It may be two-and-a-half months until the opening kickoff of the 2009 season, but that doesn't mean it's too early to talk a little college football. With that in mind, let's take a quick look at Ohio State's '09 schedule, opponent-by-opponent.
Saturday, Sept. 5: vs. Navy- An interesting test to begin the season. The Midshipmen are short on athleticism but long on discipline and smarts, and their archaic triple-option attack will be a tough puzzle to solve for Ohio State's young defense. Navy's top two rushers from 2008, Shun White and Kirtland native Eric Kettani, have departed, but turnover doesn't seem to matter in Annapolis: the Academy has led the nation in rushing the last four years, and figures to be ranked at or near the top again in '09. This will be the first meeting between the two schools since the 1981 Liberty Bowl, when the Buckeyes held off the Middies 31-28.
Saturday, Sept. 12; vs. USC- This is an absolute, no-doubt-about-it, must-win for Ohio State. (I know, I know- aren't they all?) The Buckeyes have fared extremely poorly in marquee out-of-conference games the last few years, including last year's 35-3 beat-down at the hands of the Trojans in Los Angeles. This year they have USC at home, at night, and with the Trojans in the throes of a rebuild (or a reload, as the case may be) particularly on the defensive side, where ten of the Trojans' top eleven tacklers from 2008 have moved on. To quote Lou Saban, they can get it done; what's more, they've got to get it done.
Saturday, Sept. 19: vs. Toledo- Ohio State hosts the Rockets in the annual charity game against a sacrificial lamb from the MAC. Toledo has limped through three consecutive losing seasons and went 3-9 in 2008, costing big Tom Amstutz his job in the process. New coach Tim Beckman was an assistant under Jim Tressell at Ohio State in 2005 and '06. The Buckeyes haven't lost to a MAC opponent since 1894 and won't lose this one. All they need to worry about is staying healthy and taking care of business.*
*- By the way, I neglected to mention that this game will be played at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Could be your first and last chance to see competent football played by the local eleven at CBS, so get your tickets now!
Saturday, Sept. 26: vs. Illinois- Ron Zook's troops return to Columbus for the first time since they stunned the top-ranked Buckeyes 28-21 on November 10, 2007. The Illini stumbled to a disappointing 5-7 record in 2008 but will return the electrifying Juice Williams, who threw for 3,173 yards, rushed for 719, and accounted for 27 touchdowns with his arm and legs. 1,055-yard receiver Arrelious Benn and second-leading rusher Daniel Dufrene (663 yards) will also be back. Ohio State's defense has struggled to stop Illinois the last two years; look for this game to be a shootout.
Saturday, Oct. 3: @ Indiana- After a two-year hiatus, the Buckeyes hit the road for the first time in 2009 to renew their one-sided rivalry with the neighboring Hoosiers. Ohio State has beaten Indiana fourteen consecutive times, the last five by an average score of 39-9. The Hoosiers followed up their inspirational 2007 campaign by going 3-9 in '08, including two losses to MAC schools, and will be without the services of standout quarterback Kellen Lewis, who was booted off the team this spring and transferred to Valdosta State.
Saturday, Oct. 10: vs. Wisconsin- Looking to bounce back from an off-key 2008 campaign, Bret Bielema brings his team to the Horseshoe, a venue in which the Badgers have had quite a bit of success lately. Prior to a 38-17 loss in 2007, Wisconsin had won three straight in Columbus. P.J. Hill has taken his three 1,000 yards-plus seasons and moved on to the NFL, but that shouldn't be a problem for the Badgers: John Clay rushed for 884 yards as a freshman and might be better than Hill. Wisconsin's ability to bounce back in 2009 hinges largely on two factors: whether or not Dustin Sherer can solidify the quarterback spot, and whether or not a relatively inexperienced defense can improve on a below-average season in 2008.
Saturday, Oct. 17: @ Purdue- For the first time since 1996, Ohio State will take on a Boilermakers team not coached by Joe Tiller. New coach Danny Hope will go into 2009 with an inexperienced offense (five returning starters; four on the offensive line) and an experienced defense (seven returning starters) that was terrible last year against just about every FBS opponent but Ohio State. Without Curtis Painter, Kory Sheets, and 2008 leading receivers Desmond Tardy and Greg Orton, the Boilermakers will struggle on the offensive side of the ball this year, although the new starters will have six games under their belts by the time the Buckeyes come to West Lafayette.
Saturday, Oct. 24: vs. Minnesota- Tim Brewster will bring the Gophers to Columbus for the second consecutive season, armed with an offense led by third-year starting quarterback Adam Weber, receiver Eric Decker- the Big Ten's leading pass catcher in 2008- and a defense that returns eight starters from a unit that was one of the most opportunistic in college football last year. With a veteran quarterback and a veteran defense, Minnesota should be improved from last year, when it started 7-1 and collapsed with five straight losses to end the season. Ohio State has won 18 of its last 19 home games against the Gophers, with the only loss coming in 2000, John Cooper's last season in Columbus.
Saturday, Oct. 31: vs. New Mexico State- Ohio State will celebrate Halloween with an unusual mid-season out-of-conference clash with the Aggies, one of college football's perennial sad-sacks. NMSU has just four winning seasons since 1968 and owns the longest bowl drought in the nation, having last played in a postseason game way back in 1960. DeWayne Walker is the new head coach, replacing Hal Mumme, who went 11-38 in a woeful four-year stint. Ohio State's biggest challenge in this game will be not thinking ahead to the following week, when the Buckeyes head to Happy Valley.
Saturday, Nov. 7: @ Penn State- Not to count chickens pre-hatch, but this game will probably decide the Big Ten Championship, and might hold national championship implications as well. With their God-awful schedule (Akron, Syracuse, Temple, Eastern Illinois), the Nittany Lions have a good chance of being undefeated going into their clash with OSU. Young Mr. Pryor should be well-motivated- not only is this his first trip back to his native Pennsylvania as a Buckeye, but it was his fumble that set up Penn State's winning touchdown in Ohio State's 13-6 loss to the Lions last season in Columbus. No kickoff time has been set, but I'm about 99.9 percent sure this baby is going to be played under the lights in White-Out conditions.
Saturday, Nov. 14: vs. Iowa- Kirk Ferentz leads the Hawkeyes into Columbus for the first time since 2005, fresh off a 9-4 season that included the Big Ten's only bowl victory (over an SEC opponent at that.) Shonn Green's 1,850 rushing yards and twenty touchdowns have departed, as has defensive linchpin Mitch King, but Iowa does return a total of fourteen starters, including quarterback Ricky Stanzi. Sandwiched between the emotional Penn State clash and the Game in Ann Arbor, this game has "trap" written all over it.
Saturday, Nov. 21: @ Michigan- Rich Rod's team should be better in 2009, if only because it can't possibly be worse than last year's 3-9 abomination. The second-year coach will have a quarterback who fits his system in freshman Tate Forcier, a solid senior tailback in Brandon Minor, and an experienced offensive line. He'll also have a new defensive coordinator, ex-Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, who will need to rebuild a unit that badly underachieved last year. With a true freshman quarterback and a newly installed 3-4 defensive alignment, the growing pains will continue for Michigan in 2009, but a bowl trip is an outside possibility, provided the Wolverines win three of their first four against Western Michigan, Notre Dame, Eastern Michigan and Indiana. My hunch is that the Maize and Blue will go into the final Saturday sitting at 5-6, with a trip to the Motor City Bowl riding on the outcome against the Buckeyes. Ohio State, of course, will be looking at warmer destinations.