On one hand, looking at the schedule and finding a loss is not easy to do at all. Potentially tricky games? Oh, sure. Games they COULD lose? No doubt. But which one (or ones) will they lose, if any? How to pull the trigger on calling an upset now without feeling insincere? That is a question that faced me as I sat down to make my Big Ten picks for the football preview edition of Buckeye Sports Bulletin that went in the mail last week. And I never found a satisfactory answer, so I didn't pick a loss.
Yet I still have a hard time believing the stars align again. There are certainly enough question marks on this team to create a vulnerability any of a half dozen or so teams on the schedule, such as it is, could exploit at least for one afternoon, but beyond that there is the simple fact going undefeated is really hard to do.
It is just such a topsy turvy world college football lives in – perhaps to get a little less silly next year, depending on your playoff perspective – that sometimes making predictions just seems silly.
Now, don't get me wrong – I'm not saying we shouldn't do predictions. It is just sports, after all. There is nothing wrong with missing a pick. It's all in good fun, just something we do to pass the time as friends and coworkers and Internet acquaintances.
Maybe I have never been the same since 1998. Watching that team, so full of talent, so much superior to every team it took the field with that season, lose a game to a bunch of nobodies in green and white perhaps shaped my psyche forever when it comes to this kind of thing. I mean it's confusing enough that Michigan has ruined so many Ohio State perfect seasons (and vice verse, even as recently as 2006), but then when some .500 squad with talent but no obvious direction walks in to the house that Harley built and exits with a victory, now that is just about unfathomable. It feels like the 2012 Buckeyes did not do the 2013 version any favors, did they? I mean have you ever heard of a team going undefeated only to leave higher expectations for the following season?
What can we expect to learn this week: Here's another obvious one: the state of this Ohio State team under Urban Meyer, where the Buckeyes are still growing on offense and now rebuilding on defense.
It's a fascinating juxtaposition because for so long the unit everyone just assumed would be good in Columbus was the defense. No matter how many players had to be replaced, Jim Heacock and his crew were always up to the task. Now Luke Fickell, one of Heacock's pupils both on the field and in the coaching room, has a group of young players who we know can move fast even if we're not sure how effective they'll be at messing things up for the offense when they do get to the man with the ball.
Last year, the Buckeyes had to – and did – go undefeated despite only partly knowing what they were doing. That applied to both sides of the ball but in different ways.
The offense was still being absorbed throughout the year. It succeeded more on the ability of quarterback Braxton Miller to improvise and the raw power of a stunningly improved offensive line and running back Carlos Hyde than it did on design of the scheme. Yeah, the Buckeyes had a third receiver on the field most of the time to force the defense to spread out a little more, but the lack of passing acumen didn't necessarily take the extra man out of the box as hoped.
Defensively, the problems were more varied. A tweak designed to make the defense more flexible just made it more porous in the first half of the season. Adding more reads could have made it more able to respond to anything thrown at it, but instead it created seams for opponents to exploit. And with so much emphasis on effort and competition during the spring and preseason, things like tackling and leverage lacked.
Poor communication led to holes and bad fundamentals made them harder to close.
The defense got fixed, though, thanks in large part to an appeal to the players' pride and a rededication to playing the game the right way.
There is little doubt the 2012 Buckeyes were an imperfect team that had a perfect record.
In truth, most undefeated teams have more than a couple of close games along the way, and the lack of a real killer on the schedule helped, too.
This year's Ohio State squad doesn't have to go undefeated because last year's did, but that accomplishment could be called the reason it is expected to win them all in 2013.
Perhaps we will look back on this year and see these Buckeyes came along one year too early.
The relatively weak schedule means they should have an easier time of going undefeated again, but it also means they essentially MUST do that.
Were this the year the four-team playoff begins, they would probably still have a shot to make the field even with a loss, especially if they decisively put down most of the rest of their opponents.
Alabama has operated with the knowledge it could lose a game before December and still keep national title hopes intact, but Ohio State doesn't have that luxury.
Will that hurt the Buckeyes, cause them to seize up at an inopportune moment? Only time will tell. Truthfully, there may be no real reason for that to be the case, but it is hard to dismiss the feeling that it will. That is what I keep coming back to when I try to project this season.
I can't pick the Buckeyes to lose to anyone on their regular season schedule because I don't have any evidence telling me the other team is better.
Oh, sure, there tricky games like the ones at Evanston and Ann Arbor. Purdue has been a house of horrors lately for some reason and now the Boilermakers appear to have a more competent coach than they did when they upset the Buckeyes in West Lafayette in 2009 and '11.
Some think Michigan is growing back into a juggernaut thanks to its recent recruiting, but the Wolverines will be very young in some key places this season. They might need to get even younger at some others to get their best players on the field. What will that all mean by the time the end of November rolls around? Will Brady Hoke's staff have Michigan's baby Wolverines coming of age and playing their best football, or will they still be collecting hard lessons to apply to the next offseason?
I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but the question feels like it must be asked.
Unless, of course, I just need to see a real football game that means something, in which case these unwarranted doubts could pass.