Rankings week: Evaluating the schedule

With spring in the books for more than a month, the long march through the offseason and back to football is only beginning. But BuckeyeNation is going to keep doing its part to speed up the journey -- or at least make it more interesting. This week, that means a bunch of countdown lists, starting with the slate of games on tap for a team coming off a perfect record (and not counting any against the Football Championship Subdivision or a team coming off a winless Big Ten season).

Ranking the 2013 schedule

1. Michigan (Nov. 30 in Ann Arbor, Mich.): As if there could be another place to start this list. The rivalry is as strong as ever with Urban Meyer stoking the flames and making it a top priority to win The Game above just about everything else. If the Buckeyes indeed make another run at perfection this fall, the latest edition in the series could again have huge stakes aside from just bragging rights. The Wolverines slowed down Ohio State’s spread offense in a losing effort last year, but they’ll likely be needing more firepower of their own to potentially stop a title bid in Meyer’s second season.

2. Wisconsin (Sept. 28 in Columbus): The blood doesn’t get quite as hot for the Badgers as it does the Wolverines, obviously, but this is about as close as it gets for the Buckeyes to a backup rivalry. The two programs have also produced some classic games over the last few years, and with an evening kickoff set for the Big Ten opener for both teams, expect a fevered pitch and an entertaining evening in the Horseshoe. Ohio State will be looking to get started on the right foot in the league; Wisconsin will be looking for an early signature victory for a new coach.

3. Northwestern (Oct. 5 in Evanston, Ill.): The Wildcats normally wouldn't be making an appearance this high on the countdown, but Pat Fitzgerald has pretty much broken the traditional mold for the program at this point and will certainly have the attention of the Buckeyes. Another late kickoff will add a bit of extra hype for what might be one of the highest-profile games Northwestern has ever hosted, and the Buckeyes could have a tough test for their rebuilt front seven on their hands.

4. Penn State (Oct. 26 in Columbus): The full impact of the NCAA sanctions leveled against the Nittany Lions might not be felt yet this season, but losing the group of seniors who helped them weather the storm so impressively last fall will be a significant challenge for second-year coach Bill O’Brien. Penn State will have had some time to develop younger players by this point in the year, but if the Nittany Lions are going to test Ohio State at home, the freshman coming along the quickest had better be the quarterback. Either way, two tradition-rich programs hooking up is still going to move the needle.

5. California (Sept. 14 in Berkeley, Calif.): The Golden Bears weren’t supposed to put up much of a challenge last year in the Horseshoe, and they ended up forcing Braxton Miller and Devin Smith to conjure up some late-game magic to help the Buckeyes escape. Cal has undergone a significant change in leadership in bringing in new coach Sonny Dykes, but he has some offensive pieces to work with that have had success already against the Buckeyes -- and this time it’s the Buckeyes who will be traveling across the country.

6. Indiana (Nov. 23 in Columbus): Like offense? Probably don’t want to miss this one then. The margin of victory might have ended up being somewhat deceiving thanks to a couple fluky plays late in the game last year, but even without those late scores, the Hoosiers and Buckeyes had already produced plenty of fireworks thanks to innovative offensive minds on both sidelines. Indiana clearly has made progress under Kevin Wilson, and it could be capable of producing another track meet if the Buckeyes focus too much on their advantage in personnel.

7. Purdue (Nov. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind.): The Boilermakers have certainly made things interesting in the series over the last few meetings, and in the end they were the closest to keeping the Buckeyes from going undefeated last season before Kenny Guiton came off the bench to lead a remarkable comeback in regulation on the way to an overtime victory. For whatever reason, from different defensive looks to Ohio State perhaps getting complacent, Purdue has been a nuisance -- and now it has a driven coach with ties to the Buckeyes. The Boilermakers could use the boost a win would provide for Darrell Hazell's program.

8. San Diego State (Sept. 7 in Columbus): The Buckeyes might be getting more credit for their nonconference schedule if they still had an SEC team on it, though even the improved Vanderbilt squad that canceled a trip to the Horseshoe probably wouldn’t have made the slate look all that more appealing. But Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith did go out and find another team coming off a bowl appearance to replace the Commodores, and the Aztecs have been a tough out over the last few years. A season ago they finished 9-4, a mark that featured a seven-game winning streak at one point and included a win on the road over Boise State.

9. Iowa (Oct. 19 in Columbus): The Hawkeyes might not be the most exciting team around, but their occasionally ugly style of play can at least make things bothersome for opponents. The Buckeyes will be coming off a bye week and starting a two-game stretch at home when Iowa comes back on its schedule, so Meyer figures to have his team locked in for an opponent that only averaged 19.3 points per game last season on the way to a 4-8 record.

10. Buffalo (Aug. 31 in Columbus): The Bulls probably won’t be providing much in the way competition over four quarters against a team expected to be ranked in the top five in the country, particularly on the heels of a 4-8 season last year. But they will provide some fresh bodies for the Buckeyes to test themselves against after nearly a month of playing against each other in training camp. And no matter the opposition, the first week will offer the first glimpse at Ohio State’s spread attack in Meyer’s second season, give a peek at the new-look defense -- and officially welcome back football.