The Ohio State Buckeyes made it through last season with an undefeated record, so it will be interesting to see how Urban Meyer's talented bunch responds in 2013 with postseason eligibility.
Last year's slate was relatively favorable, and this year's outlook promises to be relatively similar for the scarlet and gray. But again, the pressure of actually playing for a national title could change the dynamic for those returning. OSU also has to replace six of the defensive front seven starters from 2012.
Here is a breakdown of the three toughest tests the Buckeyes will encounter this coming season.
Game 5 vs. Wisconsin Badgers
It will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes can handle the Badgers' massive bigs on the offensive line. Not only is Wisconsin physical, but they will have a bit more of a spread-oriented attack under new head coach Gary Andersen.
Since this is Andersen's first trip on the recruiting trail, he has already picked up a quarterback who looks fit to run his offense in junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy. 247Sports.com's composite rankings have him as the No. 1 dual-threat option in the 2013 class
With a 40-yard dash time clocked in the 4.5 to 4.6 range and plenty of tools as a passer, it looks as though McEvoy could easily win the competition for the starting job ahead of the regular season. He also stands at 6'6", and would have James White and Melvin Gordon alongside him in the backfield, which will help absorb the loss of prolific RB Montee Ball.
McEvoy's former Arizona Western College coach offered Tom Minnick offered a flattering comparison—to last year's midseason Heisman Trophy front-runner Collin Klein (h/t Madison.com):
“He’s a very accurate kid. He can run and make plays with his feet...I compare him to the kid at Kansas State, but he’s a better thrower and a better athlete than the kid at Kansas State.
Combine that with a tenacious defense led by redshirt senior LB Chris Borland, and this could be a dangerous early-season test for Ohio State in Columbus.
As ESPN's Adam Rittenberg reports, new Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is putting a heavy emphasis on speed and stripping the football to create turnovers.
That could also prove to be problematic for the Buckeyes, who will have to control the clock with the combination of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde to hang on in this one in the 'Shoe.
Game 6 at Northwestern Wildcats
Few may remember how close Pat Fitzgerald's team was to winning the Big Ten in 2012.
Threatening to start the campaign 6-0, the Wildcats held a 28-17 lead at Penn State thanks to a 75-yard punt return by RB Venric Mark. But they were outscored 22-0 in the final quarter at University Park.
A one-point loss to Nebraska and an overtime defeat in the Big House to Michigan followed, but Northwestern capped things off in a positive way with a 34-20 victory over SEC foe Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.
One NFL scout that the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein talked to said that Mark, an impending senior in Evanston, has a long future in the league. He even compared Mark to the electric Darren Sproles of the New Orleans Saints:
"Sproles is a little thicker, but there isn't much difference," the evaluator said. "Venric will run real fast (when tested), he is fearless and he has good hands. I think he will play in the league a long time."
Plus, dual-threat dynamo Kane Colter will be back in the shotgun for Northwestern, and that should be enough to give the Buckeyes' new front seven headaches.
It will be interesting to see how Colter's development as a passer stacks up with that of Miller's for Ohio State. If the Wildcats can find a way to make more big plays through the air—which is possible given the state of the Buckeyes' secondary—this one could get really interesting.
OSU will have to rely on freshman 5-star recruit Vonn Bell and possibly fellow classmates Eli Apple and Christian Burrows to help out on the back end if Colter improves substantially.
Game 13 at Michigan Wolverines
Of course, the Big Game almost goes without saying. This will be a classic grudge match, as the Wolverines have recently taken a back seat in this rivalry. Thanks to Jim Tressel's tenure, the Bucks had won nine of 10 games in this matchup before splitting the past two.
But Michigan will be out to avenge this year's 26-21 road loss, where it fell just short in blowing the Buckeyes' bid for a perfect season.
Another narrow loss in the bowl game against South Carolina was crushing for the Wolverines, but it did show that Devin Gardner has some promise as the quarterback of the program's immediate future.
Not only is he supremely athletic—he started the year playing receiver—but he has plenty of arm talent and flashed nicely this past year, developing a strong rapport with fellow to-be senior Jeremy Gallon.
Five-star recruit Derrick Green is a bruising, physical and fast runner at 6'0" and 220 pounds with sub-4.6 speed in the 40-yard dash, according to 247Sports.com. He should figure into the Wolverines' plans right away, and give them a more physical presence between the tackles.
Michigan had one of the better secondaries a year ago, but won't have stud safety Jordan Kovacs anymore—and must do a better job containing Hyde than it did in the 2012 season finale.
In Ann Arbor, though, anything can happen. Especially if the Buckeyes are in national title contention, look for the Wolverines to be especially eager to play spoiler.