Receiving a high ranking in the preseason polls is an indication of tremendous respect for a college football team. With those high expectations, however, also comes the pressure to deal with the figurative target that a high numerical ranking represents.
Defending national champion Ohio State will find out what it’s like to deal with that weight and the responsibility of being anointed with a preseason No. 1-ranking when they begin the 2015 season as the consensus top-ranked team in all of college football.
When you’re considered the cream of the crop team in the sport, you’re going to get the best effort from every opponent, every week. Head Coach Urban Meyer knows that from his days leading the Florida Gators. He knows how quickly a team can degenerate from being a celebrated national champion to a four-loss also-ran.
The difference between the 2015 Buckeyes and Meyer’s 2007 Gator squad—a team which failed to materialize into much of a worthy championship defender—is expectations and talent.
Unlike that ‘07 Florida team, Ohio State will enter the upcoming season as the undisputed most talented team in all of college football. That’s why the sky high expectations are warranted.
DE Joey Bosa, RB Ezekiel Elliott, OT Taylor Decker, LB Darron Lee, FS Vonn Bell and DT Adolphus Washington are all potential first-round NFL draft picks, as well as All-American candidates. Then there’s also the much talked-about, star-studded quarterback trio of Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. Plus, there are plenty of other emerging young playmakers on both sides of the ball.
This fall, Colombus will be home to one of the best collections of talent that we’ve seen on a college football team in quite some time.
The burning question is: Can the Buckeyes handle the pressure of having the target on their back and repeat as national champions?
The 2015 schedule isn’t shaping up to be overly daunting or overbearing. But the 12-game slate does include its fair share of challenging matchups and hurdles to overcome.
Here’s a look at Ohio State’s five toughest tests of 2015.
1 – Michigan State Spartans
Date and Location: Nov. 21 (Columbus)
Over the last two seasons, Ohio State has the most wins of any Big Ten team with 26 total victories. Michigan State is right behind the Buckeyes with 24 total wins in that time span.
Heading into his ninth season in East Lansing, head coach Mark Dantonio has finally established the Spartans as a nationally recognized program and a perennial championship contender.
The 2015 squad—led by heralded senior quarterback Connor Cook—could be the best team Dantonio’s had yet during his tenure in East Lansing.
Cook, a three-year starter who many feel has the talent to emerge as a franchise NFL quarterback prospect, knows what it’s like to beat the Buckeyes. He’s the one who led Michigan State to a 34-24 upset victory over Ohio State in the 2013 Big Ten championship game.
He also led the offense to 37 points in last year’s battle with the Buckeyes, throwing for 358 yards and two touchdowns. The problem is, the Michigan State defense gave up 49 points.
If the Spartans defense, which will be led by All-Big Ten candidates DE Shilique Calhoun, LB Ed Davis and S RJ Williamson, can give a steadier effort in this year’s late November clash in Columbus, Michigan State has a real shot to derail Ohio State’s national championship dream.
2 – Virginia Tech Hokies
Date and Location: Sept. 7 (Blacksburg)
Virginia Tech represented the one in Ohio State’s 13-1 overall record for the 2014 season. In a Week 2 Saturday night primetime matchup, the Hokies shocked a team that was still trying to find its way on offense when they came into Ohio Stadium and stunned the No. 8-ranked Buckeyes 35-21.
Ohio State won’t have to wait long to get revenge for that defeat. The two teams will open up the 2015 season in a Monday Night Labor Day showdown in Blacksburg.
The Hokies had their well-documented struggles on offense last year. It’s a unit that ranked 12th in the ACC in both scoring offense and total offense. But those struggles could at least partially be attributed to youth and injuries.
Virginia Tech’s bread-and-butter is defense, and the team should once again have one of the most stout defensive units in the country in 2015. Ends Ken Ekanem and Dadi Nicolas and tackles Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall form one of the best defensive lines in the country, while the secondary features one of the sport’s best cornerback combos comprised of Kendall Fuller and Brandon Facyson.
The Hokies certainly have enough talent on defense to keep the high-powered Ohio State offense in check. The only question is: Can the Virginia Tech offense step up its game and produce the necessary big plays needed to pull off yet another early-season upset?
3 – Penn State Nittany Lions
Date and Location: Oct. 17 (Columbus)
In last year’s matchup in Happy Valley, Ohio State built up a 17-0 halftime lead only to fall apart in the second half, as the Nittany Lions rallied to send the game into extra sessions. Luckily, the Buckeyes were able to survive the scare and hold on for a 31-24 win in double-overtime.
Still, even in defeat, Penn State showed that it wasn’t intimidated by the Big Ten champion.
Besides Michigan State’s Connor Cook, there isn’t a better quarterback that Ohio State will face in the regular season than Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.
Though he endured a bit of a sophomore slump in 2014, the 6’4’’, 236-pound former blue-chip recruit has all the desired tools to be an elite pro-style passer.
It helps that Hackenberg will once again have plenty of experienced playmakers at his disposal such as RB Akeel Lynch, receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis and TE Kyle Carter.
If Penn State’s shaky offensive line can give the strong-armed signal-caller the protection he needs, something the unit failed to do in last year’s game, Hackenberg should be able to keep pace with Ohio State’s explosive offensive attack.
4 – Michigan Wolverines
Date and Location: Nov. 28 (Ann Arbor)
Michigan made the biggest splash coaching hire of the offseason when it reeled in former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to lead the rebuilding effort. Harbaugh infuses some much-needed excitement and optimism into a program which fell into disarray during Brady Hoke’s final season.
After watching the Wolverines trudge their way through a disastrous four-win campaign in 2014, it’s obvious that Harbaugh won’t be able to just walk in, snap his fingers and completely rejuvenate the once powerhouse program in just one season.
On paper, it looks like Harbaugh’s Wolverines are still at least another year away from being able to truly stand toe-to-toe with Meyer’s Buckeyes. However, we are talking about a coach who once led a Stanford team that was a 41-point underdog to an improbable upset win over USC during his first season in Palo Alto back in 2007.
It’s certainly within the realm of possibility to think the Wolverines could put a scare into their hated rival, especially since the game will take place in the Big House, a place where the Buckeyes barely escaped with a wild 42-41 victory the last time they visited back in 2013.
5 – Minnesota Golden Gophers
Date and Location: Nov. 7 (Columbus)
Over the last four years, Jerry Kill has slowly but surely built Minnesota into a respectable competitor. After back-to-back eight win seasons, the Golden Gophers look like they have the type of talent to be a potential contender in the Big Ten West in 2015.
Dual-threat quarterback Mitch Leidner has the potential to be one of the conference’s biggest breakout stars this season. Leidner is the type of player that could cause plenty of headaches for the Ohio State defense both as a passer and a runner, something he wasn’t able to do in last year’s 31-24 loss due to cold, snowy conditions.
Last year’s seven-point loss at home shows that Minnesota can hang with Ohio State. This year, we’ll find out if the Gophers can put together a standout performance and pull off a huge statement upset.