Former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel used to say that September was for pretenders and November was for contenders.
The first four games of the season can build hype for some programs, but hype only carries you so far. And with the way teams are softening their non-conference schedules, September is meaning less than it ever has.
The four games in November are where the lasting memories begin to take root. A perfect November is the goal of every college football team. A team playing its best down the stretch and against its rivals is an 11-month process with a single-minded goal.
October, meanwhile, is the weird stretch of lonely highway between towns where you need to watch out for deer.
Dark nights, few lights.
Is that a deer?
No, it’s just a mailbox.
The Buckeyes made it through September unscathed, though it was not without November-like drama. The 17-14 win at No. 9 Notre Dame was one of the best for any team this season, but Pretender Season is over. It’s time to begin gearing up for Contender Season.
Ohio State is done with their open week, which means they will play eight games over the next eight weeks. There will be no time to come up for air. Every week will require the kind of focus that can handle a blur such as they are about to experience.
The first game up is Maryland, which will be the Buckeyes’ fifth undefeated opponent in as many outings.
The Terrapins are knocking on the door of the Top 25 at 5-0. They are one of just seven teams in the nation with five wins by double digits this season (Maryland, Michigan, Penn State, Oklahoma, Texas, Air Force, Kentucky). They have beaten their three Power 5 opponents by an average score of 39-13.
Of course, the combined record of their four FBS opponents is only 5-15, so that may help explain why the rankings have yet to buy in. There’s also the fact that putting Maryland into the rankings before they play Ohio State or Penn State or Michigan is unnecessary. The Terps will be ranked No. 1 soon enough with wins over those three Big Ten East foes.
Nobody expects that, however. Nor should they.
But October isn’t about what Maryland will do the rest of the season. October is about what a team like the Terrapins can do to Ohio State if the Buckeyes aren’t prepared.
Under Ryan Day, however, that hasn’t really been an issue.
Ohio State is 36-2 in October since 2012, and 13-0 under Ryan Day.
The lone tricks among the treats were losses at Purdue and Penn State in 2018 and 2016, respectively.
Day’s Buckeye squads have won their 13 October contests by an average score of 47-15, with five of those wins coming against ranked opponents.
Maryland won’t add to the number of ranked opponents, but they are much more a deer than a mailbox. They have the No. 2 scoring offense in the Big Ten (38.6 ppg), are No. 3 in yards per carry (5.1), No. 1 in total offense (454.8 ypg), No. 4 in touchdowns allowed (4), No. 1 in interceptions (8), No. 2 in defensive red zone touchdown percentage (40%), and No. 2 in turnover margin (+9).
Generally seen as an offensive team, Maryland is also in the top half of most defensive categories in the Big Ten.
As Ohio State continues to search for its identity on offense, the Terrapins aren’t exactly going to be therapeutic. They have held their three Power 5 opponents to just 103 yards rushing per game.
But Maryland is just Mile Marker 5. After that comes Purdue, which could simply be renamed “Dead Man’s Curve” for the Buckeyes. Ohio State is 1-3 in their last four games in West Lafayette since 2009. They’re also 1-3 in their last four October games in West Lafayette, going back to 2000.
Then the road gets even more treacherous. A home game against Penn State, followed by a road game at Wisconsin. There will be plenty of time to talk about those two matchups in the coming weeks, but those weeks aren’t all that far off.
The season is about to pick up.
Everybody needs to be ready because even though September was for pretenders and November is for contenders, October is for survivors.
The one point in a margin of victory is the only point that counts. Whatever it takes.
It doesn’t matter how it gets done, just make it happen.
Because November will be waiting.