COLUMBUS, Ohio — Imagine the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation in a top-five showdown last September.
It might have been exactly what the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes needed, but it wasn’t there. Now the 2016 Buckeyes will face that kind of early test, whether they are ready or not.
The schedule Ohio State will face in 2016 is significantly more difficult in every way than the 2015 schedule. It’s a schedule that ideally the Buckeyes would flip-flop with last year.
The bored, at times overly confident veteran team of 2015 could have used national title contender Oklahoma early on and more challenges in the Big Ten. That team could have won those games, or the tougher schedule would have allowed one loss to not eliminate the Buckeyes from the playoff picture. Either way, the Buckeyes would have been more prepared for the Michigan State game in week 11 than they were after such a lousy run of opponents.
The young, developing team of 2016 could have used a 10-game start to the season that didn’t include a top 25 team, as was the case last year. Instead, a team replacing 16 starters will face four teams that won at least 10 games last year before getting to the Spartans and Wolverines. If the Buckeyes are slow to come together, they could have multiple losses before that big November finish.
Six games on the 2016 schedule feature the same opponents, the six other teams in the Big Ten East in Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana. That includes the Spartans and Wolverines sitting at the end of the schedule again as the last two games in late November.
The other six? It’s like 2015 was a JV schedule in comparison.
By one quick measure, the other six teams Ohio State played in 2015 (Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois) were a combined 37-41.
The other six teams on the schedule this year (Oklahoma, Bowling Green, Tulsa, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska) were a combined 53-26 last year.
Here’s how the schedule swap compares as the Buckeyes will put almost an entirely new team on the field in 2016.
1. Major national showdown: Swapping Virginia Tech (7-6) for Oklahoma (11-2)
The Buckeyes did lose to the Hokies two years ago, but the new home-and-home with the Sooners in 2016 and 2017 will be the toughest nonconference games the Buckeyes play since facing USC in 2008 and 2009. The last three major national foes (Miami, Cal and Virginia Tech) from 2010 to 2015 all fell off as programs from the time the games were originally scheduled.
Not the Sooners. A playoff team last year, they’ll be a playoff favorite again in 2016.
2. The MAC game: Swapping Northern Illinois (8-6) for Bowling Green (10-4)
The Falcons lost their coach, quarterback, leading rusher and two leading receivers (after Gehrig Dieter transferred to Alabama on Saturday). But with new coach Mike Jinks, the Falcons will still offer a high-flying, Big 12-style offense in the opener. As good as Northern Illinois is as a program, they are more traditional to prepare for.
Jinks, who was Texas Tech’s running backs coach, hasn’t been a college head coach before. So Ohio State won’t know exactly what’s coming.
3. The easy nonconference game: Swapping Hawaii (3-10) for Tulsa (6-7)
This is all part of a plan pushed by Gene Smith to make the schedule more difficult in the playoff era. This game shows that as much as anything. This is a very good “worst-team-on-the-schedule” game, as Tulsa made a bowl last season and lost to Virginia Tech.
Yes, the worst nonconference team on this schedule played the best nonconference team on last year’s schedule in a bowl.
Second-year coach Philip Montgomery, a former Baylor offensive coordinator, is part of the new wave of young head coaches with high-octane attacks, and his quarterback is returning. This is not Hawaii. Not close.
4. The extra Big Ten game: Swapping Western Michigan (8-5) for Northwestern (10-3)
The Big Ten nine-game schedule begins this season, and it’s a major change. Instead of another nonconference snoozer, the Buckeyes get a third crossover game against the West Division.
That will bring Northwestern’s first trip to Columbus since 2007 instead of another MAC team like Western Michigan. The Wildcats return 1,400-yard runner Justin Jackson from a team that finished No. 23 in the final AP poll.
5. The worst Big Ten crossover game: Swapping Illinois (5-7) for Nebraska (6-7)
The Cornhuskers were down last year in Mike Riley’s first season. But five of their losses came by 1, 2, 2, 3 and 5 points. There’s more talent in Lincoln than there is in Champaign. The Cornhuskers could certainly be 6-2 or so by the time they arrive in Ohio Stadium.
6. The best Big Ten crossover game: Swapping Minnesota (6-7) for Wisconsin (10-3)
The Golden Gophers have been overachievers as a Big Ten contender, but the Badgers are far more of a real deal. Wisconsin has won just one of its last eight against the Buckeyes, but it’s not just about whether the Buckeyes can beat the Badgers.
Facing Wisconsin in week six in Madison is unlike anything the Buckeyes faced a year ago in October. A game like that will either make them stronger for the stretch, or soften them up for the Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska games to follow.
In 2016, Ohio State fans won’t be able to nap until November, knowing the Buckeyes will still be undefeated when they wake up. This season, every week will be more interesting than a year ago.
That could be good. Or that could be bad. It could have been just what the 2015 team needed.