Opinion: Which teams pose the biggest threats to Ohio State football this season?

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Junior wide receiver Emeka Egbuka (2) runs past defenders during then-No. 2 Ohio State’s (11-1) 45-23 loss to then-No. 3 Michigan (12-0). Credit: Zachary Rilley | Lantern Photo File

For Ohio State football fans, an undefeated regular season doesn’t seem like too big of an ask. The Buckeyes have a knack for making games look easy, especially against teams like last year’s Arkansas State and Toledo. 

But with two consecutive losses to Michigan and several preseason-ranked opponents on the 2023 schedule, there is no doubt the Buckeyes will face challenges as  there are always those few teams that give the Buckeyes a run for their money. This season, those that pose the greatest threat are Notre Dame, Penn State and Michigan. 

The Buckeyes are currently No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25 college football poll after last year’s 42-41 loss to Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal and are No. 5 in ESPN’s preseason rankings

Here are Ohio State’s three biggest challenges this season and why:

3. Notre Dame Fighting Irish 

Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Notre Dame Stadium–South Bend, Indiana

Then-No.5 Notre Dame came to Columbus last September and lost 21-10 to the then-No.2 Buckeyes in both teams’ season opener. 

To start the game, the Fighting Irish did everything right. But after about 12 minutes left in the second quarter, their offensive productivity shut down with sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner at the helm. 

For the remainder of the 2022 season, the Fighting Irish, led by first-year head coach and former Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman went 9-4 and finished their regular season with a 38-27 loss against then-No. 5 USC with the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams at quarterback. The Fighting Irish went on to defeat South Carolina 45-38 in the Gator Bowl. 

This season, Notre Dame has a new offensive leader in redshirt senior Sam Hartman, hailing out of the transfer portal from Wake Forest. Hartman set the ACC all-time career touchdown record with 110, along with an additional 12,967 passing yards. 

The Fighting Irish also landed Kaleb Smith, a redshirt senior wide receiver out of Virginia Tech, who led the Hokies in receptions last season. The two standouts will add to their rising offense consisting of a strong running back duo – junior Chris Tyree and sophomore Audric Estimé. 

Though Ohio State took control of the matchup last season, Notre Dame didn’t have that same star power on offense as they will this year. The Fighting Irish will likely put up more points, especially considering their home-field advantage. 

However, the Buckeyes should undoubtedly hang with Notre Dame’s offensive weapons with their new additions to the defensive backfield and multitude of experienced players in Josh Proctor, Lathan Ransom, Ja’Had Carter, Davison Igbinosun, Jordan Hancock and Denzel Burke. 

With three games under its belt once the two face off, Ohio State will look to have their starting quarterback position figured out, and it’ll be a battle of who has the more complete offense. 

Following last season, Notre Dame is currently No. 18 in the AP Top 25 and No. 13 in ESPN’s preseason rankings.

2. Penn State Nittany Lions

Oct. 21, time TBD

Ohio Stadium–Columbus, OH

Penn State is almost always a challenge for Ohio State. In 2022, the then-No. 2 Buckeyes came out victorious in a 44-31 battle in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania. 

The defensive stars were out for the Buckeyes. Graduate linebacker Tommy Eichenberg recorded 15 tackles, while junior defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau had three tackles-for-loss, including two sacks for the Buckeyes. Ohio State could be in good shape with another performance like this. 

But maybe not. 

Penn State’s offense ranked third in the Big Ten last season and is destined for more. Despite hosting a quarterback competition of their own between sophomore Drew Allar and redshirt freshman Beau Pribula, their pair of running backs is on track to break Nittany Lion records.

As freshmen in 2022, Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen ran through opponents at the running back position. According to Penn State’s website, the two became the first true freshman duo in Big Ten history with more than 700 rushing yards apiece in a season – Singleton with 1,061 and Allen with 867. 

And with Ohio State’s defensive line working to improve their stop of the opposing run game, this could be a big task for the Buckeyes. 

On the other side, Penn State’s defensive line should be very strong. It’ll be interesting for fans to see Ohio State’s six-man running back room go against such a sturdy front four who led the Big Ten in sacks in 2022. 

After last season, the Nittany Lions sit at No. 7 in the AP Top 25 and No. 8 in ESPN’s preseason rankings.

1. Michigan Wolverines

Nov. 25 at noon

Michigan Stadium–Ann Arbor, Michigan 

This should go without saying — the Wolverines likely pose the biggest threat to Ohio State in November. . 

Last season, then-No.3 Michigan defeated then-No. 2 Ohio State in “The Game” for the second consecutive year. Both teams qualified for the college football playoff, which resulted in the lone Big Ten teams being knocked out in the semifinals. 

Both Ohio State and Michigan are projected to be included in the final year of the four-team playoff by On3, Sports Illustrated Sportsbook, DraftKings Sportsbook and ESPN, among others. 

It’s incredibly possible both teams will enter The Game this year undefeated, leaving one to knock off the other and advance to the Big Ten Championship. That’s what happened in 2022, and the odds are probably high of the same instance happening again. 

In the Wolverine’s victory against Ohio State in Columbus last season, their offense put on a show. This year, Michigan will be performing at home, which could be a disadvantage for the Buckeyes. 

J.J. McCarthy, who went 208-of-322 passing for 2,719 yards and 22 touchdowns, is returning for his junior year at Michigan. He was an All-Big Ten selection by coaches and the media and was Michigan’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2022, among various other awards and selections. 

McCarthy received Offensive Player of the Game honors for several performances throughout last season – one of them for his 263-yard, three-touchdown game against the Buckeyes. 

The Wolverines are also returning their own pair of powerhouse running backs: junior Donovan Edwards and senior Blake Corum. Due to a knee injury, Corum played only a single drive for the Wolverines last season versus Ohio State. Edwards, on the other hand, had 216 yards and two touchdowns. 

The Buckeyes allowed five Wolverine touchdowns for over 45 yards. This cannot happen again if they want to snap their two-game losing streak. 

Luckily for Ohio State, it has done well in the transfer portal and recruiting on the defensive side of the ball, but so has Michigan. The Wolverines added a junior four-star edge rusher from Coastal Carolina to their already No. 2-ranked defense heading into this season, according to On3. 

So, the Wolverines have experienced, tough defensive players like senior lineman Kris Jenkins assaulting the rush and sophomore cornerback Will Johnson watching the pass. The matchup might be even, though, with Ohio State’s additions to the offensive line in Josh Simmons and Victor Cutler Jr. 

Not only does the line have extreme potential, but the Buckeyes have arguably the best wide receivers in college football, maybe the best in history in Marvin Harrison Jr.. As long as Ohio State finds the right quarterback between Brown and McCord, the Buckeyes should be able to survive against teams with an aggressive defense, like Michigan. 

Despite their loss to TCU in the semifinals last season, Michigan sits one spot ahead of the Buckeyes in the AP Top 25 at No. 3. In ESPN’s preseason rankings, the Wolverines are ranked second.  

If both teams can find success before meeting each other in November, it will surely be a battle. This could be one of the greatest Ohio State-Michigan games fans have seen in a while. 

After losing twice to Michigan in as many years and falling short four too many times in the College Football Playoff since its start, Buckeye football is long due for a successful season, including a win against the Wolverines, a Big Ten Championship and maybe even a national title.