As Big Ten play resumes, Buckeyes aren't clear favorite, and even Rutgers poses challenge

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State resumes its Big Ten schedule on Saturday at Rutgers, and the path to a fifth straight conference title looks more daunting than it did a month ago.

Back when the Buckeyes opened the 2021 season at Minnesota, they were the prohibitive favorite to be hoisting the trophy in Indianapolis again.

Sure, Ohio State had to break in a new quarterback, and the back seven of the defense was unproven. But the Buckeyes had enough talent that those issues looked to be more speedbumps than roadblocks.

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That might still be the case. Ohio State (3-1) is still arguably the favorite. But few believe it’ll be a cakewalk.

Some of that has to do with Ohio State’s struggles. The Buckeyes have trailed in all four games and have dominated only sporadically. The loss to Oregon eliminates the margin for error in their pursuit of a return trip to the College Football Playoff.

Ohio State quarterbacks still an issue

The Buckeyes still have quarterback issues. C.J. Stroud has been good but has his understandable growing pains, and he missed last week with a shoulder injury. Kyle McCord’s debut last week wasn’t as impressive as the 319 yards passing would seem to indicate.

Last week’s defensive performance against Akron was a step in the right direction, particularly for the defensive line. But dominating the Zips should be a given.

While Ohio State has had its issues, the rest of the Big Ten has proven to be stronger than expected, especially teams in the East Division. Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State and Maryland are 4-0, as is Iowa.

Ohio State began the season ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. No other Big Ten team was ranked higher than 12th. Now Ohio State is 11th, Penn State fourth and Iowa fifth.

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The Buckeyes are still likely to be favored in all of their remaining games, but few should be considered locks, even against Rutgers (3-1). Ohio State has beaten the Scarlet Knights by an average margin of 43 points in their seven meetings since the New Jersey school joined the Big Ten in 2014.

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This year, Ohio State is favored by only 15. Former OSU defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, the only coach in recent memory to bring Rutgers to prominence, is on his way to doing the same thing in his second tour of duty with the program. Last week, Rutgers rallied from a 20-3 deficit at Michigan before falling 20-13.

“I think he's done a very, very good job in these past two years of getting his team ready, and he does a good job coaching in all three phases,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of Schiano. “It is a challenge going on the road. You see what he did last year, playing some really good football, and then last week took (Michigan) all the way to the fourth quarter. They played excellent defense in the fourth quarter.”

Rutgers ranks seventh nationally in scoring defense (13.5 points per game), eighth in pass defense efficiency and fourth in turnover margin.

The Scarlet Knights’ offense lags behind their offense, though. Rutgers’ passing game has been a liability.

A year ago, Ohio State led Rutgers 35-3 before some successful Scarlet Knights trick plays made the final margin a more respectable 49-27.

“He has the guys believing and playing hard,” Day said. “It's going to be a Big Ten conference road game. We have to do a really good job and handle the environment. It will be a good environment. He'll have them rocking.”


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