Even though we’ve waited so long for a new college football season to begin, three weeks more seems like a long time left to wait. But it’s not. Fall practice is in full swing, and we’re getting reports daily about the progress that the Buckeyes are making as they prepare for Notre Dame on Sept. 3. We hear about individual players – both veterans and newcomers. The coaches and players all sound optimistic as they address the press.
And they should be optimistic. Most of the preseason polls that I’ve seen place the Buckeyes second, behind only Alabama. Second in the national rankings, second in odds to win the national championship. Everyone (including me) expects Ohio State to return to the top of the Big Ten and to make the playoffs. Lofty, but certainly reasonable goals.
Before the playoffs, however, are 12 regular season games and (we expect) a Big Ten Championship game, perhaps a rematch against Wisconsin or Iowa.
Coaches always claim that they never look ahead, that they take one game at a time. Probably, with Notre Dame in the opener, that’s really the case this year. Since I’m not a coach, though, I can look ahead and examine all 12 regular season games. I’m not going through the schedule game by game, either; rather, I’m arranging them in pods, modules, clusters, whatever. There are, of course, many ways to do this. By degree of difficulty, for instance: tough games, very probable wins, cakewalks. Maybe even forfeits, if TTUN again cancels the trip to Columbus.
But I’ll consider the schedule chronologically, in groups of games.
The Buckeyes will play a difficult schedule in 2022. The recently released USA Today coaches’ poll includes four OSU opponents in its top 25: No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 6 Michigan, No. 14 Michigan State, and No. 20 Wisconsin. If you keep going beyond 25, you’ll find among “others receiving votes” Iowa at No. 26 and Penn State at No. 27. Difficult.
On the other hand, Ohio State plays four of those six teams at home, traveling only to East Lansing and Happy Valley. Additionally, the Bucks play their first five games at home and eight of the 12 total. If there’s a home field advantage to playing in Ohio Stadium, let’s put it to work.
I’m saving Notre Dame and Michigan for last and will take up the other 10 matchups in three clusters.
Cluster No. 1: the long home stand, Sept. 10 - Oct. 1
As I’ll relate in more depth later, I think that Ohio State will beat Notre Dame in the first game and hit this initial cluster in excellent shape. If there are any kinks to iron out after the Irish game, the Bucks have a relatively easy pair of games up next. Arkansas State (9/10) and Toledo (9/17) won’t present any real difficulties, although Toledo will be the tougher opponent. These games will allow OSU to try out some things, try out some players, without risk.
Notre Dame may not offer those opportunities; it’s hardly a preseason game. But these other two non-conference games kind of are. The defense, in particular, can work in some of the younger players in preparation for the Badgers.
As I’ve said in a previous article, I regard Wisconsin as perhaps the biggest obstacle for an undefeated Buckeye season. It will all depend on the line play on both sides of the ball. The Badgers will try to control possession with its running game, keep the scoring low enough to be manageable, and win the turnover battle. It’s possible that the Buckeye offense of C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will simply overwhelm Wisconsin (and maybe everyone) with points. Or, the game could be a slugfest, with first downs and punting distances becoming crucial. If so, the game will be a real test of Buckeye “toughness,” or physicality, that sometimes last year seemed to be lacking.
Rutgers comes into Ohio Stadium on Oct. 1 to finish up this long, five-game home stand. Unless the Buckeyes are really beat up after the Wisconsin matchup and are playing the Scarlet Knights shorthanded, I really don’t see much of a problem in this game. Has Rutgers ever presented much of a problem? No. The teams have played eight times, and Ohio State has won them all. The Buckeyes have scored over 50 points in six of those games and 49 in the other two. The closest game was in the COVID year of 2020, when the Bucks won 49-27.
In this first cluster of games (post Notre Dame), only Wisconsin looks dangerous.
Cluster No. 2: things get trickier, Oct. 8 - Oct. 29
I’ve put three games in this middle cluster: Michigan State, Iowa, and Penn State. The Buckeyes will have a bye week after the first road trip of the year to Michigan State — and they might need it. This is a difficult stretch in the schedule. All three of these teams appear on the coaches’ “top 27.” And two of the three games are on the road.
Last season, after OSU’s 56-7 shellacking of his team, Spartan head coach Mel Tucker said that Michigan State didn’t yet have the players to beat the Buckeyes one to one. Not on the line of scrimmage and certainly not on pass routes. They still don’t, despite their preseason No. 14 ranking. Last year they beat Michigan in a close, hard-fought game. It was a rivalry game, and the Spartans were up for it. The Ohio State offense is another matter entirely, and I see the Bucks winning this one by several scores.
