5 Big Ten Teams Most Likely to Derail Ohio State's BCS Championship Hopes
With three weeks of non-conference play in the books and one cupcake left before Big Ten play, it's time to look ahead to see where Ohio State might be derailed in conference play. What teams should keep Buckeye fans up at night with worry?
If nothing else, non-conference play has revealed that some Big Ten teams are far better than expected (Illinois), while others have faded (Nebraska).
The Buckeyes are not alone in this exercise, as Alabama, Oregon and Clemson fans are also likely circling a handful of games left on the schedule that make them uneasy. However, none of those teams have the pressure of repeating an undefeated conference schedule like the Buckeyes do.
In addition, Alabama and Oregon might rebound from a loss, while Ohio State likely needs to run the table to stay in the BCS National Championship race.
The stakes are high and the target is squarely on OSU's back, so let's take a look at those teams that have positioned themselves well to cause the first loss of Urban Meyer's tenure in Columbus.
Wisconsin Badgers, September 28
Ohio State and Wisconsin both headed out West to play Pac-12 opponents in the biggest weekend of non-conference play. Both played well enough to win.
But only Ohio State returns to the Midwest with that victory, as Wisconsin suffered one of the strangest endings to a game seen in recent memory, costing the Badgers a shot at the game-winning field goal. Wisconsin has every right to be enraged about losing in this manner.
Although Purdue may receive the brunt of that Badger rage next week, Ohio State will also have to compete the following week with a team looking to redeem itself on national television. Nothing is more dangerous than a cornered Badger.
Wisconsin will have a chance to slow the game down and dominate the pace with yet another great trio of running backs. Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement have collectively rushed for over 300 yards per game in the first three weeks, which is exactly what is needed to keep Ohio State's offense off the field.
In addition, Wisconsin has enough defensive talent to stop some of those limited opportunities the Buckeye offense will have. As a result, expect another close battle that comes down to the wire in this critical Leaders Division game. And the first potential derailment point for the Buckeye championship.
Northwestern Wildcats, October 5
Northwestern has followed a similar track as Ohio State in the first three weeks, and that has left the Wildcats as the only other team in the Big Ten with three impressive victories so far. These similarities include dealing with injuries to offensive stars Venric Mark and Kain Colter and winning on the road against Cal's "Bear Raid" offense.
The Wildcats also get a well-timed bye week while Ohio State has the showdown with Wisconsin. Consequently, Northwestern will be healthy, rested and ready to ambush the Buckeyes in the first meeting between these schools since 2009.
Northwestern will present a set of offensive athletes and different angles of attack that will truly test Ohio State's young defensive front. The Wildcats have great balance, averaging 271 yards passing and 249 yards rushing per game.
This sums up to be the biggest challenge Northwestern has posed to Ohio State since 2004, when the Wildcats most recently upset the Buckeyes in Evanston.
Plus, Ohio State might just have to beat Northwestern twice, considering that the Wildcats look the best of any Legends Division team in September. A tough task once, let alone twice, and that makes NU a troubling assignment for the Buckeyes.
Purdue Boilermakers, November 2
Now, it is true that Purdue is quite possibly the worst team in the Big Ten in 2013. That is bound to happen when a program toils in mediocrity for multiple seasons and then has to transition to a new system under a new coach.
But it would be folly for the Buckeyes to mark up the road trip to West Lafayette as a sure victory.
Recent history suggests that even when Purdue is bad, the Boilermakers show up in big style for the annual games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. Especially when the games are in Ross-Ade Stadium, where Purdue has won two in a row and three out of the last four against OSU.
This standard held true even with Darrell Hazell's first game against Notre Dame this weekend, which the Irish did not put away until the final drive. One would expect this team to be much better by the time November rolls around, which is just when Ohio State will be coming to town. Oh, and Purdue also gets a bye week before this showdown (how convenient!)
Kenny Guiton defeated Purdue once, and he might have to again. Buckeye fans cannot be comfortable about this game until it is over.
Michigan Wolverines, November 30
Of course, the regular-season finale in Ann Arbor is a huge roadblock for Ohio State, even with Michigan struggling to go to 3-0 this weekend. However disappointing this weekend was, Michigan will be ready for its archrival, just like the Wolverines were for the Notre Dame game.
Plus Ohio State doesn't have Jim Tressel anymore and Akron does, so this past weekend was a big accomplishment for Michigan...but I digress.
Led by Devin Gardner, the Wolverine offense has achieved much better balance in 2013, averaging 254 passing yards and 190 rushing yards per game. Gardner showed some penchant for making mistakes last weekend, but he and the offensive line should be much improved by the time November 30 comes.
The only big question mark is whether Michigan's defense will hold up long enough to let the offense have a chance to win the game. Greg Mattison will be scheming for the next two months to figure out how to slow down Urban Meyer and Tom Herman's offense, but it may not matter if the execution remains poor.
Anxiety levels will be sky high in Columbus if Michigan has to be defeated twice in a row to get to Pasadena. Even though it may not be the toughest game on the schedule on paper, Ohio State can never overlook Michigan and the chance to lose an undefeated record against this rival.
Ohio State Buckeyes, Date TBD
You thought this list would close out with the Big Ten Championship? No.
Michigan and Northwestern are already on the list, and the other potential opponents, Nebraska and Michigan State, do not look as imposing as before the season began.
As a result, the biggest threat to derail Ohio State's second straight undefeated season and a run to the BCS National Championship is Ohio State itself. No team can do more damage and make more plays that will kill the potential undefeated season than the team facing all of these challenges.
Potential pitfalls are plentiful. These include injuries and suspensions brought on by anything from targeting penalties to off-field distractions. A lack of focus and execution could also prove fatal against any opponent. Slow development of new defensive starters could be the straw the breaks the back of the winning streak.
With every team on the schedule treating its game against OSU as the Super Bowl, there can be no letdown weeks like Michigan had this past weekend.
In addition, Ohio State needs to win with style points just in case the undefeated resume needs to be compared to two other undefeated teams (and/or a one-loss SEC champion). The poll voters have already shown the high standard that the Buckeyes will be held to following drops in the polls after the first three weeks.
Ohio State is therefore playing against its own high expectations as well as its opponents. Keep vigilant, Buckeyes, as the worst enemy may be hiding in your own locker room in 2013.
Thanks for reading! Please comment on which opponents you find most risky for the Buckeyes in Big Ten play below, and I can also be found on Twitter (@DA_Fitzgerald for sports only and article links, @BuckeyeFitzy for personal and game-day commentary purposes).
See you later this week with more analysis and stories, including live game grades for Ohio State vs. FAMU on next Saturday.