We might still have a day off to enjoy this Monday (and for those essential workers who do not have the day off, thank you for what you do, and I sincerely hope you get a break soon), but this Labor Day doesn’t really feel real. And the reason for that is obvious: We didn’t have college football kicking off Saturday.
Labor Day in the Hein household is a particularly jolly affair, since it also usually happens to fall close to my husband’s birthday. Under normal circumstances, we would make a trip out of heading to a game (including once to Arlington, Texas, for Michigan’s opener against Florida. I wore a shirt that said “she doesn’t even go here.”) or spend the weekend with friends parked in front of the television and drinking in the pageantry, getting our desperate fill like marathoners hydrating just after the finish line.
Things are different this year. Heck, I’d even take a Michigan opener at this point. But for now, we’re left to feed on the memories of Labor Day openers of seasons past. Obviously, this set of circumstances begs the question of what those circumstances are that make the best opener. So let’s jump in.
If we’re generalizing, there are three factors that play into the quality of an opener, and that’s in terms of (1) timing, (2) location and (3) quality of opponent. Timing refers both to the day of the week and the time of day the team plays, location to, well, location, and quality of opponent, naturally, to how premier the matchup is in terms of rankings and conference implications. These factors naturally interplay (an opener between Ohio State and Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton on Saturday night feels silly) but also feed into the ideal opener.
Let’s start with quality of opponent, because it’s not a simple binary of “good” or “bad.” Rankings, conference alignment and recency bias all come into play. What if Ohio State opened with Boise State? The Broncos might not be in a Power Five conference, but would certainly represent a formidable foe early in the season. But that’s not always the case. It’s certainly a wide berth between the Boise States of the world and the Akrons.
Unfortunately, often, non-Power Five teams start the season ranked lower than their talent, and they must work to prove themselves through maybe 10 weeks before they can enter the top-10. As a result, a non-Power Five opener might not have the panache in an opening matchup that it might, say, in a bowl game.
Additionally, given scheduling challenges - Ohio State has to schedule premier home-and-homes years in advance - knowing which non-Power Five opponents will be marquee matchups can be a challenge, and ultimately end up as a blunder or non-factor on the schedule.
There is still nuance even within the Power Five, because Ohio State could open with an in-conference opponent - like the Buckeyes did with Indiana in 2017 when JK Dobbins tore it up against Indiana. Personally, these games give me overwhelming anxiety because you find out immediately just how good your team is at the start of the season, and start to get a picture of the rest of the conference. Alarming, yes, but also grounding, and also hella exciting when Ohio State comes out on top.
When it comes to other Power Five conference matchups, games can act almost as an extension of bowl season, but it’s not always the same sentiment. Opening against Oregon State is certainly not the same as opening against Oregon: One feels like a Rose Bowl, while the other feels like the Motor City Bowl.
Playing anything but the top-three teams in the ACC, Big 12 or Pac-12 probably would evoke a negative sentiment, even if Ohio State scheduled the games with the best of intentions. For instance, consider when the Buckeyes faced Miami (FL) in the non-conference slate in 2010 and 2011 (neither of which was actually an opener). The Hurricanes were ranked 12th in 2010, but were unranked in 2011. The loss in 2011 then rang even worse for the Buckeyes.
Unfortunately, even for these premier matchups, scheduling as an opener is certainly not the norm, as home-and-homes are often scheduled for games two or three of the non-conference season.
Then there’s the recency bias which, once again, is further hindered by scheduling challenges. A team that is coming off a great bowl win will be next to impossible to schedule by the following opener, even if it’s what the people want to see.
So bottom line, I suppose, is that a quality opponent is preferable to a not-quality opponent. Duh. But the source of that quality opponent remains variable. That opponent can come from another Power Five conference or the Big Ten, but the off-chance a worthy non-Power Five opponent presents itself, I certainly wouldn’t be mad.
Location obviously plays another important role in determining the excitement of an opening matchup. No one really wants to play an away game to kickoff the season, even if it is the unfortunate necessity of scheduling home-and-homes.
As mentioned in regard to out of conference opponents, playing at a warm and sunny neutral site could help to recall bowl season. Given the timing of opening matchups, a trip to an away game can be a final and awesome conclusion to the summer over a long Labor Day weekend.
Meanwhile, playing at home in the Horseshoe evokes an unmatched home field advantage. Personally, I feel like we should keep bowl season to bowl season and enjoy our home games at Ohio Stadium while we can.
Finally there’s timing. Ohio State has only occasionally played openers on anything but Saturdays. In fact, this year, the Buckeyes were supposed to open on the road in Champaign to take on Illinois this past Thursday (sobs uncontrollably). There was that one time, as we’ve discussed previously, in 2017 when Ohio State took on Indiana in Bloomington on a Thursday evening. I think it’s pretty fun to have a game early in the week, so the focus remains exclusively on the Buckeyes.
Then there’s the question of kickoff. Noon games might be great for staying awake throughout the game, plus I don’t have to sit through myriad other games before I can get to my main event of the day: Ohio State versus whomever dares to take them on.
However, while it’s a rare thing, especially for an opener on a Saturday (for Ohio State at least), what’s better than a 7 p.m. ET kickoff under the lights, right?
If we put it all together, I guess the best matchup is just a slight variation on what we had back in 2017, which, I would argue, was the best opener in recent memory: a conference matchup on a Thursday night, only maybe this time it takes place in Columbus.
Anyway, that’s a look at the ideal opener for the Buckeyes — though now, I’d take a Saturday noon matchup on the road against Bowling Green.
On an unrelated note, if I may be so bold, maybe we should all become service academy football fans. At least we’re guaranteed a few games this year. Triple option, here we come!