Welcome to the new Big Ten, Ohio State.
The Buckeyes open up their conference schedule by hosting the No. 25 Michigan State Spartans at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be the final one Ohio State will play without some of its key players, who were suspended five contests for selling memorabilia during the offseason.
This is a season-maker or deal-breaker for the Spartans. Ohio State was expected to be a little off going into the year, but with a redshirt senior under center and plenty of other talent, Michigan State has every reason to believe it can compete for another Big Ten title.
But this game might just be the most winnable for the Spartans in the month of October. After the game against Ohio State, Michigan State has a bye week and then hosts Michigan and Wisconsin before visiting the newest conference member, Nebraska. After that, it will be smooth sailing for the Spartans the rest of the way, but getting off to a good start is key.
Michigan State barely nudged its way into the top 25 last week, and the one thing that voters like least is having newly ranked teams drop their first contest after being given a spot in the 25. Even if the Spartans lose this game but beat their next three opponents, voters might not give them the benefit of the doubt.
Ohio State, meanwhile, has the benefit of playing at home but is still breaking in a young starting quarterback. Braxton Miller shows great promise on the field, but playing his second game as a starter against a high-level conference opponent is not the ideal situation. That is what the non-conference schedule is supposed to be for.
The Buckeyes have a lot to prove Saturday as well. If they can win their final game without a few starters, then who knows what this team can do at full strength? Luke Fickell has garnered three wins in four weeks, but nothing compares to Big Ten season.
Ohio State normally performs well in conference play when its supporting cast is at full force. More important than Miller's play will be the offensive line's performance. Never underestimate the importance of a strong secondary when playing against a team that has an experienced quarterback handling the pigskin. The result of the game will be displayed openly on the scoreboard, but the reason for the win will be hidden deep within the stats sheet.
And the Buckeyes don't have a very easy schedule on the horizon, either. Next up is a road trip to Nebraska, a visit to Illinois and a bye week before Wisconsin comes to town. That means this game will be the last at Ohio Stadium for the next four weeks.
Michigan State and Ohio State have been less familiar with each other than many Big Ten pairings. The Spartans last visited Columbus in 2007, and the Buckeyes hold a 27-12 edge in the series. Ohio State has won the last seven matchups.
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