COLUMBUS, Ohio -If Ohio State survives unscathed its foray through the non-conference portion of the Buckeyes' 2014 football schedule, then comes an eight-game Big Ten slate sure to test OSU's mettle in more instances than not.
OCT. 4, at MARYLAND
After opening the season playing Navy in Baltimore, Ohio State heads back to Maryland in a scheduling quirk for the second time in five weeks, this time to face one of the Big Ten's two newcomers this season in the Terrapins.
Maryland would love to knock off the Buckeyes in its first-ever Big Ten home game, and the Terps do have nine starters back on both sides of the ball with experienced depth. Maryland, though, was only 7-6 last year with a loss to Marshall in the Military Bowl, and will be up against it in the Big Ten East with Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan.
No. 1 key to the Terps' success this season is their defense, a pretty solid unit. Offensively, however, Maryland needs a healthy year out of senior quarterback C.J. Brown, who unfortunately sat out all of 2012 with an ACL injury and missed two games last fall with concussion complications. With Brown at the controls, the Terp offense clicks.
OCT. 18, RUTGERS, 3:30 p.m.
The other 2014 Big Ten newbie, Rutgers, is up next for OSU's homecoming game. The Scarlet Knights, 6-7 last season, especially need help on offense, which last year finished just 77th nationally in scoring, 100th in rushing and 95th in total offense. So new head coach Kyle Flood brought in former Maryland grid boss Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator to juice up the Rutgers attack.
The quarterback job is up for grabs, although returning starter Gary Nova is the only one with any real game experience. The O-line returns five starters, which always is good. But even though last year's top four rushers all are back, they need a shot in the arm from Friedgen after averaging a meager 3.7 yards per carry in 2013.
Rutgers' run defense is above average, but the secondary is in need of help after becoming a popular target last fall, as opponents completed 63.5 percent of their passes for 31 TDs.
OCT. 25, at PENN STATE, 8 p.m.
This could be the first true test for Ohio State in 2014, a prime-time ABC/ESPN night game at Penn State with James Franklin, previously from Vanderbilt, at the controls now.
The Nittany Lions - 7-5 last year - are certainly not devoid of talent. Strong-armed sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was 2013's Big Ten Freshman of the Year after passing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. However, he has only a limited supply of weapons at the receiver spots, while the offensive line is in flux and still iffy with just one healthy returning starter. But the defense will be buoyed by seven returning starters.
The future may be getting brighter for Penn State. But "thin" best describes the Lions right now when it comes to quality depth just about everywhere, with no quick fix in sight due to NCAA probation and continuing recruiting sanctions.
NOV. 1, ILLINOIS, 8 p.m. and NOV. 22, INDIANA
You have to lump these two "I" teams together just to compare and contrast. The Fighting Illini and Indiana have both seen the bottom fall out of their programs in the last five years, 23-39 for Illinois and 19-41 for the Hoosiers.
The Illini, 4-8 last year, are banking a lot on Oklahoma State quarterback transfer Wes Lunt to rescue them from more mediocrity this season.
That's the positive -defense isn't. In fact, the "D" was nothing if not porous last year, giving up 35.4 points and 481.5 yards per game. So that has to change before anything else to help get the Illini headed in the right direction.
Now for Indiana, 5-7 last season, the story is about the same - a lot better on offense than defense. But this fall, that scenario may start to get turned around more as the Hoosier "D" - last in the Big Ten in 2013 at both surrendering yards (527.9) and points (38.8) per game -has a lot of good, young talent to put to good use in a new 3-4 formation.
The IU offense, though, will be the staple part the Hoosiers bring into the 2014 season, headed up by a successful two-quarterback partnership again in pocket-passer Nate Sudfield and dual-threat Tre Roberson.
NOV. 8, at MICHIGAN STATE, 8 p.m.
Tabbed the big one in the Big Ten this year, it'll probably see the host Spartans tangling with the Buckeyes for the East crown and a spot in the conference championship game. The question is: Can the MSU offense carry more of the load this year with maybe the Spartan defense not quite as dominant as it was in 2013?
Last year, all the buzz around this matchup in the Big Ten title tilt was the potent OSU offense versus the hard-hitting, rugged MSU defense. But the Spartans, 13-1 Big Ten and Rose Bowl champs last season, have some holes to fill on "D" this year what with a key foursome of all-conference performers gone. But MSU has enough remaining manpower and recruits to fill those holes to not fall too far off their perch as the nation's top-ranked defense.
On offense, QB Connor Cook proved his worth last fall, passing for 2,755 yards and 22 scores with only six interceptions. This season, Cook has a deep and talented receiving group to throw to, although the Spartans do have to replace three starters on the O-line.
Nov. 15: at MINNESOTA
Last season, Minnesota went 8-5, the best season for the Golden Gophers since 2003. Head coach Jerry Kill's overachieving team made progress and could make some more noise in the Big Ten West this fall.
The Gophers do return plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. First and foremost, sophomore Mitch Leidner takes over full-time at quarterback, where he finished last year after splitting the duties with Philip Nelson, who has transferred out of the program. The O-line returns almost fully intact, good for Leidner in the passing game and in the running game for tailback David Cobb, who led Minnesota with 1,202 yards rushing last season.
On defense, it's a matter of making more big plays for the Gophers, fourth best in the Big Ten last year in points allowed at 22.2 per game. But Minnesota needs some help both up front and in the secondary to make that happen.
NOV. 29: MICHIGAN
The Wolverines were an uncharacteristic 7-6 last year, and now Brady Hoke's future at U of M may hang in the balance this season. The 2014 squad may be the youngest in his four seasons in Ann Arbor, but the roster does have enough capable talent to possibly get things back on at least a 9 or 10-win track for Michigan.
The main problem, though, facing the Wolverines on the field is on the offensive side of the ball, where QB Devin Gardner has been a model of inconsistency, yet last year still almost became only the second signal-caller in program history to throw for nearly 3,000 yards (2,960, with 21 TDs and 11 interceptions).
The offensive line, porous to a fault last season in allowing 36 sacks and a whopping 114 tackles for loss, has been totally revamped by new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who is also tackling the task of fixing the Wolves' anemic ground game from last year that averaged only a feeble 3.3 yards per carry for a No. 102 rating nationally. But defense is expected to be a major strength, notably at linebacker, where all three 2013 starters return.