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Ohio State expected to earn yet another Big Ten title in 2018

The Buckeyes are once again projected to have a top-five finish in 2018.

Big Ten Championship - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

“The Buckeyes lose some key members from last year’s team that claimed the Big Ten title, but the conference title still runs through Columbus in 2018.”

-Steven Lassan, Athlon Sports

The top teams in the college football universe have remained remarkably consistent in recent years, especially with the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014. In the four playoffs since, four teams have made the four-team pool on multiple occasions. Alabama has earned a bid all four years, Clemson three and Ohio State and Oklahoma two apiece.

All four of those teams look to comeback strong in 2018, according to Athlon Sports’ rankings of the top-25 teams in college football, which projects the final standings after the season rather than a preseason ranking.

Ohio State is expected to repeat as Big Ten champions, despite a tough road schedule which includes matchups against Penn State (No. 11 in Athlon’s rankings) and Michigan State (No. 12). Obviously, they’ll face a final test for Big Ten East supremacy versus Michigan (No. 5) Nov. 24 in Columbus.

Still, the Buckeyes will enter the season having incurred significant losses in the spring. Seven players were taken in the NFL Draft this year, including cornerback Denzel Ward and center Billy Price in the first round. And while he was not drafted, quarterback J.T. Barrett--who started for Ohio State since the CFP began in 2014--has also moved on to the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Saints. Per the usual when it comes to Urban Meyer squads, however, the Buckeyes have already shown that they are able to reload at most critical positions, headlined by Dwayne Haskins at quarterback.

Alabama remains No. 1 in Athlon’s rankings after becoming the first team since the start of the BCS era (1998) to win back-to-back titles. Clemson comes in at No. 2, again, as one of the most consistent teams in recent memory. Georgia, under third-year head coach Kirby Smart, sits at No. 3, and will once again have to contend with Alabama for a shot at the SEC title.

Behind Ohio State sits a heavy Big Ten contingent in the top-15. In addition to Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State, Wisconsin came in at No. 9 in the rankings as the top team in the Big Ten West.

“We’re going to (South) Africa. We’re going to Johannesburg and Cape Town and we’re going to do a safari. How about that? How about a safari?”

-Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, via Nick Baumgardner, Detroit Free Press

Jim Harbaugh has made international travel a regular thing since his arrival in Ann Arbor, perhaps traversing the world for a way to beat Ohio State. First, he took the entire Michigan football squad to Italy in 2017 (when Harbaugh met the Pope), with the entirety of the $800,000 bill covered by donors Bobby Kotick. Last month, Harbaugh took his squad around France for seven days, including stops in Paris and Normandy, with the trip co-funded by Kotick and Don Graham. Both Kotick and Graham are Michigan alums. In 2016, the head coach had also taken his team to IMG Academy in Florida.

The world tour is set to continue next year, as Harbaugh announced a trip to South Africa. Harbaugh had been debating between such sites as Greece, Cuba and Spain, but the chance for a safari and shark-watching in Cape Town ultimately won out, despite the 17-hour flight from the U.S.

While the trip to Rome did involve some football practices, the trip to France seemed to be more cultural in nature and featured no football. The trips are optional, so the team chose to conduct its 15 spring practices in Ann Arbor this year. Instead, Harbaugh described the trips as “a great learning experience, a great team bonding experience” for his unit. The international travel does comply with NCAA regulations, according to Harbaugh, as the trips are not conducted during spring break and are planned to begin instead at the end of term. Players also get the month of May off after returning from the trip to allow for pursuit of other opportunities, such as study abroad or internships. However, the coaching staff did conduct a clinic in Paris during the trip this spring as a way to bring college football to an international audience.

“To be quite honest I really feel like over the years, in recent years, there hasn’t been the emphasis that I’m used to being put on that game. Every game has been out on the same level of that game and that’s not the way we were brought up, that’s not the way we were raised around here.”

-Charles Woodson, via Bryan Fischer, NBC Sports

Former Michigan star Charles Woodson has been quite outspoken this offseason regarding his alma mater’s rivalry with Ohio State, focusing on Michigan’s need to turn things around in what has been a lopsided competition in recent years. Last month, at Michigan’s spring commencement ceremony, Woodson guaranteed a Michigan win over the Buckeyes when the teams square off in November. He also acknowledged that the fact the senior class graduated without beating Ohio State “hurts my heart.” Woodson also addressed the Wolverines last season prior to their matchup with Ohio State as he tried to fire them up for the rivalry game.

Most recently, at the ChadTough Gala this past weekend, Woodson said that he feels that his former team has not put enough “emphasis” on the game with their rivals, perhaps contributing to the fact that Michigan has not beaten Ohio State since 2011 and only won twice since 2001. “We had no shame in saying (we were going to beat Ohio State),” Woodson said. “And every time I watch our team in recent years, it’s ‘oh, it’s another game.’ It’s not.”

Woodson was clear that it isn’t a lack of talent or good coaching keeping Michigan from winning, but not being able to finish. “In my opinion, it’s the focus you put on that game that allows you to finish,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to that.”

The Buckeyes are riding a six-game winning streak in the rivalry, dating back to Urban Meyer’s first season as head coach. On the flip side, Jim Harbaugh is 0-3 against the Buckeyes. The rivalry has certainly been one-sided in recent years--a far cry from what Woodson, an Ohio native himself, experienced when he was playing in Ann Arbor. Woodson, a Heisman Trophy winner, went 3-0 against Ohio State from 1995-97 before going on to an outstanding NFL career. The future Hall of Fame defensive back played both ways in college while also starring on special teams.

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