OSU to beef up nonconference schedule


COLUMBUS — Ohio State is navigating a smoother-than-usual path in its pursuit of a perfect season this fall, with Purdue on Saturday the latest underdog to drift into town. The seventh-ranked Buckeyes have yet to face an opponent currently ranked in the top 25.

Times are about to change.

Ohio State is setting off on one of the boldest initiatives in the country.

With college football adopting a four-team playoff in 2014, school officials are out to ensure the Buckeyes’ schedule will never hinder their chances of competing for a national title.

Beginning in 2018, athletic director Gene Smith said he wants OSU to play all four nonconference games against schools from the six power conferences.

That year, the Buckeyes have already locked in Texas Christian of the Big 12 and Cincinnati of the Big East, and continue to work the phones.

“Hopefully we’re going to schedule one team in the top 10, two other teams we hope are going to be in the top 30 or 40, and then someone else from a [major conference],” Smith said of his new philosophy in a phone interview with The Blade.

He added: “What we’re trying to do is play your top-level BCS conferences.”

It offers a snapshot of a future that will look very different from the watered-down present.

With human polls comprising two-thirds of the Bowl Championship Series formula, schools have little incentive to schedule traditionally strong opponents. Voters often value wins over strength of schedule, which means a team that finished with one loss to a highly ranked opponent might finish behind a team that went unbeaten against a lesser schedule.

This fall, no team ranked in top 10 played more than one nonconference game against a BCS program while there were only two nonconference games between teams in the AP preseason top 20 — Alabama-Michigan and Clemson-South Carolina.

The trend swept up Ohio State, too. While the Buckeyes have aggressively sought high-profile non-conference games over the past decade — recall home-and-home sets against Texas, Southern California, Washington, and Miami — they have played at least two teams from outside the six BCS leagues every season since 1999.

This year, OSU hosted Miami of the Mid-American Conference, Central Florida and Alabama-Birmingham of Conference USA, and California of the Pac-12.

Yet the new playoff system inspired a dramatic shift in thinking. With the final four teams to be chosen by a selection committee, Smith said the Big Ten athletic directors collectively decided this summer to beef up their early schedules.

“We discussed in all likelihood the new committee that will be put in place to select the four teams would probably have a non-conference strength of schedule component,” Smith said. “We’re were not sure what it will look like, but it means that all of us need to schedule differently.”

Perhaps no school is going as far to eliminate all cupcakes as OSU. It will trade the occasional loss of a home gate — OSU nets at least $3 million in revenue per game — for the benefit of the program. Smith said his primary goal is locking in the nation’s traditional powers, then working from there. The Buckeyes last week agreed to a home-and-home series with Texas in 2022 and 2023, adding to a line of future flagship opponents that includes Virginia Tech (2014-15), Oklahoma (2016-17), and TCU (2018-19).

Smith said OSU will continue to play MAC schools, though only if other options are not available. If the quest to play four BCS non-conference teams seems to straddle the line between exciting and just plain crazy, coach Urban Meyer said he shares a “very similar” mindset with Smith.

“He’s on the same page,” Smith said. “We’ve talked about particular teams, teams we agreed fit relative to where we want to go. … We talked about where are we recruiting, where are our largest alumni bases, how often are we willing to cross the time zones, those type of things.

“He understands this is the direction we have to go.”

VANDERBILT OUT: Ohio State is suddenly searching for a new opponent next season.

Vanderbilt informed OSU this week that the school is backing out of its scheduled Aug. 31 trip to Columbus, citing complications with its Southeastern Conference schedule. As it stands for next year, the Buckeyes host Florida A&M and Buffalo while visiting California.

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.