- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Our 2012 schedule analysis series wraps up the Leaders Division teams today. Last but not least in the division are the Ohio State Buckeyes, who -- like Penn State -- have only the regular season to play for this year.
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: Miami (Ohio) (4-8)
Sept. 8: UCF (5-7)
Sept. 15: Cal (7-6)
Sept. 22: UAB (3-9)
Leaders Division games
Oct. 13: at Indiana
Oct. 20: Purdue
Nov. 3: Illinois
Oct. 27: at Penn State
Nov. 17: at Wisconsin
Sept. 29: at Michigan State
Oct. 6: Nebraska
Nov. 24: Michigan (protected)
Gut-check game: The Buckeyes open with four very winnable games at home, offering them a great chance to get off to a fortuitous start under Urban Meyer. But lest they get ahead of themselves, they will close September with a very difficult road game at Michigan State. The Spartans beat Ohio State last year in Columbus, and the number of Ohio natives on the Michigan State roster means this will be a high-intensity, hard-hitting affair. Meyer will get his first real read on how tough his first edition Buckeyes are on Sept. 29.
Trap game: Few here really seem to qualify, but keep an eye on that Nov. 3 visit from Illinois. That game comes a week after what should be a stern test at Penn State and before a bye week and the two headliner games to close the year. If the Buckeyes start looking ahead to their first week off of the season, then the Illini might be able to pull out a surprise.
Snoozer: UAB won three games last year and fired its coach. The Blazers haven't had a winning season since 2004. A couple of other FBS teams from the state of Alabama would have gotten the juices flowing, but this one is just a final, minor speed bump before Big Ten play begins.
Non-con challenge: There's nothing on the schedule as difficult as recent non-league games against USC, Texas or even Miami. Cal comes closest to being a challenge, though the Golden Bears haven't been too intimidating the past few years. They've also only got 11 starters back. But Jeff Tedford's teams can usually put points on the board, and that might create a challenge for an Ohio State offense that could still be finding its sea legs.
Telltale stretch: There are two, really. The first two Big Ten games against Michigan State and Nebraska will tell us whether this Ohio State team is capable at making a run at a 10-win or better season. But the closing two games are what people are most likely to remember. Even though they can't win a division title, the Buckeyes will be fired up for going to Madison and making a statement against Wisconsin -- and no matter what they say, you know Urban Meyer wants to beat Bret Bielema. Of course, the Michigan game is always the Michigan game, and this year it will serve as Ohio State's bowl. If the Buckeyes can spoil their rival's chances at winning the Legends Division, all the better.
Analysis: All told, this is the type of schedule that's built for success in Meyer's first year. On paper, at least, Ohio State should be 4-0 going into Big Ten play, and it will be favored to beat Indiana, Purdue and Illinois. Nebraska and Michigan, both of whom beat the Buckeyes in 2011, have to come to Columbus. The road trips to Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin probably mean a 12-0 season is out of the question. But a nine-win season, at least, looks very achievable.
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