For the first time since November 26, 2016 the No. 2 Ohio State University Buckeyes will return to the friendly confines of Ohio Stadium. I wonder which non-conference foe awaits them: Bowling Green perhaps? Akron? Kent State? Oh look, it’s No. 5 Oklahoma in prime time. Welcome home.
Ohio State and Oklahoma are finishing the second leg of a home-and-home. The Bucks vanquished the Sooners 45-24 in a high scoring affair at Memorial Stadium last year. OSU leads the overall series with OU 2-1 with the Bucks’ first win coming in 1983. Oklahoma won its lone contest against Ohio State in 1977. So far Oklahoma is undefeated in Columbus, and OSU hasn’t lost in Norman.
Last week OU started their season strong with a 65-7 victory over UTEP. The Sooners dominated stem to stern and by the second half plenty of backups were on the field. Senior quarterback and perennial Heisman contender Baker Mayfield threw 19-of-20 passing for 329 yards and three touchdowns. Three different running backs gained at least fifty yards – sophomore Abdul Adams, junior Marcelias Sutton, and freshman Trey Sermon. The Sooners’ top receiving threat is senior tight end Mark Andrews who hauled in seven receptions last week for 134 yards and a score. Oklahoma is favored to reach the (newly re-instated) Big XII Championship Game and appeared on a number of preseason prognostications of playoff participants.
The game will double as a test for new head coach Lincoln Riley. Riley joined the Sooners in 2015 as the offensive coordinator. When OU legend Bob Stoops retired in June the OC was promoted to head coach. The 34-year-old Riley is the youngest head coach in Division I football. Stoops was a legend in Norman winning the 2000 National Championship and ten conference titles in his eighteen seasons in crimson. Riley did not seem ruffled by UTEP in Week 1, but that is no surprise. The noise, energy, and aggressive crowd in the ‘Shoe will serve as a hotter flame against which Riley can test his mettle.
Despite the respectable final score last week, Ohio State struggled against perpetual doormat Indiana and actually trailed 14-13 at the half. A 22-7 third quarter erased all doubt, but the story of the contest was true freshman running back J.K. Dobbins. The La Grange, Texas native scampered for 181 yards on 29 attempts for 6.2 yards per gain average. He stepped in when starting tailback Mike Weber suffered a hamstring injury pregame. The Big Ten named Dobbins freshman of the week for his performance.
The days of cupcake non-conference schedules are (mostly) behind us. For years the Buckeyes would cut their teeth on Sun Belt or MAC schools with the occasional FCS school thrown in for good measure. Several years ago the Big Ten instituted a new policy that would prohibit its member schools from scheduling FCS opponents and encouraging at least one Power 5 foe. As the schedules are set years in advance we are starting to see the effects of that decision. Besides No. 5 Oklahoma the Bucks will also play Army (8-5 in 2016 with a bowl win) and UNLV (lost to FCS Howard last week ok this one is still pretty cupcake-y). The list of future schedules includes more and more Power 5 schools and conference contenders:
- 2018: Oregon State, TCU, Tulane
- 2019: Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati, Miami (OH)
- 2020: Bowling Green, at Oregon
- 2021: Oregon, Tulsa
- 2022: Notre Dame, at Texas
- 2023: Texas, at Notre Dame
- 2024: at Washington
Admittedly the 2019 slate looks soft right now, but the overall trend is clearly going toward more home-and-homes with more blue blood programs. So long as the playoff committee values strength of schedule those marquee games will continue to pay off for Ohio State.
As for Saturday, both schools have reasonable National Championship dreams with plenty to prove on the field. Ohio State plays well under the lights (16-4 in home night games), and the crowd should give the visitors fits. This game could legitimately go either way, but Las Vegas calls OSU a 7.5 point favorite which feels about right. It may be tenser than last week, but Ohio State should have the talent and the coaching to get an early signature win.