This week the 2013 SEC conference schedule was released, and apparently the desire to play early season conference games will not be denied by anything, including previous agreements of member schools for non-conference games. As a result, Vanderbilt was forced to cancel games against Northwestern and Ohio State.
Of course, Vanderbilt then goes and notifies both Big Ten schools by a letter via regular U.S. Mail, which is about the equivalent of breaking up by texting in this digital era. Given the late timing of this announcement, it really forces both Big Ten schools to scramble to find an adequate replacement for a decent game against a SEC team.
Northwestern wasted no time in grabbing Western Michigan from the MAC to fill their schedule opening. Although this will bring less prestige for the Wildcats, Northwestern still has respectable games to open the season at California and home against Syracuse.
The Buckeyes have not moved as quickly. Vanderbilt was one of two major conference games for Ohio State in 2013, and it will be preferable to find an opponent at least as strong in order to keep the schedule strength as high as possible for a possible national championship run in 2013.
So who is out there to fill the 12th game for the Buckeyes?
Let's begin with the criteria.
Like Northwestern, Ohio State also has a FCS school on the schedule already in Florida A&M, so no relying on the FCS to fill the open date. Ohio State actually has two open dates during Big Ten play (October 12 and November 9), but one would expect that the Buckeyes will want to start on opening weekend like all other Big Ten teams and leave the byes when rest is needed.
So the FBS opponent has to have an open slot on the schedule for a 12th game and an opening on August 31, 2013. The options are severely limited thanks to this late date, but there are options:
1. The Independent Plan - BYU
All of the independents in 2013 have a game scheduled for opening weekend except BYU.
The Cougars have 11 games slated for 2013 and an opening on the first weekend, although three of the games out of the 11 scheduled still need to be slotted in. Unfortunately, that opening weekend spot will be a prime position as it can be difficult to fit in games with some of these opponents otherwise.
However, if BYU wants to fill the schedule with another massive game (Texas and Boise State are already on the September schedule), then a trip to Columbus for a big paycheck could be just right. BYU has enough clout to perhaps offer and receive a home-and-home also, although 2013 will almost certainly have to be a home game for OSU.
These teams have not played since 1993, and the Buckeyes hold a 3-0 advantage in the series. This is a good option if BYU can fit the Buckeyes in.
2. Staying with Tennessee - Memphis
Despite having much uncertainty thanks to major realignment, the new Big East in 2013 has 12 teams and most of them are disqualified by already having four non-conference games. But one of the new members has the right opening and they just happen to be another team from Tennessee: Memphis.
Memphis is struggling in Conference USA this season, and the transfer to the Big East might be so tough that a game in Columbus may not be appealing to the Tigers. Memphis also will not be seen as a major conference team right away, and so the Tigers do not provide the bump in difficulty that the Buckeyes would look for.
This is a major conference option, technically, but not a very good one.
3. Sticking With the SEC - Auburn
Ohio State does not get many opportunities outside bowl season to exorcise the SEC demons that haunt the program, and Vanderbilt would have been one of those rare opportunities. The only other SEC games scheduled in the future were against Georgia in 2020 and 2021, but those were canceled earlier this summer.
Thus, fitting in another SEC team would be a nice move if possible. Auburn has the opening weekend available and one game to fill, but Washington State still needs slotted into the schedule and could be forced into opening weekend depending upon the Pac-12 schedules in 2013 yet to be released.
Auburn would likely insist on a home-and-home, but that might not be bad considering Ohio State would like to break into southern recruiting more. Of course, Auburn is likely in no state to schedule a Top 10 team with the program spinning wheels at the moment, so Auburn may not be as willing as one would hope to fill the spot.
These teams have only played twice, most recently an Auburn win in a 1990 bowl game. Auburn holds a 1-0-1 advantage over Ohio State.
