COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State’s goals are all still in play if the Buckeyes finish the regular season without another loss.
And while the players and coaching staff might not be looking ahead, it’s natural for fans and writers to wonder which teams might present the biggest obstacle to a College Football Playoff return. Ohio State has five games left on the regular-season slate, but two in particular stand out above the rest.
Which one will give the Buckeyes the most trouble? Our Land of 10 Ohio State reporters Austin Ward and Ryan Ginn make their picks.
Austin Ward: Penn State
The Game is never going to be eclipsed as the most important one on the schedule. There could still be plenty on the line in the conference-title race, and the rivalry is enough of a motivator even if the College Football Playoff isn’t in play for both teams.
Now that those caveats are out of the way: The Nittany Lions will provide the toughest test of the season for the Buckeyes, and it will be the most important game for both teams. Again, that doesn’t diminish the importance of the road trip to Michigan, but Penn State is simply the more complete football team.
For all the talk about Michigan’s defense, it’s currently Penn State that leads the Big Ten in points allowed at just 9 per game. And when it comes to the offenses, there’s really no comparison between what Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley can do and the mediocre attack Jim Harbaugh has built this season. And as impressive as the work James Franklin has done in helping Penn State recover from the NCAA sanctions, it’s almost as difficult to believe that Harbaugh is struggling to find some traction against Michigan’s rivals and make a dent in the East Division now in his third season.
Ohio State wants revenge. It is chasing redemption in the playoffs and another national championship. It’s also currently looking up at Penn State in the polls. The Nittany Lions are the team standing in the way of everything for the Buckeyes right now, and that’s why next Saturday at the Horseshoe will be their game of the year — even with The Game still looming in November.
Ryan Ginn: Michigan
I’ve said it since the preseason that the Wolverines will be the biggest problem for the Buckeyes among Big Ten opponents, and I’m still sticking with that despite an increasing amount of evidence in the opposite direction. My colleague Austin Ward certainly argued a strong case, but I believe there are just as many factors that indicate Michigan is the biggest roadblock on the Buckeyes’ path to glory.
First, history in both series point to worrying more about the Wolverines. Any Ohio State fan who watched the 2013 game in Ann Arbor knows that anything can happen in the rivalry, and the following year was also closer than it should have been. On the other hand, Urban Meyer has owned Penn State when it hasn’t been a white out in Happy Valley. The Buckeyes won 63-14 in 2013 and 38-10 in 2015.
It’s also worth noting that Ohio State is more likely to lose a low-scoring game when its offense is shut down than a track meet between two offensive-minded teams. Michigan happens to be No. 1 in the country in total defense, allowing fewer than 225 yards per game. (Though Penn State isn’t far behind at No. 9 in that category.) The Wolverines have a terrifying defensive line that could cause problems for Ohio State.
There’s also the possibility that Michigan’s objectively terrible quarterback won’t be playing when the Buckeyes visit Ann Arbor. Backup John O’Korn has been truly awful, but there’s a chance that either frequently adequate starter Wilton Speight returns from his injury or the Wolverines go with third-stringer Brandon Peters. With all that in mind — but primarily the fact that Michigan has a ton of talent and anything can happen in this rivalry — Buckeyes fans should be more worried about the Wolverines than the Nittany Lions.