Can Anyone in the Big Ten Stop Ohio State?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Defending national champion Ohio State was a runaway choice to repeat as Big Ten champion in Cleveland.com’s preseason poll. It’s almost assured the Buckeyes will be a unanimous No. 1 when the Big Ten media days projections are released later this week.

With all of one Big Ten loss in the last three seasons, not to mention returning many of the players crucial to last season’s title run, Ohio State’s selection is a no-brainer. Less obvious than Ohio State’s place atop college football, and thus the Big Ten, is if anyone who shares the Buckeyes conference can slow the

Ohio State opens 2015 with the only team to beat it in a regular-season game over Urban Meyer’s tenure, Virginia Tech. I fear for the Hokies in the Labor Day showcase, as I suspect the Buckeyes are eager for retribution after last season’s fluky outcome.

Virginia Tech is the only team on Ohio State’s nonconference schedule that poses any sort of challenge on paper, which leaves the Big Ten to stand up against the Buckeyes dominance.

Michigan State is the most obvious choice, both because the Spartans return a solid core from last year’s Top 10 team, and because Mark Dantonio holds the only conference win over Meyer since 2012. Michigan State’s win in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game produced one of the season’s most enduring memes: Meyer morosely chomping on national-chain pizza in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Nov. 21 contest in the Horseshoe could be a de facto Big Ten East play-in game to the Big Ten Championship two weeks later. That’s certainly the consensus among preseason prognasticators, most of whom tap only the Buckeyes and Spartans in preseason Top 25 polls.

It’s easy to see why Michigan State would be the most logical option to dethrone the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s skill players are celebrated, but the Buckeyes’ real strength is found in the trenches. A showdown of what is arguably the nation’s best defensive line, featuring Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington, up against perhaps the nation’s premier offensive line, is everything a fan of old-school Big Ten could want.

Of course, Ohio State’s style is about as far from three-yards-in-a-cloud of dust as there is in college football. Shilique Calhoun and the rest of the Michigan State front seven’s ability to disrupt the Ohio State quarterback — whether that’s J.T. Barrett or Cardale Jones, who knows right now? — and limit Ezekiel Elliot is critical. It’s the one thing both Oregon and Alabama failed to do in the Playoff, but Michigan State effectively limited Ohio State offensively in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game.

For as much hype as there’ll be for that game by the time late November arrives, though, Sparty may not be the conference game most likely to trip up the Buckeyes in their pursuit of a championship repeat. Look to the following week.

Sure, no one knows what to expect of Michigan in Jim Harbaugh’s first season. The Wolverines are coming off a dismal end to the Brady Hoke era, which saw the Wolverines take a step back in each of his four seasons at the helm.

It was all downhill from an 11-win 2011, which included the Wolverines’ last defeat of Ohio State. And given that victory came in Luke Fickell’s one-year stint as interim head coach, following Jim Tressel’s force-out in the preceding summer, it was hardly a statement win for Michigan.

But, for as trying as the Hoke era was in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines played Ohio State tough. The Buckeyes’ last visit to the Big House came down to a failed two-point conversion.

Ohio State has won other near-misses through its perfect run of Big Ten regular seasons, and it will see potential in the season to come. Kevin Wilson’s Indiana teams have done a surprising job forcing the Buckeyes out of their comfort zone, and the Hoosiers could do so again when Ohio State visits Bloomington the first week of October.

Minnesota played Ohio State within a score last season, and Jerry Kill’s overachievers come to Columbus this season with hopes of springing a trap.

But whereas opponents like Indiana or Minnesota — or yes, Virginia Tech — must play over their heads just to remain competitive with Ohio State, Michigan has stockpiled enough talent that the difference on that front isn’t nearly as pronounced.

The Wolverines’ problem isn’t necessarily lacking playmakers. They’ve needed someone who could harness that talent and give the program the right direction. Jim Harbaugh has a proven ability to do just that.

We’ll certainly know more about Michigan by the final week of the season. But regardless its record or place in the Big Ten East standings, The Big Game stands out to me as Ohio State’s most likely stumbling point on the road to Arizona and the next College Football Playoff final.