Urban Meyer led the Ohio State Buckeyes to the only perfect record in Div. I football last season, though a one-year NCAA-mandated postseason ban kept his team from pursuing either the Big Ten Conference or BCS championship.
The ban is lifted, and Ohio State football looms large over the Midwest. Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Braxton Miller leads a combination of game-tested returners and highly touted young talent to preseason favorite status among both pundits and odds-makers.
2014 BCS Odds: Bama 3-1; Oregon 8-1; LSU 10-1; OSU 10-1; A&M 14-1, UF 15-1, FSU 15-1; ND, Lville, Clem 20-1, per @rjinvegas
— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) January 8, 2013
An unfettered, Rose pedal-paved path to Pasadena isn’t ahead of the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s 12-0 record was built with six single-digit victories. Five of those same opponents highlight the 2013 docket; four are from the Big Ten. Another likely preseason top 25 Big Ten member also awaits.
Among the group is the three-time defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin Badgers. UW lost head coach Bret Bielema to the Arkansas Razorbacks in the offseason, and 2011 Heisman Trophy runner-up running back Montee Ball to the NFL. The Badgers face question marks at quarterback and — oh, yeah — the Buckeyes won last season’s match-up in Camp Randall.
The 21-14 overtime loss to the Ohio State football team was the second of three regular seasons defeats Wisconsin suffered in its final four games. Commendable as reaching three straight Rose Bowl Games may be, UW’s 8-6 finish and offseason of upheaval suggest decline.
Still, new head coach Gary Andersen may have another Rose Bowl-worthy team in his first season in Madison. The Badgers wrapped up spring practices on Saturday, pumping music into Camp Randall Stadium,debuting the 3-4 defense and perhaps finding a clear-cut quarterback.
Joel Stave could provide the answer behind center UW lacked in 2012. The Badger offense was inconsistent, save the 70 points it dumped on the Nebraska Cornhuskers defense in the Big Ten championship. The Badgers lost Stave not long after he replaced Danny O’Brien, and just prior to Ohio State’s visit to Madison.
The Stave who appeared on Saturday is a nice complement to James White, leader of a multifaceted backfield that also returns Melvin Gordon. Curt Phillips also provides an intriguing option with his ability to run; Andersen’s Utah State team excelled with dual-threat quarterback Chuckie Keeton leading the offense the last two seasons.
The Horseshoe is an unforgiving environment, and the Badgers must visit it in the season’s first month. UW is the fourth opponent Ohio State welcomes to Columbus in August or September — that’s over half of its entire home schedule.
The flip-side is that the Buckeyes see two of the six teams that took them to the wire last season on the road in the season’s final month. The first are the Purdue Boilermakers and new head coach Darrell Hazell.
Hazell takes over a Purdue program that has had a knack for spoiling things for Ohio State football. Braxton Miller was injured late in last season’s overtime thriller, but returning Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde played hero with a pair of touchdowns.
Hyde was also integral in Ohio State’s win over rival Michigan, rushing for 146 yards and a touchdown in the 26-21 decision. Brady Hoke suffered his first loss in the bitter rivalry, and Ohio State won its eighth in the last nine. The Buckeyes have indeed owned the series, but Hoke is unbeaten at the Big House.
The Big Game culminates 2013, and this year could have BCS implications at stake.
However, perhaps the most intriguing of the Buckeyes’ Big Ten slate is its trip to Northwestern. The Wildcats won 10 games in 2012, the high watermark for Pat Fitzgerald’s successful tenure as head coach. With 15 returning starters — among them standout running back Venric Mark and do-everything Kain Colter — Northwestern might have its best team since the 1995 Big Ten championship team that featured Fitzgerald at linebacker.
Rising temperatures and trees in full bloom might have most anticipating summer. But with spring practices concluded, positive change around the conference and the reemergence of Ohio State football, the late season, cold weather atmosphere of the Big Ten is mighty enticing.