4. Back to Conference USA - Florida International, Southern Miss, Tulane, UTEP
Ohio State gave paychecks to two C-USA schools this season as UCF and UAB came into Columbus. While the MAC does not have any teams with availability for the season opener, Conference USA provides a handful of options.
Of these teams, none of them appears to move the needle much thanks to a collective record of 3-22 for these four teams in 2012. FIU is moving up to the C-USA and will likely not be a top choice. UTEP also has little history.
Southern Miss and Tulane are more likely options. Southern Miss was a conference champion as recently as 2011, so perhaps that program could rebound. The Golden Eagles do play Nebraska though, so they might be hesitant to add a second Big Ten school. Tulane actually seems most likely to agree to a single game.
A great big "meh" to this lot of teams, with Tulane at the front of the pack.
5. Double-Down on the Pac-12 - Arizona
Most Pac-12 teams have the full complement of three non-conference games filled, but one notable gap remains in the schedule for Arizona. Considering the recent trend of increased scheduling between these traditional rival conferences, Ohio State might be excited about the opportunity to branch out west against.
Unfortunately, playing a home-and-home is not as attractive as it is with the California schools because Arizona is not a hotbed of recruiting. That being said, this is possibly the best option for a team with similar or better strength and prestige as Vanderbilt. Arizona also does not have a prestige non-conference game, so it might be a good fit for the Wildcats too.
Arizona and Ohio State played three times from 1991 to 2000, with Ohio State winning all three games. The Buckeyes lead the overall series 3-1.
6. Notre Dame Fallout ACC Openings - Boston College, Duke, Georgia Tech, NC State, Virginia, Wake Forest
The ACC was told to prepare for a nine-game conference schedule beginning in 2013. Thus, all of these teams bailed down to three non-conference games or were in plans to do so. With the agreement between the ACC and Notre Dame, the conference schedule will remain at eight games, which means a plethora of openings are there to fill.
The list of teams above are the six that continue to look for an opening weekend game and a 12th game. Wake Forest just lost an opening game thanks to Rice canceling out, so that might be a marriage of convenience for both of these teams. This has strong possibilities since Wake Forest still needs two games for next season.
I cannot imagine Boston College, Duke or Virginia will be likely or preferable candidates, but they are there if needed. That leaves Georgia Tech and NC State. Georgia Tech may be hesitant to take another tough game on considering the ACC schedule and the annual Georgia rivalry. NC State played the Buckeyes back near the beginning of Jim Tressel's tenure for a home-and-home, and it may be too soon to have the Wolfpack back on the schedule.
Georgia Tech would be an interesting addition and it could make up for the loss of the Georgia series. Wake Forest will likely be most willing to take a small paycheck to come play one game, which may be exactly what Ohio State wants.
Two outside-the-box ideas could be considered as well. First, Ohio State could go on the road, but that would only leave six home games. That is not considered acceptable by the OSU athletic department, so that will not work. Second, a Big Ten game could be moved up with some shuffling. That would be great, but it just will not happen.
There's 14 teams that have openings, which is not a ton but it is enough to give Ohio State a bit of wiggle room to shop around. The key will be whether this will be taken as an opportunity to add another strong home-and-home series with the focus on scheduling tougher that most Big Ten teams seem to be taking in view of the playoff coming in 2014.
Gene Smith has an interesting decision in front of him. The best viable options are probably Arizona, BYU and Georgia Tech. Each of those teams would likely force a home-and-home though, so the options become more limited if Ohio State wants another one-and-done like Vanderbilt was.
For the one-and-done candidates, Wake Forest and Tulane appear to be the best options. Both teams are a bit weaker than Vanderbilt, but beggars cannot be choosers when dumped by your opening weekend date.
My prediction: The Buckeyes bring in Wake Forest for a single game. Not only are the uniforms similar to Vanderbilt, the Buckeyes will likely not be threatened by this opener at Columbus.
Best Outcome: Arizona comes to Columbus in 2013 and Ohio State returns the trip in the next four years after that.
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