Ohio State Schedule Analysis: Games 1-6

The 2015 college football season is fast approaching. What is widely considered to be the most important regular season in all of sports gets underway in less than two weeks. With that in mind, fans and pundits alike are looking over their teams’ schedules in search of the big opportunities and potential pitfalls on the road to the bowl season and College Football Playoff.

Having said that, what are we to expect out of the Ohio State schedule this year? The Buckeyes are an overwhelming favorite to repeat as both Big Ten and national champions. In fact, they became the first team in the history of the preseason AP poll to be voted number one by all 61 voters on Sunday. Clearly, much is expected out of this team in 2015.

Here, we analyze the first half of the season. The expectation is that OSU should emerge from these first six games undefeated, especially considering their College Football Playoff aspirations. Nevertheless, when you win a national title, the target on your back becomes that much more pronounced. Are there any teams on this portion of the schedule that could give the Scarlet and Gray a game?

Let’s take a look.

Ohio State Schedule Analysis: Games 1-6

At Virginia Tech: September 7th, 8 PM ET, ESPN

Apart from the on-field stories surrounding this game, revenge will certainly be a key theme when the Buckeyes travel to Blacksburg, VA to face Virginia Tech. After all, it was the Hokies that came into Columbus last season and escaped with a 35-21 upset victory. The setback appeared to dash Ohio State’s national title hopes a mere two weeks into the season. It also added to the negative perception of the Big Ten when combined with other high-profile non-conference losses involving the conference.

In retrospect, those narratives were essentially blown out of proportion as we saw during the bowls and CFP.

Last year, VT feasted on the relative inexperience of quarterback J.T. Barrett and the Buckeye offensive line. Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s defensive schemes caused headaches all night. They sacked Barrett seven times and put the game away late with a pick six that ended all hopes of a Buckeye comeback. Needless to say, things are quite different in 2015.

The only uncertainty at quarterback is related to who Urban Meyer names the starter between Barrett and Cardale Jones. The O-line got progressively better as 2014 rolled on and their growing cohesiveness as a unit played a key role in the national title run. Running back Ezekiel Elliott comes into this season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy frontrunner (along with whoever wins the starting quarterback job).

Defensively, the Bucks won’t have the services of defensive end Joey Bosa who will be serving a one-game suspension along with three players on offense (Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, and Corey Smith). It remains to be seen whether his absence will have any noticeable impact on that side of the ball, but considering how many returning starters OSU has on defense they should be just fine. Darron Lee and Josh Perry anchor a linebacking corps expected to be among the nation’s best, especially if sophomore Raekwon McMillan can break out.

Tech returns quarterback Michael Brewer as well as talented tight end Bucky Hodges. On defense, three members of that feared secondary are back including 2014 second team All-American Kendall Fuller and rover Donovan Riley whose 63-yard interception return sealed the Hokie upset in Columbus last year.

Hokie head coach Frank Beamer enters his 29th season in Blacksburg. He’s currently the longest tenured coach in the nation and his 273 wins is most among active FBS coaches. Expect him to have Tech ready to play but the Buckeyes have had this date circled for a very long time now.

Coach Meyer should have his team “nine strong” in a big way for this one.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 41, Virginia Tech 17

Hawai’i: September 12th, 3:30 PM ET, TV TBA

The Scarlet and Gray get only four days rest between their game with Virginia Tech and the home opener in front of what should be a boisterous crowd at Ohio Stadium. Their opponents, the Hawai’i Warriors, make the lengthy journey from the islands to Columbus in the first-ever meeting between the two programs.

In his first three seasons as head coach of Hawai’i, Norm Chow has a combined record of 8-29 and went 1-11 in 2013. The team was much improved last year, though, nearly upsetting Washington (who was ranked 25th at the time) in the season opener and winning two of their last three en route to a 4-9 record. Chow brought in two new coordinators (Don Bailey on offense; Tom Mason on defense), will be relinquishing play-calling duties to Bailey, and has a potential instant impact player at quarterback in USC transfer Max Wittek.

Despite all the positive developments in Honolulu, it probably won’t feel like paradise when they play the Buckeyes. Hawai’i was the eight-worst team in FBS in sacks allowed last year and will be facing a defense that finished seventh overall in bringing down the quarterback with Bosa chomping at the bit to make his season debut after sitting out the Virginia Tech game. Wittek will be facing a buzzsaw of a defense the likes of which he won’t see the rest of the year.

Simply put, this one could get ugly.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 62, Hawai’i 7

Northern Illinois: September 19th, 3:30 PM ET, TV TBA

The non-conference schedules of Power Five teams have been under increasing scrutiny due in part to the complaint that too many schools are loading up on “cupcakes,” so to speak. Ohio State can’t be accused of this by scheduling Northern Illinois, that’s for sure. This is a program that has won three of the last four MAC championships, has appeared in the conference title game five straight years going back to 2010, and even made an Orange Bowl appearance at the end of the 2012 season.

Since 2010, the Huskies have faced Big Ten opposition seven times and have won four. Two of those three losses (against Illinois and Iowa) came by a combined seven points. Still, coming into the Horseshoe and knocking off the Buckeyes is no easy feat.

If they’re going to keep this game close, NIU will have to rely heavily on their defense which returns eight starters. The secondary has an opportunity to be among the MAC’s best at forcing mistakes out of opposing quarterbacks.

