Everything Luke Fickell does this season will be monitored and judged at a possibly unprecedented level in Ohio State football history. Everything will have meaning, and everything will be analyzed.
Ranking the 2011 Games in Order of Importance
By Tony Gerdeman
Some things, however, will have more meaning than others. Every win is important, but a win over Nebraska carries a lot more weight than a win over Purdue.
A loss in West Lafayette for Fickell could be the death knell for his chances of keeping the job, but a win over Nebraska would make a lot of people forget a lesser loss.
This "pecking order" of games may very well come into play when Fickell's fate is decided, and so it might be a good idea to know what that pecking order is. What follows is my best guess for where those games rank.
12. Indiana (November 6)
It may have taken a while, but Indiana football finally made it to the level of Indiana basketball, and all it took was a devastating basketball scandal. The Hoosiers are basically Ohio State's Washington Generals. This year's game is in Columbus, where the Buckeyes are 31-2-1 against Indiana since 1950. Ohio State hasn't lost to the Hoosiers since 1988, and there's little feeling that the current 16-game winning streak is in any danger of being snapped. Even though this is a conference game, and weighs equally with the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State in the standings, the truth is that it's the least important win on the schedule.
11. Toledo (September 10)
There are a couple of reasons that this game isn't ranked 12th on this list. The first is because people have pointed to it as a possible loss for the Buckeyes, which is something they will conveniently forget when Ohio State beats the Rockets. The second reason is because this is an in-state opponent, and the Buckeyes don't lose to in-state opponents. The last ten Ohio State coaches made it out of Columbus without losing to an in-state opponent. The Buckeyes are 42-0-1 against Ohio schools since 1922. The Rockets will bring plenty of talent to Ohio Stadium, and Ohio State will still be filling crucial holes, but history says things like that just don't matter.
10. Colorado (September 24)
The Buffaloes will be the first Pac 12 team to come into Ohio Stadium since USC stole a game with fear and paranoia in 2009, but they may not be any more talented than Indiana. Colorado returns 16 starters, but those 16 starters were part of a team that only scored 24 points per game while giving up 31 last year. Colorado is 0-6 on the road against their last six non-conference BCS opponents, and just 1-5 the last six times they've played on the road following games against rival Colorado State. When Ohio State signed this game, they did so in order to land a BCS opponent that they knew they could beat. Colorado took the game because they need money like soup needs salt.
9. Purdue (November 12)
The Buckeyes were 23-point favorites in last year's revenge meeting against the Boilers and covered by a mere 25 points. However, this year's game is in West Lafayette and the home team is 8-2 in the last ten meetings between these two teams. Purdue will enter the season with an underrated team, and by the time the Buckeyes come to town, the Boilers could very well be playing for bowl slotting. Fortunately for Ohio State, they will have nine games under their belt before playing this one. Purdue has outgained the Buckeyes in seven of the last ten meetings, though Ohio State won the yardage war last year by 371 yards.
8. Akron (September 3)
There is a legitimate reason why two conference games are ranked below this one—this is Luke Fickell's first game as Ohio State head coach. Jim Tressel began his Buckeye head coaching career with a very non-descript 28-14 win over Akron in 2001, so obviously this game is not exactly indicative of future results. However, this is Luke Fickell's first chance to make a first impression, and it could be the first step to him keeping the job he has dreamt about. If you're into history, the last Buckeye football coach to lose his Ohio State debut was Jack Ryder in 1892. Ryder was the second head coach in Ohio State history. The Buckeyes lost to Oberlin 40-0 in his first game as head coach before destroying Akron 62-0 the following week.
