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The Big Ten East is loaded, but Ohio State’s schedule isn’t too much tougher than last season’s

The Big Ten East is probably the best division in college football, but Buckeyes’ path to the playoff is still only a little tougher than last year.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten, and the East division especially, is projected to be as good as it’s ever been. If Ohio State wants to return to the playoff, then they will end up facing all of the Tier-1 teams in Bill C’s Big Ten Power rankings. All four other teams in that top tier are ranked in the S&P+ top-12 overall. And that doesn’t include tricky matchups with Jeff Brohm-led Purdue, Scott Frost’s potentially resurgent Nebraska, or surging TCU.

But even though the Big Ten is better than it’s ever been, Ohio State’s 2018 schedule is all that more difficult than it was the past two seasons. And this year’s Ohio State team has the potential to be better than the 2016 and 2017 Buckeyes, and is definitely more talented.

I took a look at Bill’s 2016 and 2017 S&P+ previews and compared the schedule projections with the stacked 2018 schedule:

OSU schedules 2016-2018

2018 Opp. 2018 Opp. Preseason Rank 2018 Preseason Win Prob. 2017 Opp. 2017 Opp. Preseason Rank 2017 Preseason Win Prob. 2016 Opp. 2016 Opp. Preseason Rank 2016 Preseason Win Prob.
2018 Opp. 2018 Opp. Preseason Rank 2018 Preseason Win Prob. 2017 Opp. 2017 Opp. Preseason Rank 2017 Preseason Win Prob. 2016 Opp. 2016 Opp. Preseason Rank 2016 Preseason Win Prob.
Oregon State 110 99% at Indiana 39 84% Bowling Green 60 83%
Rutgers 84 97% Oklahoma 5 63% Tulsa 93 92%
at TCU 22 78% Army 102 99% at Oklahoma 4 30%
Tulane 98 98% UNLV 118 99% Rutgers 87 91%
at Penn State 8 60% at Rutgers 92 96% Indiana 56 82%
Indiana 58 94% Maryland 72 96% at Wisconsin 37 60%
Minnesota 67 95% at Nebraska 42 85% at Penn State 28 54%
at Purdue 54 89% Penn State 8 66% Northwestern 46 80%
Nebraska 60 94% at Iowa 48 87% Nebraska 26 68%
at Michigan State 11 65% Michigan State 44 91% at Maryland 62 72%
at Maryland 80 94% Illinois 85 98% at Michigan State 22 48%
Michigan 10 74% at Michigan 10 58% Michigan 6 51%

And here’s some summary info from that data:

Schedules and S&P+ projections

Year 2018 2017 2016
Year 2018 2017 2016
Avg. Opp. S&P+ Rk 55 55 44
Avg. Win % 86% 85% 68%
Top 25 games 4 3 3
Top 15 games 3 3 2
Easy games (Win% >80%) 8 9 4
Tricky games (Win% bet. 65%-80%) 2 1 3
Difficult games (Win% bet. 50%-65%) 2 2 3
Likely losses (Win% <50%) 0 0 2
  • I expected 2018’s schedule to be much tougher across the board than the 2017 schedule. Basically Michigan State’s entire team returns for 2018, Michigan has the roster to contend for the playoff, including a quarterback, and Penn State loses some star power but still has stacked elite recruiting classes into a formidable roster. And that doesn’t count Wisconsin improving behind Hornibrook and Jonathon Taylor, either. But the Buckeyes’ average opponent preseason S&P+ ranking is the same in both seasons — 55th.
  • Going one step deeper into those rankings, I divided the opponents into categories — easy games (80%+ win percentage), potentially tricky games (65%-80%), difficult games (50%-65%), and probable losses (less than 50%). A win probability of 67% translates to roughly a touchdown margin of victory.
  • Essentially, the Buckeyes trade one easy game for a potentially tricky game in 2018. That ultimately just accounts for a projected improvement for Michigan State, from 44th in preseason S&P+ in 2017, to 11th in 2018. Instead of Oklahoma (5th in preseason S&P+), Ohio State gets TCU (22nd). Not too bad!
  • In terms of margin of victory, Ohio State faces two teams where they’re projected to win by less than a touchdown — +6.5 over Michigan State and +4.3 over Penn State. But they’re still favored by the S&P+ in every game.
  • In 2018, the Buckeyes essentially have four tough games during the regular season — TCU, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan. That’s one tougher than last season, which saw the Buckeyes pick up an unexpected loss to Iowa, which ranked 48th preseason, with an 87% win probability.
  • If you’re wondering about the difference between preseason and postseason S&P+ rankings, Army, UNLV, Penn State, and Michigan State all beat their 2017 preseason projections, but the other 8 opponents all fell short of their projections. Some barely fell short that it’s hardly worth counting them — Oklahoma was 4 spots lower, Indiana 12, and Iowa 1. Maryland and Nebraska were a lot worse than their preseason rankings (42 and 61 spots lower). Ohio State ended up playing four teams ranked in the S&P+ top-27 by the season’s end, with two top-10 opponents. So the basic distribution of opponent strength still applied by season’s end.
  • Losing to top-5 Oklahoma wasn’t a huge surprise last season. Losing to Iowa was. But going on the road against a top-50 opponent following a top-10 opponent is tough scheduling. Ohio State might have an easier path this season. Following 22nd-ranked TCU, the Buckeyes get 98th Tulane. After 8th-ranked Penn State, OSU gets 58th Indiana. Then after 11th-ranked Michigan State, the Buckeyes’ penultimate game is against 80th-ranked Maryland. The potential letdown game is probably against Indiana, because they will at least be decent as a top-60 opponent; the Buckeyes will have had a tough game the week before against the Nittany Lions, and Indiana carved up the Buckeyes secondary last season. At least Indiana comes to Columbus.