Similarly, I don’t see Penn State returning to glory – yet. Last year, the Nittany Lions finished 7-6, 4-5 in Big Ten play. They’ll be better in 2022, but not good enough. I know that they always play OSU tough, and that Happy Valley is a treacherous venue, but I think that talent will prevail.
That leaves Iowa, in Columbus, in this cluster. Another difficult game and a hard one to predict. The Hawkeyes were good last year. Sometimes. And sometimes not. Inconsistency was a problem and will be again. I see them as a lesser Wisconsin: good defense, decent running offense. But they’ll need a lot of both and a lot of luck to beat the Buckeyes. Look for a fairly close game, however.
Cluster No. 3: easing into Thanksgiving weekend, Nov. 5 - Nov. 19
Here are three games, coming near the end of the season, that Ohio State should win handily. Away games against Northwestern and Maryland sandwich a home matchup against Indiana. Pat Fitzgerald often gets more out of his Wildcat team than we expect. Really, did we expect them to play the Buckeyes twice in conference championship games? Maybe not. But I’d be absolutely floored if it happened this year. Probably a 4-8 record is about what Fitzgerald can expect. And, if the weather on Lake Michigan isn’t too severe in early November, he can expect to take his licks against the Buckeyes.
Indiana is the worst team in the Big Ten, now that Illinois seems to have improved. Bucks by 50 here. At Maryland, though, will be more interesting. By Nov. 19, we’ll certainly know how well Terp QB Taulia Tagovailoa is playing. In 2021, he threw for close to 4000 yards and 26 touchdowns. If he continues to improve, he could be the best quarterback that the Buckeyes will face and one capable of putting up a lot of points. Maryland, as a team, has improved steadily over the past couple of years. The Bucks can’t afford to look ahead a week in this one.
Michigan: revenge on Nov. 26
The loss to the Wolverines last year hurt in so many ways. Coming off the Michigan State win, it appeared that the Buckeyes were headed to the playoffs and a legitimate shot at a national title. The Buckeyes had demonstrated unprecedented dominance over TTUN – and, in fact, over the rest of the Big Ten too.
The loss gave Michigan fans bragging rights, and they’ve been really loud about it. After all, their team pushed the Buckeyes around, especially in the second half. As for the game this year, Michigan will certainly be ready. But Ohio State will be more ready. Ready for some payback. Ready for some physical football.
The great opener: Fighting Irish on Sept. 3
I had a writing instructor once who told me that it’s a good idea to throw in a Latin phrase or two. It isn’t, but those old Romans had one that’s appropriate here: sui generis. It’s translated in various ways, but it means essentially something that is in a class of its own, one of a kind, unique. The opening game with Notre Dame can’t be placed in any cluster; it stands by itself. And it will be something.
So, the coaches ranked the Irish No. 5. A bit high, I think, but we’ll find out soon enough. Essentially, the Irish are ranked right where they were when they lost to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl last year. After that two-point loss, the Irish, at 11-2, finished eighth. A good year, their only other defeat was at home at the hands of playoff-bound Cincinnati 24-13. No disgrace.
The offense averaged a very fine 35 points per game. Not Buckeye numbers, but good. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, their quarterback Jack Coan has moved on, as has their top runner, Kyren Williams. Tight end Michael Mayer, who led Irish receivers with 71 receptions, returns, but there will be lots of new faces at skill positions. Will they be able to keep up with the high-scoring Bucks? I doubt it.
If Notre Dame is to have a chance in this game, that chance will be provided by the defense, which was good last year and returns some of its stars for this year: edge rusher Isaiah Foskey (10 sacks last year); linebacker J.D. Bertrand, whose 102 total tackles topped the Irish defense; and safety Brandon Joseph, who was an All-American for Northwestern in 2020. I don’t see the Irish defensive backs (even Joseph) keeping up with the Buckeye receivers. Notre Dame will need to put considerable pressure on Stroud. And the OSU offensive line should be very good.
It will be Marcus Freeman’s first game as Irish head coach. While we would ordinarily wish the ex-Buckeye luck, we’re not going to for this one. It’s a tough way for any coach to start out. I’m guessing that there will be some nerves here. The new Buckeye defensive coordinator, Jim Knowles, led the Oklahoma State defense that beat ND in their last game. He’ll know what works and what doesn’t.
All in all, I think that the Irish lost too much of last year’s team to be ready to go in game one on the road against a powerhouse like Ohio State. Oddsmakers certainly like the Bucks. So do I.
Undefeated regular season? Quite possibly.