7. Illinois (October 15)
Despite having Ron Zook at the helm, the Illini will prove dangerous this season. However, Champaign isn't usually where they bare their teeth—the Buckeyes have won their last eight trips to Illinois' Memorial Stadium. In fact, the Illini haven't beaten Ohio State at home since 1991. The road team is 14-5 in this series since 1990. Still, every road game on the Buckeyes' schedule this season will be a test, this just happens to be the easiest of them. Since this game directly follows the Nebraska game, Ohio State might be on a bit of a let down regardless of what happens in Lincoln. It's been twenty years since the Illini walked off their own field as victors against the Buckeyes, but this is their best chance since 2000 to make their mark.
6. Penn State (November 19)
Penn State comes to Columbus the week before the Michigan game, but don't expect the Buckeyes to be overlooking the Nittany Lions because they are easily one of the seven-most important rivalries that that Ohio State has. Penn State has won just two of the last seven matchups with Ohio State, and always seems to do just enough to lose to the Buckeyes. The Nittany Lions' final three regular season games are Nebraska, at Ohio State and at Wisconsin, so we can forgive them if the Buckeyes don't get Penn State's full attention. However, if Ohio State doesn't get their full attention, then don't expect the Nittany Lions to fare very well.
5. Miami (September 17)
The Hurricanes represent the first legitimate opponent of the Luke Fickell Era, and they'll get to do it at home, and likely at night. Even though this will be Ohio State's third game of the season, this will be their first opportunity to let the nation know that nothing has changed in Columbus. This is Luke Fickell's chance to let everybody know that the beat goes on at Ohio State, and not even the threat of being stabbed and/or robbed by a Hurricane fan can change that. (In fact, the opportunity for violence may actually be welcomed by Fickell.) The Buckeyes are 3-1 against Miami and haven't lost to a current ACC opponent since the Hurricanes topped Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic in 1999.
4. Michigan State (October 1)
Ohio State has won seven straight in this series and hasn't dropped a game to the Spartans since 1999. The last time Michigan State won in Columbus was 1998, which was the darkest day in my Ohio State football history (and maybe Jack Park's too). Since those two losses, however, the Buckeyes are 7-0 against Michigan State, winning by an average margin of 18 points per game. The Spartans are a contender to win the division that Ohio State isn't in, whichever one that is...I can't remember, so this game is going to be very important to Luke Fickell's future. This game is going to set the tone for the Buckeyes' conference schedule, and a win would lead very nicely into their trip to Lincoln.
3. Nebraska (October 8)
This is one of the games of the year in college football, and if Ohio State isn't given a postseason ban, it could be a preview of the Big Ten Championship Game in December. Luke Fickell gets the Tat Four back for the first time in this game, and since they won't have to replace a quarterback, the change shouldn't have any negative ripples on the field. The Buckeyes are 2-0 against the Huskers, but the two teams haven't played since 1956, and never in Lincoln. A win at Nebraska could be the loudest statement Fickell's team makes this season, and the echos may be heard well beyond November. The winning coach in this game could very well be OSU's man in charge for the next decade.
2. Wisconsin (October 29)
A matchup between the two best teams in the division. Ohio State and Wisconsin have split the last ten games evenly, and the Badgers have won three of the last five in Columbus. This will represent the second divisional game on Ohio State's schedule, and a loss will be very hard to overcome. The Buckeyes obviously owe some measure of revenge for last year's loss, and it shouldn't be too hard for Luke Fickell to rally his team. A loss, however, will be hard to overcome both on the schedule, and in the psyches of the Buckeyes. This game will fuel the final four weeks of the schedule, and a win would kick the octane up a notch or two.
1. Michigan (November 26)
There could be only one answer to this list. Even when Michigan is bad at football, they are still the most important game on the schedule. This will be the first time since 1929 that the two teams will meet with brand new coaches, and Luke Fickell will have a seven-game winning streak (okay, possibly just six) to defend. Nobody on this Ohio State team knows what it's like to lose to Michigan, and Fickell surely doesn't want to be the coach who introduces them to it. The Buckeyes have won three straight in Ann Arbor starting back in 2005, but this could be the first time since 2003 that Ohio State isn't favored over the Wolverines in Michigan Stadium.
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