Season opener against Notre Dame adds urgency to Ohio State football's preseason camp
Players talk about the game every day.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud has been watching film for the past couple of months.
Coach Ryan Day feels a little more urgency throughout the program.
The presence of Notre Dame atop Ohio State’s schedule hangs over the start of its preseason training camp this week.
It’s the latest marquee non-conference game for the Buckeyes, but it’s rare for a contest of this magnitude to be held out of the gate.
Three and a half decades have passed since the last season opener involving Ohio State served as a top-10 matchup. That was in 1986 when it met Alabama in the Kickoff Classic.
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While the preseason polls aren't released yet, the Buckeyes and Irish are widely expected to be sitting near the top of the rankings before meeting Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium.
“It sets the tone right off the bat,” Ohio State safety Ronnie Hickman said. “Win or lose, it's going to matter. It's going to probably matter toward the end of the season, as well. So we know how much we've got to prepare. We know how important this is to us, and our fans. We're going to be ready.”
The implications for a berth in the College Football Playoff are clear for both teams.
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A win might impress members of the selection committee when they convene later in the fall, while a loss could put a potential bid on life support.
Since the four-team postseason format debuted in 2014, no team has made the playoff with more than one loss.
When the Buckeyes stumbled in Week 2 against Oregon last season, it left them with no margin for error as they navigated the remaining months of the season, and they were ultimately unable to reach the playoff after faltering in their regular-season finale against Michigan.
“You've got to bring your A-game,” receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba said. “It’s not just a walk-through. It’s going to be big. And we love games like that. I feel like that's when we play our best. You know you want to get an extra rep or two when you know you’re playing a good team that’s going to come out and try to beat you.”
Buckeyes, Irish playing to sellout crowd in prime time
To match the stakes of the game, kickoff is scheduled for prime time, and ESPN’s “College GameDay” show will air outside Ohio Stadium.
Day said last week that tickets have sold out.
“I think our guys feel it,” Day said. “I think they feel the excitement. I think they feel the anticipation. I think they just feel the community rally around this team.”
The challenge presented by Notre Dame starts at the line of scrimmage, especially from its defensive line.
The Irish’s returners include Isaiah Foskey, a premier pass rusher, and Jayson Ademilola, a disruptive tackle.
And despite losing Kyle Hamilton, a rangy safety who was taken in the first round of the NFL draft in April, the Irish added Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph, a former All-American as a freshman in 2020.
Smith-Njigba said the Irish look fast and physical up front.
“The defense runs to the ball real well,” he said.
Marcus Freeman, a former Buckeyes linebacker, was Notre Dame's defensive coordinator last season before being promoted to replace Brian Kelly in the aftermath of his hiring at LSU.
Freeman then brought in Al Golden, a former Miami and Temple coach who had most recently been a linebackers coach in the NFL with the Bengals, for his role.
The change in coordinators adds a wrinkle to the Buckeyes’ preparation.
“When you have a new staff like that, it's a challenge,” Day said, “because you don't know exactly what they're going to do.”
Ohio State is also looking at facing two possible starting quarterbacks. Tyler Buchner is the favorite to replace Jack Coan but had been in a competition with Drew Pyne during spring practice.
Buchner can also create with his legs and ran for 336 yards and three touchdowns last season as the backup.
“We’re looking at both of those guys and their skill sets,” Day said, “and trying to project out what that would look like when they’re on the field.”
Hickman said he has watched a lot of last season’s Fiesta Bowl with fellow safety Tanner McCalister.
McCalister, who transferred from Oklahoma State, was in the Cowboys’ secondary when they faced Notre Dame in the game. No other player on the roster has faced the Irish.
“He can kind of talk me through it,” Hickman said, “see what he was seeing and what was actually going on.”
Tommy Rees remains the Irish’s offensive coordinator.
For as much as the buildup for the matchup will continue in the weeks ahead and heighten preseason practices, the Buckeyes can draw on some past experience.
The front of last season’s schedule posed a challenge with an opening game at Minnesota. Then they hosted Oregon, which was on the cusp of the top-10. It had their attention in the weeks leading up.
“We had to be ready to go,” Day said.
Notre Dame is on their minds this August, though they're not dwelling too much on the matchup.
“In the locker room we're having fun right now,” Stroud said. “It's the offseason. We're enjoying ourselves. We're really not too focused on what they're thinking. We just focus on us. But of course, we're working for that, and definitely when the time comes, we'll be ready.”
Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.