Offensively, there’s just not enough there in terms of experience, particularly among the line. Though dual-threat quarterback Drew Hare returns, much like Wittek above with Hawaii he can expect to be harassed constantly by the OSU front seven.

This game might stay close until halftime but the Buckeyes should pull away late.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 45, Northern Illinois 20

Western Michigan: September 26th, Time & TV TBA

Third-year head coach P.J. Fleck may be building something special in Kalamazoo. His past two recruiting classes were ranked highest in the MAC by Rivals including the 2014 class that at 59th overall beat out four Big Ten schools in the site’s rankings. Last season, the team had a seven-win improvement from their 1-11 record in 2013 and even had a six-game winning streak at one point.

If there’s any team capable of knocking the aforementioned Huskies off their pedestal in the MAC, it might be the Broncos. They return 16 of 22 starters on both sides of the ball including nine on offense and practically all their skill position players.

The Buckeye defense will need to keep a close eye on perhaps the best trio of talent at a Group of Five school in 2015.

Junior quarterback Zach Terrell was the sixth-most efficient passer in the country last year, throwing for 3,443 yards, 26 touchdowns and ten interceptions while sporting a nearly 68 percent completion percentage. His favorite target was fellow junior Corey Davis. His 15 touchdown receptions was tied for third in FBS while his 1,408 receiving yards was seventh. Then there’s the defending MAC Offensive Player of the Year in running back Jarvion Franklin. As a freshman, he gained 1,595 yards on the ground and found the end zone 24 times, good enough for fourth nationally.

I think the tools are there to score on Ohio State but can their defense make enough plays to give the Buckeyes fits? I’m not sold on that prospect. The Broncos front seven is severely undersized, including senior middle linebacker Grant DePalma at 5’9″ and 218 pounds. The OSU O-line will make it extremely difficult for Western to generate any kind of consistent pass rush or run-stopping ability.

Similar to Northern Illinois, I think this game is close early but OSU’s sheer physicality on both sides of the ball eventually wears the Broncos down.

And once again, Western Michigan ain’t no cupcake.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 51, Western Michigan 24

At Indiana: October 3rd, Time & TV TBA

Say what you want about the seemingly constant moribund nature of the Indiana football program, they have played Ohio State well in two of the last three years. 2012 saw the Buckeyes surrender 22 points in the fourth quarter and needed to recover an onside kick to preserve a 52-49 victory. Last year, the Hoosiers came into the Horseshoe and saw themselves leading 20-14 in the third quarter before Jalin Marshall tallied four consecutive touchdowns in the eventual 42-27 win for the Scarlet and Gray.

That’s right, Indiana scored seven more points against the OSU defense than Oregon did in the national title game.

This year, the Hoosiers host the Big Ten opener for both teams. IU boasts a formidable offensive line that could match up well with the OSU defensive front. Pay close attention to the battle at the line of scrimmage in this game. Let’s just say it’s going to get awfully physical.

Quarterback Nate Sudfeld returns for one more go-around after missing the second half of last season with a shoulder injury sustained against Iowa. Keep in mind that when he was in charge of the offense in 2013, Indiana finished tied for ninth nationally in total offense (508.5 yards per game). Losing Tevin Coleman hurts, but UAB transfer Jordan Howard, who was first team all-C-USA last year, softens the blow.

As usual, the biggest question marks for IU is on defense and a unit that finished 95th in yards conceded per game (433.8) returns just four starters. The news of strong safety Antonio Allen’s arrest and subsequent dismissal from the team makes things even leaner on that side of the ball. That said, the defensive line suffered the least attrition though talented nose tackle Bobby Richardson departs. Expect senior defensive end Nick Mangieri to reprise his role as a “bandit outside linebacker” in a few of defensive coordinator Brian Knorr’s schemes.

I think a highly motivated Indiana team with a prolific offense and a defense with something to prove makes this a game that, as Lee Corso says often on College Gameday, is “closer than the experts think.”

Score Prediction: Ohio State 38, Indiana 31

Maryland (Homecoming): October 10th, noon, TV TBA

Homecoming at the Horseshoe pits the Bucks against Maryland, making their first-ever trip to Columbus. The two schools had never faced each other until last year’s matchup which was the Terps inaugural home game as a member of the Big Ten. It didn’t go well as OSU romped to a 52-24 win in what could aptly be referred to as Barrett’s coming out party. He accounted for 370 all-purpose yards as well as five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing).

Maryland will have trouble replicating the success of their first year in the conference. Only ten starters return from last season’s 7-5 team. Gone on offense is quarterback C.J. Brown and supremely talented wideout Stefon Diggs who has since moved on to the NFL. The two running backs who had the most reps last season, Brandon Ross and Wes Brown, accounted for a paltry 775 yards.

I don’t even know what to say about the Terps defense. Just four regular starters return and the players at the top of the two-deep among their front seven had a combined 30 starts last year. That’s just over four per player, so expect Elliott to have a field day running the football. The lone bright spot from an experience standpoint is defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who registered six sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in 2014.

Turtle soup might be on the menu in Columbus for homecoming.

Score Prediction: Ohio State 56, Maryland 20

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my forthcoming analysis of the second half of the Buckeyes 2015, where things are expected to get a bit more challenging.

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