Is it August yet? Not quite, but camps and the 2014 season are getting closer. As we continue to count down toward the opener, we're taking a look at the key three- or four-game stretch in the schedule for each Big Ten team.
Next up is a team that ended last season on a sour stretch but continues to chase big goals: Ohio State.
Key stretch: at Michigan State on Nov. 8, at Minnesota on Nov. 15. Indiana on Nov. 22, Michigan on Nov. 29
Breakdown: A nonleague schedule featuring Virginia Tech, Cincinnati and Navy should provide some clues about these Buckeyes, but the true reveal comes in the second half of Big Ten play. Ohio State's visit to Michigan State is the top conference contest entering the season, as it pairs the participants in the 2013 league championship, but this time in a division game. The Buckeyes escaped East Lansing with a 1-point win in 2012 before falling to MSU last December in Indianapolis. A potentially tricky trip to Minneapolis follows as Ohio State faces an improving Minnesota team with a solid defense and a good run game. Ohio State has only lost once to Minnesota since 1981, but can't look past this game.
Indiana looks like the easiest game on paper, but the Hoosiers' potent offense will test Ohio State's back seven on defense, which has some question marks. Michigan then visits Columbus in desperate need of a win against its archrival. Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner passed for 451 yards and four touchdowns against the Buckeyes last season and will be settled into Doug Nussmeier's offense by late November. The Game also becomes a division contest for Ohio State.
Prediction: Ohio State should enter the stretch with an 8-0 record and a very real shot at reaching the initial college football playoff. A revamped offensive line will have more experience in front of Braxton Miller, and if the defense stabilizes, Ohio State will be eying another perfect regular season. The Michigan State trip is undoubtedly the toughest test, and the Spartans are very tough on their home field. It's hard to see Ohio State losing more than once in this stretch. So is it 4-0 or 3-1? I'll go 3-1.