COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer is no dummy.
He knows what everyone else knows: Outside of a Week 3 trip to Norman to take on Oklahoma, and despite the nation’s sixth strongest of schedule, the Ohio State head coach knows his team hasn’t truly been tested.
At the very least, he knows the Buckeyes haven’t faced adversity yet either.
He also knows that’s something that won’t last long — and could very well change as early as this weekend.
Yes, Indiana has most commonly been associated with lopsided homecoming games in Ohio State’s storied history. But for all intents and purposes, and with all due respect to Rutgers, this weekend’s showdown with the Hoosiers will be the Buckeyes’ true Big Ten opener of the 2016 campaign. Unlike the lowly Scarlet Knights, Indiana possesses the ability to present a true challenge to Ohio State—the type of opponent that will help ready the Buckeyes for upcoming games against the likes of Wisconsin, Penn State and Nebraska.
“I see an outstanding team,” Meyer said of Indiana on Monday. “This is by far their best team.”
That’s saying something, considering how well the Hoosiers have played against the Buckeyes in recent years.
Despite Ohio State consistently being a national title contender while Indiana has been fighting—and often failing—to become bowl eligible, the Hoosiers have been a consistent pain in Meyer’s side since he arrived in Columbus four years ago. Three of the team’s last four meetings have been closely contested through at least the third quarter, including last season’s 34-27 Buckeyes’ victory in Bloomington, when Indiana failed to tie the game from inside the 10-yard line in the closing moments.
“A year ago, Indiana should’ve beat The Team Up North,” Meyer said, referencing the Hoosiers’ 48-41 overtime loss to Michigan last November. “They should have, or could have, beat us.”
Last week, there wasn’t any “should have” or “could have” about it. Taking on the defending Big Ten champion Michigan State, Indiana earned what was perhaps the signature victory of the Kevin Wilson era, a 24-21 overtime win over the Spartans.
Michigan State might be enduring a down year, but make no mistake about it, the Spartans still lay claim to one of the Big Ten’s more talented rosters, which should give the Buckeyes all the more reason to pause when it comes to viewing this year’s Indiana team as “the same old Hoosiers.”
“In the last four years, the level and the quality of player just continues to get better and better,” Meyer said. “I don’t know if I can give you a reason why (Indiana has played Ohio State so tough), other than that they’re a good team.”
But as is often the case when it comes to Meyer’s teams, this weekend’s game is about more than just a single opponent.
After all, you don’t consistently get your team to play its best ball when it matters most—as Meyer often does—without a big picture approach.
In that regard, this weekend’s showdown with the Hoosiers represents more than just an increase in competition, but a sign of what’s to come as the Buckeyes enter the heart of their Big Ten schedule. Next weekend, Ohio State will make their way to Madison to face a Wisconsin team that was one score away from knocking off No. 4 Michigan and perhaps earning a top-five ranking of its own. After that, the Buckeyes will head to Happy Valley, where inconsistent, but plenty talented, Penn State awaits.
It’s only October, but November matchups with Nebraska, Michigan State and Michigan are already closer than they appear. Simply put: Ohio State’s biggest and, perhaps, toughest games of the season are still ahead.
“We love to play good teams,” Buckeyes linebacker Chris Worley said. “That does nothing but make us better.”
And while it hasn’t happened in game action yet, that’s not to say Ohio State hasn’t been challenged already.
For the past few weeks, Meyer has been unsure how to gauge his team. He was worried an attention-grabbing victory over the Sooners had inflated his players’ egos and was well aware of what they were facing in a still-rebuilding Rutgers program a week ago.
As a result, the fifth-year Buckeyes head coach has found himself trying up the ante in practice, increasing the intensity in what were previously more laid back situations.
“They were challenged pretty harshly by myself and our staff,” Meyer said.
Meyer estimated he’s issued such surprise evaluations to his team “five or six times” so far this season, dating back as far as training camp. Each time, the players have passed, which Meyer has attributed to his team’s leadership.
So far, so good.
But, again, the three-time national champion head coach is no dummy.
He already knows what the rest of college football may not realize: Starting as early as Saturday, the Buckeyes might not need Meyer’s help when it comes to finding adversity.