COLUMBUS, Ohio - Criticized in the past for its weak non-conference football schedule, Ohio State should - for the most part - quiet its detractors this fall as the Buckeyes tackle a pretty good quartet of teams before embarking on their eight-game Big Ten slate.
The exception is Kent State, but the other three - Navy, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati - are solid and when you add their records from last season together, they were a combined 26-13.
Navy is always a tough team to play because of its style, Virginia Tech is just a physical foe, especially on defense, and Cincinnati has given OSU fits before when they've played.
To the Buckeyes' advantage though, three of the four games are at home in Ohio Stadium, although the season opener at Navy is being played in Baltimore at M&T Bank Stadium, home of the NFL Ravens.
Aug. 30, vs. NAVY
(in Baltimore), noon
When you play Navy, they're not like any other team you'll probably play.
Navy has been the exception rather than the rule when it comes to service academies competing at an elite level in today's big-time college football. The Midshipmen have been to 11 bowls in the last 12 years and have won at least nine games five times in that stretch.
Navy, 9-4 last year, faces some question marks this fall, but has enough experience to maintain last season's level of play. Navy conforms to its identity - triple-option offense and bend-don't-break 3-4 defense - better than almost any program in the country through execution and discipline.
On offense, the Midshipmen can absolutely run you ragged, relentlessly and endlessly pounding away at you until you adjust, averaging 56 carries last year. But they ranked just 100th in passing last season with almost no big plays whatsoever. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds scored 31 times rushing in 2013, but completed only 68 passes while attempting just about 11 per game and that's the rub - when you need to pass, you need to be able to pass. That was a problem for Navy last year and will probably be one again this fall. But that only matters if you stop the Midshipmen from getting four yards on first down and another four on second.
The offensive line obviously is a big key to the triple option working. The line had to go through some juggling last year, but still produced, and now boasts seven returnees with starting experience (74 total career starts) and more size than one would expect, most between 276 and 299 pounds.
On defense, Navy all but trademarked the bend-don't-break approach in 2013 - less efficient overall, but more capable at preventing big plays than almost anybody. Navy's defensive approach is to tackle well and wait for you to make a mistake.
Most of the potential defensive playmakers on the edge return - outside linebackers Chris Johnson and William Tulder, and end Paul Quessenberry. And the Midshipmen return a solid amount of experience in the back eight - seven of the top nine at linebacker, every cornerback and three of the top five safeties.
Sept. 6. VIRGINIA TECH, 8 p.m.
Last year, Virginia Tech was the 99th-ranked scoring offense (22.5 points per game) in NCAA Division I football, but conversely, the 11th-ranked scoring defense in the country (19.3 points per game) in finishing with an 8-5 record.
Still, still the Hokies' offense should be better this fall, due to that unit returning most of its contributors. But unlike past years, there's some questions on defense, mostly about the front seven, although VPI could boast of having the best cornerback tandem (Brandon Facyson and Kendall Fuller) in the country - and they're both only sophomores.
But back on offense, Tech is hoping running back Trey Edmunds bounces back from an injury late last season after producing seven TDs in his final four games, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in rushing for 343 yards.
True freshman Marshawn Williams could add some power in short-yardage situations, Joel Caleb had a good spring game and could be ready for a breakout season, junior J.C. Coleman is a speedster who could find some holes to the outside to keep the defense spread out and Chris Mangus adds a receiving presence to the group and has been most productive in a third-down role.
The offensive line should be better in both pass and run blocking, led by returning tackles Jonathan McLaughlin and Laurence Gibson, who made considerable strides in their first year starting in 2013.
Switching over to the defensive line, which was decimated by graduation, Luther Maddy (109 tackles, 11.5 sacks in 29 starts) is the only returner with significant playing experience.
But the main question in Va. Tech land is who's the quarterback going to be? It could be either Brenden Motley or veteran backup Mark Leal, but neither was especially impressive in the spring showcase game. But it likely may be Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer, who will get an opportunity to claim the starting job come August. He reportedly can make every throw on the field with impressive accuracy,
Whoever the starting quarterback eventually is, he will be throwing to three returning receivers in Demetri Knowles, Joshua Stanford and Willie Byrn, who combined for 1,941 yards last season on 136 catches for six TDs.
