "cupcake" schedule, you probably don't take very kindly to it.)
Hawaii does have some personnel capable of pulling off big plays, too. Junior wideout Marcus Kemp is a threat to take the ball to the house at any time, evidenced by his 79-yard catch and run for a score against Colorado. Transfer quarterback Max Wittek -- look for the commentators to mention USC about 30 times during the game -- won the starting job over incumbent Ikaika Woolsey, and while he's not exactly going to blow the doors off of teams, he did toss three touchdowns last week and has a good set of tools.
The Curse of Lono. Look, I'm not a history major, but I do remember a little something about our 50th state. All I know is that the last time a self-impressed group of guys postured as gods in the presence of Hawaiians, it didn't end so well for them.
Trap game. One of the most frustrating things that Ohio State did last season was fall into the soothing lull of its opponents' mediocrity. Urban Meyer's team, at times, played down to its opponents, letting teams like Indiana and Michigan stay competitive for far longer than was respectable. There's always the potential for that to happen again, particularly after a high-emotion win over a quality opponent in Virginia Tech last week. There's very little chance that this can be sustained over the course of an entire game, or long enough to let Hawaii actually seize control of the game, but the possibility also exists of Hawaii doing just enough to fan the flames of the "Ohio State has an easy schedule AND can't take care of it!" cottage industry for another few weeks.
Although Desmond Howard will probably predict otherwise in the pre-game, Ohio State is in position to roll here. Gone are Colt Brennan and Timmy Chang, two guys who would have at least made it interesting through the air, but still probably couldn't have kept Hawaii in this one. As if the talent disparity weren't enough, there's some data to suggest that teams traveling west to east as far as the Rainbow Warriors have to do for this game historically don't fare well.
With Cardale Jones firmly in place as Ohio State's starter, the Buckeyes will move forward and begin cementing the identity of this year's team. Despite having their full array of receiving options back, look for Urban Meyer to call Ezekiel Elliott's number early and often, giving the Rainbow Warriors a heavy dose of the guy that even Alabama couldn't slow down.
The Buckeyes are 38 point favorites, and that line feels about right. The marauding Ohio State offense scored a string of 50+ point games last season; Hawaii seems like a prime candidate to be the first to fall victim to that number in 2015. J.T. Barrett could start seeing significant time by midway through the third quarter. The Buckeyes will roll in this one, and there will be no comfort for the losing side save for the dulcet tones of Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
Predict the score: