Ohio State Football Schedule Analysis: Ranking Opponents from Easiest to Toughest
So the football schedule is out ... finally! After two other versions didn't pan out, the Big Ten officially released its schedule and the Buckeyes know they'll open the season Oct. 24 with Nebraska. The Buckeyes have home games against Nebraska, Rutgers, Indiana and Michigan, while they make trips to Penn State, Maryland, Illinois and Michigan State.
For what it's worth, I think Ohio State has the easiest schedule in the Big Ten. I'm not sure how Saturday's announcement could have gone any better for the Buckeyes, who only play Nebraska and Illinois from the West Division. With that in mind, let's break down which games could make the Buckeyes sweat and which ones might feel like exhibitions.
Eighth-Toughest Game: Ohio State vs. Rutgers, Nov. 7 at Ohio Stadium
Greg Schiano is back in Piscataway for his second tour of duty, after leading the Scarlet Knights to a 68-67 record from 2001-2011. But Rutgers has a lot of work to do before it is competitive again, and not having spring practice certainly didn't help it. Coming off a 2-10 season, Rutgers owns the second longest conference-game losing streak in Big Ten history. It's dropped 21 consecutive league affairs after last beating Maryland in 2017.
The Knights were outscored by Big Ten teams by an average of 39-6 last fall and they were out-gained by 241 yards per game. They return 16 starters, which should help their cause early in the season.
Ohio State has only failed to score at least 50 points against Rutgers once since the first meeting back in 2014. In that one game, Ohio State won 49-7. Last year's final was 56-21 and the 2020 game shouldn't be a major challenge.
Seventh-Toughest Game: Ohio State at Maryland, Nov. 14 at Maryland Stadium
Maryland's program seems to be gaining stability after Mike Locksley was the third coach in three years in 2018. Last year got off to an incredible start, scoring 142 points in two wins and earning a No. 21 national ranking. But a 1-9 finish to the season brought the Terrapins back to earth, with only a win against Rutgers in Week 5.
The Buckeyes steam-rolled Maryland 73-14, perhaps somewhat as a response to the heart-stopping win they pulled off in 2018 (52-51). Unfortunately, the Terps will be without quarterback Josh Jackson this year after he opted out. Their top two options at QB are former four-star recruits Tualia Tagovailoa (who received a waiver) and Lance LeGendre. The offensive line remains a major question mark and the Terrapins' defense needs to step up—it allowed at least 40 points in a game five times last fall.
Ohio State has never lost to Maryland and it's averaged 58.3 points per game in those six victories.
Sixth-Toughest Game: Ohio State at Illinois, Nov. 28 at Memorial Stadium
Illinois was a pleasant surprise last year, finishing the season 6-7. It's coming off its first bowl game appearance in the Lovie Smith era. Perhaps the best stretch of football the Illini have played in years, they won four consecutive games in league play—including a stunner over No. 6 Wisconsin (24-23) and a victory at Michigan State (37-34). The Wisconsin win was the Big Ten's biggest upset since 1982.
Senior quarterback Brandon Peters is in his second season after transferring from Michigan, and he played well last year. Peters threw 18 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. The Illini will need his leadership in 2020, because they lose their top two running backs from last year and Ra'Von Bonner has opted out of the season because of the pandemic. There are still lots of questions on both sides of the football this year, but Illinois is making progress after some really poor seasons in the beginning of Smith's tenure.
Perhaps Illinois's best weapon is its punter, Blake Hayes. Hayes is arguably the best punter in the conference and got plenty of opportunities to showcase his talent last year. He averaged nearly 45 yards per punt and downed the opposition inside its 20-yard line 32 times.
Ohio State is 68–30 all-time against Illinois, including eight consecutive wins.
Fifth-Toughest Game: Ohio State at Michigan State, Dec. 5 at Spartan Stadium
For what it's worth, I think Illinois may end up being a better team than Michigan State at the end of the year. But I have a sneaking suspicion the game at Spartan Stadium will be slightly tougher—perhaps because of the looming rivalry game the following week.
It was an tough offseason for the Spartans, as they eventually brought in Mel Tucker as the new head coach, but that process didn't play out well in the public eye. Tucker (a former Ohio State assistant under Jim Tressel) left Colorado's program with a sour taste after he said publicly he had not interest in leaving ... and then bolted for East Lansing.
At the heart of the issue for Michigan State, it has no proven quarterbacks on the roster that has shown it can win a big game. It's likely that redshirt sophomore Rocky Lombardi will be the starter this year, but he has his work cut out for him. MSU lost its top three wide receivers from last year's team, so the Spartans will likely rely on Elijah Collins to shoulder the load at running back.
Buckeye fans certainly haven't forgotten the gut-wrenching losses to MSU in 2013 or 2015, costing Ohio State a chance at a national championship. But the Scarlet and Gray are 33-15 all-time against Sparty, including four consecutive victories.
Fourth-Toughest Game: Ohio State vs. Indiana, Nov. 21 at Ohio Stadium
Indiana was perhaps the team I was most impressed with last year for which I didn't have high expectations. It finished the season 8-5, the first time since 1993 the Hoosiers won at least eight games in a season. They haven't won a bowl game since 1991, but this team might be primed for a solid season.
Quarterback Michael Penix showcased a nice skillset last year when he led the offense. The team won five of the six games in which he started. The problem was his health—he got hurt three different times and the team sputtered under Peyton Ramsey. IU also returns its top two rushers and top three receivers from last season.
It's been a long time since the Hoosiers beat Ohio State. You have to go all the way back to 1988, when John Cooper's Buckeyes stumbled in Bloomington 41-7. Since then, 24 consecutive OSU wins push a dominating series lead to 75-12. This is an improved Indiana team that played the Buckeyes close in the first half last year before Ohio State ran away to a 51-10 victory.
Third-Toughest Game: Ohio State vs. Nebraska, Oct. 24 at Ohio Stadium
For what it's worth, I think Indiana is a better team than Nebraska. But this season-opener is filled with intrigue and I think could be a slightly more challenging game than a Week 5 matchup vs. the Hoosiers.
Nebraska was the most outspoken team the last month about wanting to play football—from university president Ted Carter to head coach Scott Frost. Its reward is a trip to Columbus before hosting Wisconsin to open their schedule.
The Huskers have an extremely proud tradition, but they've had a rough stretch the last three seasons. Prior to Frost's arrival, Nebraska had been to a bowl game 17 of the previous 20 seasons. Since he showed up, the Huskers have managed seasons of 4-8 and 5-7.
Frost is in his third year in Lincoln and he will lean heavily on Adrian Martinez to resurrect his program. Martinez is a third-year starting quarterback and needs to have an impactful campaign. Nebraska also returns Dedrick Mills and Wan'Dale Robinson to bolster the run game. But a lack of reps under new offensive coordinator Matt Lubick could make for a tough day at Ohio Stadium in the highly-anticipated first game of the fall.
Ohio State leads the all-time series, 7-1, which includes five consecutive victories.
Second Toughest Game: Ohio State vs. Michigan, Dec. 12 at Ohio Stadium
THE GAME is back in its rightful place as the final game of the season. And like most years, you can throw all the statistics and series history out the window. Ohio State has completely dominated this game over the last two decades, but playing in front of an empty stadium will be an alarming sight for fans across the country.
In many respects, Jim Harbaugh has lifted the Wolverines back to national prominence. He's 47-18 in five seasons at Michigan, but has one glaring error on his resume. He's 0-5 against Ohio State and has been embarrassed the last two years. The Buckeyes have won 56-27 and 62-39 the last two seasons.
During an offseason spat on a coaches conference call, a report came out that Harbaugh accused Day of cheating and Day told him to worry about his team. Day reportedly told the Buckeyes shortly thereafter that Michigan should hope the conference implements a mercy rule because "we're going to hang 100 on them."
Michigan got some bad news this past week. Quarterback Dylan McCaffrey announced he is transferring and that leaves junior Joe Milton as the presumptive starter. With Nico Collins opting out this fall, Ronnie Bell is the team's only returning receiver that made a substantial impact last year. Sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet is poised for a big season.
On defense, TTUN lost its top three tacklers, but Aidan Hutchinson, Cameron McGrone and Brad Hawkins will anchor their respective units.
Michigan leads the all-time series, 58-51, but Ohio State has won eight consecutive games in the rivalry and lost only once since 2004. Michigan has lost nine consecutive games played at The Shoe, but will an empty Ohio Stadium be a difference-maker?
Toughest Game: Ohio State at Penn State, Oct. 31 at Beaver Stadium
This is easily the toughest game on paper at the beginning of the season. Penn State is coming off an 11-2 season with loses to the Buckeyes and Minnesota. James Franklin is building something special in Happy Valley after inheriting a program that was on probation and lacking scholarships. After winning a New Year's Six bowl game last year, Franklin signed a substantial contract extension through 2025. He'll earn more than $5 million this year.
Sean Clifford is a legitimate Big Ten quarterback, Journey Brown is perhaps the best running back in the conference and Pat Freiermuth is maybe the best tight end in the country. The Nittany Lions have an entirely new offensive staff.
On defense, Shaka Toney is a stud and Tariq Castro-Fields is a fantastic defensive back. Of course, All-American linebacker Micah Parsons is likely the best defensive player in the Big Ten. But the Nittany Lions are hoping that he'll change his mind and opt back into the season after leaving the program a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, former five-star prospects Brandon Smith and Lance Dixon will likely have significant roles this fall at linebacker.
The toughest game on the schedule is a Week 2 game, for better or for worse. Both teams will be ready and hopefully healthy. This has been an incredible matchup the last few years, including a pair of 1-point for the Buckeyes in 2017 and 2018. OSU pulled away last year 28-17. The winner this year will very likely represent the Big Ten East Division in the conference title game on Dec. 19.