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The Buckeyes confront the toughest year of the Urban Meyer era

Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

Wins have come by the dozen in Columbus since Urban Meyer inherited Ohio State in 2012.

Literally.

Each of the past four seasons, the Buckeyes have notched at least 12 victories, including a 14-win year in 2014 which culminated in the College Football Playoff national championship, the first of its kind. The Scarlet and Gray are 50-4 in the Meyer regime and 31-1 against Big Ten competition in the regular season. They won 30 straight conference games before falling to Michigan State last November.

Ohio State has made winning look easy. For some, that’s not been a coincidence. Playing in a conference that bungees between elite and mediocre has undervalued some of the successes in Columbus. Relatively light non-conference scheduling hasn’t helped, either.

The Buckeyes have scheduled a few power conference teams over the past four years, playing a home-and-home series against California in 2012 and 2013 and another against Virginia Tech in 2014 and 2015. The Bears won just four games in the two seasons they battled Ohio State. The Hokies beat Ohio State in 2014, but they posted modest 7-6 seasons the last two years.

Then there are the other 12 games. Teams from the MAC, WAC and elsewhere in the Group of Five conferences have occupied the slate. Even when those squads win eight or nine games in a season, the talent disparity remains significant.

Altogether, non-conference opponents of Ohio State have won 45.3 percent of their games over the past four years.

Games in the Big Ten haven’t been viewed differently. In Meyer’s time, the conference has been divided into two categories: Ohio State, and everyone else. For the most part, it’s been true.

The average margin of victory for the Buckeyes since 2012 is 22.7 points per game. In 2013, that number was 27.9 points per contest, beating four teams by 35 points or more that season.

Winning 50 games since 2012 hasn’t just seemed easy in Columbus, it’s been viewed as a cinch. Only seven games against ranked opponents in the regular season validate that belief.

Meyer’s program has an opportunity to alter that perception this fall. Ohio State will embark on its toughest journey yet.

Five of Ohio State’s opponents ranked in the AP Top 25 at the end of the 2015 campaign. Three of those games, including a game against Oklahoma in Week 3, will be away from the Horseshoe. The Buckeyes travel to two of the most difficult venues in the Big Ten in consecutive weekends, playing Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Oct. 15 and Penn State at Beaver Stadium a week later.

The Buckeyes square off with six teams that recorded 10 or more wins last season. Ten of the 12 squads on the slate appeared in a bowl game. This also marks the year the Big Ten ushers in a nine-game conference schedule.

Without question, Meyer is about to encounter the toughest season in his five-year stint at Ohio State… having lost¬†double-digit starters.

Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days that this might be the most talented roster he’s coached from top to bottom. That seems like a stretch for someone with three championship rings to his name. If true, though, it’s coming at an opportune time.

The September showdown with the Sooners will be the first test for the young Buckeyes. A road game in front of more than 82,000 fans at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium against a semifinalist in last year’s College Football Playoff will force inexperienced newcomers to mature quickly.

Win or lose, it could be the perfect way to get Ohio State on track for the start of Big Ten play.

It’s a similar position to what confronted the Buckeyes two seasons ago, playing Virginia Tech early in the year.

J.T. Barrett was a freshman quarterback replacing two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller. Ezekiel Elliott was gaining significant action for the first time in his career. Many other guys hadn’t played meaningful minutes until that night.

It was ugly.

Barrett finished the night 9-for-29 with 219 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Elliott carried the ball for a meager 32 yards. Ohio State finished 4-of-16 on third-down attempts, and the Hokies won 35-21.

Four months and 13 straight wins later, the Buckeyes were hoisting the College Football Playoff Trophy as the champions of college football.

Meyer and his bunch could be taking a similar road this fall. Unlike the team that reached the peak, though, this one has a steeper mountain to climb.

01 January 2016: Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh during the 2016 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl between the Michigan Wolverines and Florida Gators at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

01 January 2016: Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh during the 2016 Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl between the Michigan Wolverines and Florida Gators at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

“That team up North” is going to be better. Jim Harbaugh has the Michigan Wolverines as one of the favorites to compete in the College Football Playoff at the end of the year. A week before “The Game,” Ohio State travels to East Lansing to battle reigning Big Ten champion Michigan State.

Northwestern has strength on both sides of the ball, returning 1,000-yard rusher Justin Jackson and All-American linebacker Anthony Walker. Nebraska has the athleticism and experience offensively to match the Buckeyes score for score.

If the standings hold, Ohio State will battle at least four ranked opponents.

There are no guarantees this fall.

Ohio State is still one of the favorites to take the Big Ten crown in 2016. And why not? Meyer is still one of the top three coaches in the sport. Barrett is a highly-regarded Heisman Trophy candidate. The Buckeyes have more talent than most other programs in the country.

It’s hard to count out a juggernaut playing in a conference that’s still developing quality depth.

Competition is getting better, though, and Ohio State won’t enjoy the luxury of breezing through its schedule, especially with the youth and inexperience on the roster.

Meyer and the Buckeyes have won 50 games in four years, have claimed two East Division crowns and own a Big Ten and national title. Somehow, this season is going to present the biggest hurdles the program has faced since 2012.

This is another chance for Ohio State to prove it’s still in a class of its own in the Big Ten.

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