Buckeyes Set Off On Difficult October

Ohio State's Big Ten fate could be determined pretty early in Luke Fickell's first season with the team. The Buckeyes face a gantlet in the first four games of the league slate, starting with Saturday's showdown with a Michigan State team that looks to defend its Big Ten title.

Under head coach Jim Tressel, the final month of the season was always stressed for the Ohio State football team.

The way the schedule fell in Tressel's tenure – with many of the toughest games waiting at the end – it always seemed like the Buckeyes would have a November to remember.

However, in Luke Fickell's first year, the Buckeyes are looking ahead at an October to mull over.

The Buckeyes could face four ranked teams in the month, which would be the first time that has happened since September of 1959 – a stretch that included USC, Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin.

The Badgers and Fighting Illini return this time around along with Michigan State – which enters Saturday's game ranked 25th in the coaches' poll – and Nebraska, which plays its first-ever conference game with the Buckeyes next weekend.

"It's a big one," head coach Luke Fickell said of the 10th month of the calendar. "Our guys understand that. They're not blind. They can walk in every day and see the schedule on the board.

"Again, we stay focused on getting better. I think you knew that when this thing started off. No matter what the situation was, it was going to be a grind. This is going to be a grind. That's how you get better."

The run starts with a visit from the Spartans, who were tabbed by many as Big Ten contenders coming into the season after sharing the league title a season ago. Though the team has fallen out of the AP poll after its Sept. 17 loss to Notre Dame, Michigan State enters with the top-ranked defense in the league and a senior quarterback in Kirk Cousins.

Then there's the trip to Nebraska to take on a Cornhusker team that sits eighth in both polls at the moment, though that could change after the team travels to take on Wisconsin this week in what is perhaps the marquee game on the college football slate.

After the trip to Nebraska comes a tricky visit to Illinois, a place OSU never seems to play well. Add in the fact that the Fighting Illini are off to their first 4-0 start in six decades and the test in Champaign should be a stiff one.

Lastly, the month ends with a heavily anticipated visit from Wisconsin, another top-10 team which tripped up the top-ranked Buckeyes a season ago while handing the Scarlet and Gray its only loss of the season.

After facing no ranked teams through the first four games and compiling a 3-1 record, the unranked Buckeyes say they're ready to see how they measure up.

"I think it's time to be tested," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge. You can't set the schedule, but I don't think anybody is wishing it was any other way. I think we've played some games and got some experience, got some bad things and some good things, and now we have to see where we're at going into the league."

Rarely does the Big Ten start so ruggedly for the Buckeyes in recent years. Ohio State has played only one ranked team – Wisconsin a year ago – in the opening four games of the Big Ten slate over last two seasons and hasn't played three ranked teams in the first four Big Ten contests since 2005 (Iowa, Penn State and Michigan State).

Oddly enough, this is also the youngest Buckeye team in that span, opening the possibility that the team might struggle to find its stride at the start, but tight end Reid Fragel said the team is looking forward to the grind.

"I think it's good for us," the junior said. "Obviously we have some young guys and it's interesting to see how they respect to certain teams and different defenses and stuff. I think each week is just another test and they're doing a good job with it."

Also on the line is the team's record-tying streak of six consecutive Big Ten titles, though the last one was officially vacated as part of OSU's self-imposed penalties related to the tattoos and memorabilia scandal.

Though the record books will say Ohio State is looking to restart a streak, the players know what happened the past few years on the field and want to keep the run going. Performing well in October will be essential to that task.

"We take it one game at a time, but we look forward to challenges like that," offensive lineman Jack Mewhort said. "This is Ohio State. That's what it's all about. We need to have a good month. If we come out strong, it'll be a real morale boost for us."

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