On paper, it looks like a mismatch.
Ohio State ranked No. 93 in the country last year in total offense with 332.2 yards per game. The Buckeyes were No. 71 in passing offense (206.1), No. 84 in rushing offense (126.1) and No. 74 in scoring (24.8 points per game).
On the other hand, Cincinnati ranked No. 27 in the nation in total defense, allowing 333 yards per game. The Bearcats were No. 22 in passing defense (188.6), No. 49 in rushing defense (144.4) and No. 68 in scoring defense (26.6).
Sure, OSU played a much tougher schedule than UC, but the statistical disparity still jumps out.
This year, Ohio State has five returning offensive starters, while Cincinnati has seven returning defensive starters.
The Bearcats run a multiple 4-3 scheme and they have one of the best defensive minds in the country in head coach Mark Dantonio, the former defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
In addition to having a new head coach, the Bearcats have a new defensive coordinator: Pat Narduzzi. He spent one season as the coordinator at Miami University ('03) and did a good job as the Redhawks ranked No. 35 in the country in total defense, allowing 341.1 yards per game.
Narduzzi was the linebackers coach at Northern Illinois for three seasons prior to coming to Miami. He replaced Jon Wauford at MU, who you might remember was involved in a post-game incident at Marshall in 2002 and later resigned.
Narduzzi blitzed quite a bit at Miami, which is a bit different than Dantonio's "bend but don't break" scheme that he used quite well at OSU. It will be interesting to see what Cincinnati does this Saturday, but it is sure to be aggressive in its defensive playcalling with the Buckeyes breaking in a new quarterback and young offensive line.
Let's take a position-by-position look at the matchups.
OHIO STATE OFFENSIVE LINE vs. CINCINNATI DEFENSIVE LINE
The Buckeyes are led by their only two returning starters on the offensive front: junior center Nick Mangold and junior left tackle Rob Sims. Both are strong candidates for All-Big Ten honors this season. Other starters include left guard Doug Datish, right guard Mike Kne and right tackle Tim Schafer. Kirk Barton is also expected to play at RT.
Cincinnati's defensive line is led by senior defensive ends Trent Cole and Andre Frazier. Cole led the team with 14 tackles-for-loss last season and was named first-team All-Conference USA. Frazier led the team with seven sacks, was second with 10.5 tackles-for-loss and was named third-team All-Conference USA.
The Bearcats' tackles are senior Mike Wright and junior Adam Roberts.
Cincinnati is known more as a speed defense, but it can be physical as well.
"I think they have the ability to do both," Mangold said. "Their D-ends are real quick and make a lot of moves, but then they've got D-tackles that can really plug the middle. So, it's going to be a real interesting task for us to see if we can manage both their middle and their edges with their speed and power. They have a great defense."
There are a lot of question marks surrounding OSU's offensive line, but it will be a much quicker and more athletic group this year. This will be a good first test for the Buckeyes. Cincinnati has a decent defensive line and if OSU's line can handle the Bearcats, it might be a sign of things to come for the rest of the season. They will see more physical defensive lines in the Big Ten, but Cincinnati has as much speed up front as they will face this year.
"I think O-line play will be critical," Zwick said. "I think those guys are coming along very well this camp, as well as they did in the spring. We've got some new guys in there and they're fighting it out to get in there and get some playing time."
Mangold knows there is a lot of pressure on the offensive line to perform.
"We as an O-line, we want to do what we can do to help our playmakers make plays," he said. "If we can hold that block for an extra second so Santonio (Holmes) can make an 80-yard run of some sort, or something that needs to be done, we want to do that. We feel the pressure is on us to get those kind of things done to allow our playmakers to make plays."
OHIO STATE BACKS, TIGHT ENDS vs. CINCINNATI LINEBACKERS
Senior tailback Lydell Ross could be headed for a big year and will look to get started on the right foot with a big game in the opener. However, he will likely be without his lead blocker as senior fullback Branden Joe is expected to miss the game with an ankle injury. Look for sophomore Stan White and junior Brandon Schnittker in there at fullback and H-back.
The big story is sophomore quarterback Justin Zwick making his first start for the Buckeyes. Cincinnati will surely try to rattle Zwick. If that means bringing linebackers on blitzes from time to time, that's what it will do.