But defense is the rock veteran VPI head coach Frank Beamer relies on and this season should show that again, despite losing seven players to the NFL.
The 8th-best passing defense in 2013, a strong Gobbler secondary should produce similar results this fall. But the D-line is a little suspect, although Dadi Nicholas took a big step forward last year as a pass-rushing specialist,
At linebacker, Jack Tyler, who recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his last two seasons in Blacksburg, and Tariq Edwards have both moved on to the next level, opening the way for Chase Williams and Deon Clarke to step in and capably fill the void.
Safety is another strong aspect of the defense, with both ball-hawking starters Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett returning for their second year in a row to stymie opposing receivers' best efforts to snag aerials from their quarterbacks.
Sept. 13, KENT STATE
Kent State's win total dropped from 11 in 2012 to just four in 2013, and now the Golden Flashes must replace a couple of talented stars. Depth is decent, however, and if they can withstand a brutal early schedule, they could approach bowl eligibility.
Kent had to start all over again last fall after head coach Darrell Hazell was hired away by Purdue, and stars in all-purpose back Dri Archer and defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix have now graduated after doing as much as Hazell in turning the program around.
But even with them last fall, Kent slumped to 4-8. Now head coach Paul Haynes has to figure out what to do without them.
As poorly as the 2013 season went though, it bears mentioning the worst came at the start of the year. Truly awful in September, the Flashes improved dramatically on both sides of the ball in October, then shored up its defense a bit more in November.
Last season, Haynes handed the KSU offensive reins over to freshman QB Colin Reardon, whose season numbers weren't that impressive (186 of 317, 1,957 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs), although he had a certain knack of making key plays on passing downs.
However, Reardon was asked to pull too many passing-downs rabbits out of his hat all too frequently, especially with the Flashes a run-first offense that ironically had shortcomings in running the ball. So while Kent's offense regressed a bit in 2013, its defensive performance flagged rather significantly too. And with four of the top five up front now gone, the defense is in a rebuilding mode.
Nonetheless, if the Flashes are somehow able to survive the first five games with their confidence intact yet, they could still notch a number of wins in the final two months of the season.
Sept. 27, CINCINNATI, 6 p.m.
Veteran head coach Tommy Tuberville, in his first year at UC last season, went 9-4 - a slow 1-2 start, but then eight straight wins before dropping the final two. Can the Bearcats match that this fall? There are just enough question marks, though, to make that maybe a little too much to expect.
For Notre Dame quarterback transfer Gunner Kiel, it's been nearly three years since he first committed to Indiana, but then went to LSU before he landed in South Bend and on to Cincinnati. Kiel has never taken an actual snap in a real game yet. But in UC's spring game, he performed well, 17-for-22 for 300 yards, so will probably be under center.
And he has some key personnel in the passing game to make his job easier in Shaq Washington, a stellar possession receiver, and deep threats Chris Moore, Max Morrison and Mekale McKay, with jitterbug Ralph David Abernathy IV and Hosey Williams the main ball-carriers. Cincy did have a more experienced offensive line last year, but three starters are back. In all, 13 starters return, seven on offense and six on defense.
The defense has playmakers on the outside, but needs a rebuild up the middle. Ends Silverberry Mouton, Brad Harrah and Terrell Hartsfield combined for 15 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss last season, while strongside linebacker Nick Temple added 5.5 and 13.5 respectively.
Plus, three of last year's top four cornerbacks return, but the backbone of the defense, however, is a serious concern. The leading returning tackles (Brandon Mitchell, Camaron Beard) combined for only six tackles last year and middle 'backer Greg Blair, the heart of the defense, is gone. Safety Arryn Chenault, a reasonably-sure tackler on a defense pretty good at preventing big plays, has graduated as well. So this defense has some worries that obviously need to be remedied to replicate what the 'Cats did last year.