If not for a bowl ban against the Ohio State Buckeyes last season, it is entirely possible they would have met the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the National Championship Game, as they went undefeated during the regular season. Ohio State is eligible to play for the title this year, though, and Urban Meyer's squad is favored to reach the big game.
There is a reason why teams play out the season, though, since things rarely go as expected. The USC Trojans were the perfect example of that last season, opening the season as No. 1 in the polls only to fall completely out of the BCS picture. Ohio State is currently No. 2, but it won't exactly be a walk in the park.
Here are the three biggest hurdles standing between Ohio State and an undefeated season, which would almost certainly produce its first national title since 2002.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Although Ohio State can't afford to take any of its opponents lightly this season—even when it plays the University at Buffalo in its season-opening game—there is no question that the Buckeyes have a favorable schedule.
In fact, there are only three nationally ranked opponents on their slate, and none of them is ranked higher than No. 17. That puts Ohio State in a very favorable position as far as the regular season is concerned, but if it reaches the National Championship Game and has to play the Alabama Crimson Tide, the fun and games will be over.
The Big Ten isn't necessarily a pushover this season, but there is a definite lack of elite teams aside from Ohio State. Because of that, the Buckeyes should be heavily favored in essentially all of their games.
Assuming Ohio State plays to its potential in every regular-season game, as well as the Big Ten Championship Game, it appears the Buckeyes and Crimson Tide will be on a collision course. Ohio State will have to deal with some tough defenses and power running games in the Big Ten, but Alabama resides at a totally different level.
Bama is truly incredible, as it seems to lose high-quality players to the NFL each and every year. Despite that, head coach Nick Saban reloads and continues to win. Running back Eddie Lacy is now with the Green Bay Packers, but T.J. Yeldon rushed for more than 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns last year and appears to be in line for a huge 2013 campaign.
The defense lost some key components, but the Tide's depth will more than make up for that. Quarterback A.J. McCarron is the main constant, and it would be very difficult for Ohio State to overtake Alabama with him at the helm.
Skill Position Players
In many ways, it can be argued that the Buckeyes have to worry about beating themselves more than anything else this season. While quarterback Braxton Miller is expected to have a Heisman-caliber season, and the defense should be even better in Meyer's second season, there are reasonable question marks regarding Ohio State's skill players on offense. Miller can't win every game on his own, and he's going to need plenty of help over the course of the season.
Running back Carlos Hyde had the best season of his collegiate career in 2012, as he rushed for 970 yards and 16 touchdowns, but he'll need to be even better in 2013. It also doesn't help that Hyde will miss at least the first three games of the season due to suspension. Freshman Dontre Wilson could see some touches as a result, according to Tim May of The Columbus Dispatch, who notes Meyer has been impressed with Wilson.
Miller was actually Ohio State's leading rusher with more than 1,200 yards last season. While tucking and running will still be a huge part of Miller's skill set this year, Hyde and Wilson need to alleviate some of the workload. If they can do that, Ohio State will be in much better shape.
An even bigger concern is Miller's receivers. Miller made some strides as a passer last season with over 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns to just six interceptions, but his completion percentage was only 58 percent. Much of that was on him, but his receivers were fairly inconsistent as well.
Philly Brown and Devin Smith both exceeded 600 yards receiving; however, they truly have to emerge as go-to guys. Miller lost a security blanket in the form of tight end Jake Stoneburner to graduation, so the onus is especially on Brown and Smith to have big seasons.
Assuming Ohio State is able to make its way past the first 11 potential landmines on its schedule, its game against the Michigan Wolverines on Nov. 30 could be absolutely huge. Ohio State vs. Michigan is already a big deal regardless of how good or bad the teams are, but if a potential National Championship Game appearance is on the line for either team, the atmosphere will be electric.
The Buckeyes may look better on paper, but they will have their hands full in front of nearly 110,000 strong at The Big House.
Michigan could be playing for a Big Ten Championship Game berth in its own right, so there is no doubt the Wolverines will be up for the game. Ohio State beat Michigan by just five points at home last season, so the Wolverines are likely to give the Buckeyes some trouble. "The Game" is always a spectacle, and it will be made even bigger if Michigan has a chance to ruin Ohio State's title aspirations. Perhaps it wouldn't be as difficult of a contest earlier in the season, but it definitely has trap-game implications for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State truly rose to the occasion against Michigan last year, as Meyer essentially billed that matchup as their national title game. There is a real national title to strive toward this year, but the Buckeyes can't afford to look past Michigan. Nothing would be more heartbreaking for Ohio State fans than for the team to go undefeated only to lose to Michigan in the final week of the season. The Ohio State players need to be fully aware of the pitfalls that the Wolverines present heading into that game.
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