At long last, Ohio State should face an opponent that can truly test the Buckeyes.
Early in the season, the thinking was that Cincinnati would present that challenge. Or Nebraska. Perhaps Michigan State. Probably Wisconsin.
Nope, nope, not really, and only for a while.
Through 10 games, the Buckeyes have mauled opponents. They are winning by an average of 42 points and never fewer than 24.
Here comes Penn State (9-1, 6-1 Big Ten), which is eighth in the College Football Playoff rankings and has only a loss at Minnesota staining their record. If Ohio State beats the Nittany Lions on Senior Day, the Buckeyes will clinch a spot in the Big Ten championship game as the East division champion.
If the Nittany Lions, an 18-point underdog, pull off the upset, they'd need only to beat Rutgers to earn that East bid. That would leave Ohio State (10-0, 7-0), ranked No. 2 by the playoff selection committee, sweating it out for a spot even if the Buckeyes win at Michigan next week.
So in a way, this is a de facto playoff game.
“Of course, we treat every game like it is, but this one is, obviously,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said. “It's one of those games that can take away all that you have planned starting the season. You can't allow one game to get in the way, so we won't.”
No team can supplant the Wolverines as Ohio State's biggest rival, but nobody has played the Buckeyes tougher the past few years than Penn State. In 2016, the Nittany Lions won on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, a victory that probably remains the signature one of James Franklin's career in Happy Valley. The past two years, Ohio State has had to rally from double-digit deficits to win by one point.
Penn State is one of the few Big Ten programs recruiting at a level approaching Ohio State's. Star linebacker Micah Parsons was a prominent target of the Buckeyes, for example.
But a gap remains. After last year's game, Franklin labeled his program a “great” one but said it wasn't elite like Ohio State's.
It's still a relevant question. The Nittany Lions have the stingiest run defense in the country. They have given up only 2.19 yards per carry. But their pass defense is shaky.
On offense, quarterback Sean Clifford has been effective, but two of his top playmakers — receiver KJ Hamler and running back Noah Cain — might not play because of injuries.
Still, the Nittany Lions should be formidable. But the Buckeyes have been close to flawless. Not surprisingly, they are confident.
When running back J.K. Dobbins was asked after the blowout of Rutgers last week if he was looking forward to playing opponents who would at least require Ohio State to use their starters in the fourth quarter, he took issue with the premise.
“Why does it have to be a four-quarter game?” he asked.
He's not alone.
“Yeah, we know what we're coming into,” senior receiver K.J. Hill said, “but just like J.K. said, it doesn't have to be a four-quarter game. “I feel like everybody has the same mindset. If we execute on both sides of the ball, I feel like it can be that way.”