Ohio State will have their first real test four weeks into the season, when they travel to play Penn State on the road, at night. Some teams played close games in their openers, others were challenged in weeks two and three as the season continued and more teams played the first games of their conference schedules. Ohio State, though, they’re a bit different.
It’s not that they haven’t played anyone good, but a good team isn’t always a challenging one. TCU was a good team. But they weren’t on the level of the Buckeyes. Sometimes, for a team like Ohio State, the true danger comes from not playing opponents that are the same caliber very often.
We’ve seen it happen before. Iowa going undefeated in the Big Ten West and then losing the conference title game to the winner of the east. Wisconsin losing to Ohio State last year in the conference title game, after running the table in the West. Believe it or not, it is possible to be too good.
That’s the reason why coaches aren’t automatically upset when they play a team close, even if that team is supposed to lose by a larger margin. While winning every game by big margins is nice for the fans, and inspires confidence, that confidence can be a double-edged sword. Play too well every week, and you can find yourself struggling once you go up against another team that’s on the same level.
And while Penn State is slightly below Ohio State in the rankings, they’re certainly on the same level. If Penn State pulled off the win, it wouldn’t be out of the question for them to trade places in the polls with the Buckeyes. They have advantages that other teams don’t, too. Ohio State had to play TCU in Texas, but TCU doesn’t have near the amount of fan support that Penn State does.
Playing at Beaver Stadium at night is something that you would expect from a late season matchup. Not one in week four. If you’re the visiting side, it’s not the game that you want as one of your first real challenges of the year. Because let’s face it. Oregon State, Rutgers, and Tulane were all warm up games. Even counting TCU as a quality opponent, the Buckeyes have at the most only faced a single team that’s anywhere close to their level.
Now, they have to go into an environment that is known as one of the best in college football. It comes only shortly after Urban Meyer returned as the head coach of the team, and while his absence didn’t have much of an impact, that wasn’t against teams like Penn State.
The point here isn’t that Ohio State is going to lose, or that they haven’t played anybody. It’s that they may be unprepared for a true test, while Penn State started the season out by almost being upset. Additionally, they turned relatively close games against Pittsburgh and Illinois into blowout victories. They’re no stranger to playing in close games like these, and they’ve come out on top in each one of these.
If Ohio State enters halftime, or even the fourth quarter, how will they react? That’s a question that’s hard to answer because they have less experience in those close games. But if the game is close, Penn State is closer to a sure thing. As much of a sure thing as you can have in a game like this, which will be decided by a small margin because of the two teams roughly being on the same level.
We don’t know yet if Ohio State will show up when it matters in a game like this. They may, they may not. But if there’s one distinct disadvantage that they have compared to Penn State? It’s that, while we can’t predict accurately how either side will perform, Ohio State has more unknowns.
And that’s why this isn’t just the biggest game of the season for them, it’s the game that will show us just how “for real” the Buckeyes really are.