"When Coach Dantonio was here he liked to blitz and put the pressure on and so that's something that we're getting ready for," Zwick said.
The Bearcats have an outstanding middle linebacker in senior Jamar Enzor. He led the team with 137 tackles last year and was named third-team All-Conference USA.
The other LB starters in their 4-3 scheme are seniors Jason Russell and Jamey Murphy.
Mangold is impressed with UC's linebackers after watching them on film.
"All their linebackers are good," he said. "They've got the speed and the strength."
OHIO STATE RECEIVERS vs. CINCINNATI DEFENSIVE BACKS
Hall won a starting job with a strong camp and it seems like he is finally putting it all together. He has good physical tools and has caught up on the mental side of things. He will present matchup problems with UC's smaller corners.
Also look for a lot of Bam Childress, John Hollins and Tony Gonzalez from the Buckeyes, with a little bit of Ted Ginn and Devon Lyons mixed in. It is a young group experience-wise, but expectations are still high for the OSU receiver corps. Cincinnati's secondary is led by senior Daven Holly. He led the team with six interceptions last year and was named second-team All-Conference USA.
The other starters are sophomore cornerback Antoine Horton, sophomore free safety JaJuan Hall and senior strong safety Doug Monaghan.
"Their DBs are good," Holmes said. "We know they'll play tough defense. Coach Dantonio is going to really get after us and I think they're going to play hard-nosed football, but we've just got to come out prepared. Run our things, make sure we know all of our assignments, get the job done."
Holmes is the leader of OSU's receivers, but says everyone must chip in.
"I feel like we're all leaders," he said. "Coach (Jim Tressel) is looking for every player at every different position to become a leader. Whether it's me at the Z and Roy at the X, he has to teach his guys and I have to teach my guys and then the quarterbacks have to teach each other and the running backs have to do the same thing. So, it's pretty much an overall team thing with the leaders."
It will obviously be an interesting matchup. Yes, Dantonio knows OSU's players – he knows their weaknesses and strengths – but the Buckeyes know all about Dantonio as well. They know how he likes to call a game defensively and what adjustments he likes to make. Narduzzi will actually call the game for UC, but you can bet he will do so with heavy input from Dantonio.
"You know, it's kind of hard to game plan for them," Zwick said. "They've got a new staff down there and we don't really have any film on what exactly they're doing, so we're just going with our base stuff and what we do and we'll see what they're giving up and go from there.
"But I think our coaching staff here knows (Dantonio) pretty well and if all goes to plan and they run his stuff I think we'll be all right. But we're looking at both defenses. The new defensive coordinator is from Miami and we're getting a look at both of them so we'll be prepared. And we have Coach (John) Peterson up here (a former assistant at Miami) so we kind of have an idea of what both of them like to do and we're just kind of looking at both defenses and get things ready to go."
Zwick thinks the Bearcats do several things well defensively.
"They're experienced," he said. "They run to the ball, they fly around. I know Coach Dantonio is going to have them running to the ball and pursuing and everything, so we just have to be ready to play hard and be ready to move the ball as well as we can."
Zwick scoffs when asked if the Buckeyes will run even more of a buttoned-down offense with a young QB at the controls.
"We do everything that we have every day and whatever Coach Tressel feels like using, he is going to do," Zwick said. "I have confidence in our offensive players. Whatever (UC) want(s) to do, we have guys that are prepared for that and have been working hard and will be able to do whatever.
"Not much is going to change with our offense. We do what we do and we work on that every day to do it well. We've got a lot of stuff in and a lot of guys that can do certain things and we're looking forward to getting out there."
Holmes agrees with his quarterback. He does not expect a conservative attack from the Buckeyes just because there are so many first time starters.
"No, our coaches have a lot of confidence in our young guys," Holmes said. "They've been here a while, but they're not young. They've been here long enough to know the system and know what kind of opportunities they have and how to make the best of those opportunities, so I think our young guys are going to step up to the challenge."
Mangold gave one final key to victory for the Buckeyes.
"Having blitz pick up is going to be a big part of our game," he said. "Seeing what he brings and then being able to pick it up is going to be a key for us."