Ohio State Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2016 Schedule

David RegimbalFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2016

Ohio State Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2016 Schedule

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    The Ohio State Buckeyes have been criticized recently for a perceived weakness in its strength of schedule, particularly in nonconference play, as headliners Cal (2012-13) and Virginia Tech (2014-15) failed to live up to the hype.

    Those critics won't have much to say in 2016, however, because the Buckeyes will face one of the most difficult schedules in the country.

    The non-Big Ten slate will be a challenge in itself as Ohio State faces reigning MAC champion Bowling Green and Tulsa, which ranked 13th nationally in total offense last season, before heading south for one of the most highly anticipated nonconference games of the year at Oklahoma.

    After the marquee showdown against the Sooners, the Buckeyes will attack the newly implemented nine-game league schedule that features back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Penn State and closes with the brutal stretch at Michigan State and home against Michigan.

    Which games will be the toughest for the Buckeyes to win this fall? 

No. 5: At Wisconsin Badgers, October 15

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    Ohio State's first trip to Camp Randall since 2012 will come midway through October, and it'll be a young team's first stiff conference road test. 

    The Badgers return 14 starters—seven on each side of the ball—to a team that won 10 games last year and defeated USC in the Holiday Bowl. They'll have to replace quarterback Joel Stave, but they have a ton of depth up front offensively and defensively, and running back Corey Clement has the potential to be one of the Big Ten's best running backs. 

    Wisconsin would be higher on the list if it had more certainty at the quarterback position, but it should be well rested and ready to battle Ohio State, as it'll be coming off a bye week. 

    The last time the Buckeyes visited Madison, they escaped the Camp Randall madness with a 21-14 overtime victory. 

No. 4: At Penn State Nittany Lions, October 22

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    Penn State will be replacing a lot of talent in 2016—mainly on the defensive side with linemen Carl Nassib and Anthony Zettel and defensive backs Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams. It'll also have to replace the centerpiece of its offense in quarterback Christian Hackenberg, but that may actually help the team in the long run.

    Hackenberg, the big-armed quarterback who thrived as a freshman under former head coach Bill O'Brien, never found a groove in James Franklin's spread system. Trace McSorley, Tommy Stevens and true freshman Jake Zembiec will battle for the spot this spring, and they're much more suited to run the new-look Penn State offense. 

    Paired with running back Saquon Barkley, who ran for an incredible 194 yards in last year's matchup with Ohio State, a dual-threat quarterback in the deafening Beaver Stadium will give Ohio State all it can handle. 

No. 3: At Michigan State Spartans, November 19

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    Ohio State will look to avenge its only loss of the 2015 season when it travels to East Lansing for a showdown with Michigan State in Week 12. Both teams will be replacing a lot of production this fall, but the replacements will be well established by the second-to-last week of November. 

    The Spartans will have the most work to do in the trenches, needing to replace three starters on either side of the ball. They'll also need to find new playmakers at quarterback with the departure of Connor Cook and at wide receiver with DeAnthony Arnett, Aaron Burbridge and Macgarrett Kings Jr. all gone.

    Michigan State will be paced by running back LJ Scott, the promising true sophomore who was once committed to Ohio State. The back out of Hubbard, Ohio, ran for 699 yards and 11 touchdowns last year in a shared role with Gerald Holmes and Madre London. That trio will be back in full force, and Michigan State will ride them as they find its identity offensively. 

    With the game in East Lansing, Ohio State will have to bring a similar aggressive attack as it did two years ago, when it blasted the Spartans 49-37.

No. 2: Michigan Wolverines, November 26

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    Michigan loses quarterback Jake Rudock and linebackers Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone and James Ross, but it returns loads of talent and will make a serious run at the College Football Playoff in 2015.

    Leading pass-catchers Jehu Chesson (wide receiver) and Jake Butt (tight end) will fuel the aerial attack, and running back De’Veon Smith will continue to pound things out on the ground. The defense should continue to surge with do-everything junior Jabrill Peppers, who's been lining up as a linebacker for the Wolverines in spring practice. 

    A huge influx of talent is also on its way to Ann Arbor as Jim Harbaugh signed the nation's No. 5 recruiting class. That group is headlined by No. 1 overall recruit and 5-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary, per 247Sports, and he'll certainly make a big impact on a defensive line that needs playmakers.

    The Wolverines have everything needed to make a serious run at the playoff, and they'll be hungry for redemption when they come to Columbus after getting walloped 42-13 in Ann Arbor last year. 

No. 1: At Oklahoma Sooners, September 17

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    The Michigan game would be No. 1 on this list if not for the early showdown with Oklahoma.

    While the Sooners check in at No. 7 in Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Top 25, compared to the Wolverines' No. 3 ranking, Bob Stoops' team is getting the nod here because of timing.

    Ohio State will bring its outrageously young and inexperienced team on the road in Week 3 against Oklahoma, as 16 total players will be making their first road start for the Buckeyes. They'll have loads of experience at its most important position at quarterback with J.T. Barrett, but a completely rebuilt wide receiver corps, three new offensive linemen and a new running back will have to find a way to operate in a hostile environment.

    The Sooners will be playing with house money as they attack the Buckeyes with Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Baker Mayfield. Elite pass-rushers Eric Striker and Charles Tapper are gone, but the challenge will be on the other side of the ball and whether the Buckeyes can keep pace with Stoop's high-flying offense.