- Austin Ward, College Football
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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, wrapping up today with a look at the best offensive players and top defenders Ohio State will be taking on this fall.
RANKING THE TOP OFFENSIVE OPPONENTS
1. Allen Robinson, Penn State: As a sophomore, Robinson turned in one of the most productive seasons in program history for the Nittany Lions and comfortably led the Big Ten with 1,013 receiving yards. There were only two targets in the league who even finished within 200 yards of Robinson, who also tacked on 11 touchdowns and drew positive reviews for becoming a more polished route-runner during spring practice. The Buckeyes largely held him check last fall in a win at Penn State, limiting Robinson to 68 yards on five catches. And star cornerback Bradley Roby certainly will have this matchup circled on his calendar.
2. Venric Mark, Northwestern: There might not be many stern tests for Ohio State's revamped defense outside of the league, but they'll get a couple quickly when Big Ten play opens. There might not be a better barometer for the fresh faces in the front seven than hitting the road to take on the Wildcats and an attack-minded offense led by a senior tailback coming off a season with 1,371 yards and 13 touchdowns. Mark isn't the only weapon for Northwestern, but shutting down the ground game by wrapping up the leading rusher will be the top priority for the Buckeyes in a critical early conference clash.
3. James White, Wisconsin: The stage finally belongs to White. And while the senior running back has done plenty of damage in the past while playing behind Montee Ball and enters the season as the NCAA's active rushing leader, the spotlight will finally focus on a dangerous rusher who has made the most of his opportunities in the past with 32 touchdowns to go with those 2,571 yards. The Buckeyes had their hands full with Ball a year ago, giving up 191 yards and a touchdown but countering with one memorable forced fumble at the goal line. Now it's White's turn to take a crack at Ohio State and see if he can come up with a better outcome for the Badgers than the loss they suffered at home last November.
4. Brendan Bigelow, California: The numbers for last season were underwhelming for the electrifying running back, but Bigelow showed in one afternoon against the Buckeyes how difficult he can make life for opposing defenses. In fact, it was puzzling enough for one day why the Golden Bears didn't give him the ball more often after he turned four carries into 160 yards against Ohio State, and he only had 40 more carries for the rest of the season -- averaging nearly 10 yards per touch out of the backfield. A new coaching staff figures to ramp up the workload. The Buckeyes will have to be more fundamentally sound against him than they were in 2012.
5. Shane Wynn, Indiana: The pass-happy Hoosiers have a handful of receivers who could make a statistical claim as the top threat the Ohio State secondary will have to contain in November, but the diminutive, elusive junior is the most likely option to explode without warning. Wynn struck from deep against the Buckeyes last year, adding to the fireworks in a high-scoring affair with a 76-yard touchdown, and he finished the season with a team-high 68 receptions for the Hoosiers.
RANKING THE TOP DEFENSIVE OPPONENTS
1. Chris Borland, Wisconsin: The responsibilities for the senior linebacker might be changing along with a new scheme for the Badgers, but it's safe to assume Borland will be able to handle them, given his track record of success in the Big Ten over the last couple seasons. From the sheer volume of tackles (308) to the variety of ways Borland has produced game-changing plays with turnovers, few players will enter this season having had a more significant impact in the league already in their careers. The Buckeyes will be well aware of where Borland is and what he can do to wreck a plan of attack, and keeping him away from the football will be critical.
2. Tyler Scott, Northwestern: The pace wasn't quite the same, but the top pass-rusher for the Wildcats in 2012 finished with nine sacks, the same total that Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon posted for the Buckeyes. Scott will have the full attention of every lineman and blocking schemes will account for him first and foremost as teams prepare for Northwestern, and it will be up to a veteran group of Buckeyes on the offensive line to slow him down in the trenches and ensure that Braxton Miller has time to work in the pocket in what figures to be a hostile environment in October.
3. Khalil Mack, Buffalo: Without a bowl game and without even playing in all 12 games last season, the senior linebacker still finished the season with four forced fumbles, adding to his already impressive reputation for knocking the ball loose before deciding to return for one more season with the Bulls. The program record for forced fumbles (11) belongs to him already, and he's been an absolute wrecking ball in opposing backfields with 56 tackles for a loss in his career. The Buckeyes have no shortage of talent and experience up front, but they could still have their hands full right from the start as they face Mack in the opener.
4. Landon Feichter, Purdue: The Buckeyes were victimized by the sophomore safety last year in a tighter-than-expected win at home, but Feichter provided them with some company that could sympathize. Feichter's interception at Ohio State was his fourth a season ago, tying him for the most in the Big Ten and complementing his team-leading 80 tackles. The Boilermakers have been a pest for Ohio State in the past, and Feichter is certainly capable of making that the case again when the programs hook up in early November in West Lafayette, Ind.
5. James Morris, Iowa: The Hawkeyes had two linebackers rack up more than 100 tackles a year ago, and Morris actually finished behind teammate Anthony Hitchens and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier on the conference leaderboard for takedowns. But the senior more than made up for that by chipping in all over the field, making nine tackles for a loss, intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble and recovering one as well. Iowa has some question marks coming off a rough 2012 season, but linebacker play won't be a concern.
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.