Wisconsin clinched the Big Ten West in Week 11, and Ohio State ensured Saturday that it’ll meet the Badgers in the conference championship game, Dec. 2 in Indianapolis. The Buckeyes trounced Illinois, 52-14, to lock up the league’s East division. Head-to-head tiebreakers mean OSU wins the division no matter what it does against rival Michigan on Rivalry Weekend.
As long as Wisconsin beats Minnesota next weekend, the undefeated Badgers will be playing for a Playoff berth when they meet Ohio State. Wisconsin dominated Michigan Saturday to stay perfect.
In Indy, there’s a good chance Ohio State will have a Playoff shot, too. The Buckeyes have two ugly losses, and no two-loss team has made the field before. But there’s been enough chaos that OSU remains in the thick of things. The Pac-12 is out of the race already, and the Big 12 could miss out if Oklahoma doesn’t win its death trap of a league title game.
Not that it makes a difference, but these teams have done this before.
You’ll hear and read lots of pregame talk about the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game, where Ohio State beat Wisconsin 59-0 and gained enough of a boost to leap both Baylor and TCU for the fourth seed in the Playoff. Ohio State won it all that year.
None of the teams’ key contributors in that game will play in this one. Wisconsin’s coach is now Paul Chryst, not Gary Andersen. But anyway, it’ll come up.
The teams also played in 2016, when Ohio State won in overtime in Madison.
Ohio State will probably be favored, despite Wisconsin’s better record.
The Buckeyes were more than a touchdown favorite in some early odds that bookmakers circulated a few weeks ago, in the event this game ever arose. They’ll probably start game week favored by something less than that TD, unless either team has a big injury or does something weird in Week 13.
Both teams are really good. The Buckeyes entered this weekend No. 1 in the country in advanced stat S&P+, and the Badgers were No. 3.
Ohio State has a lot more talent by the measure of recruiting rankings, with four- and five-star players all over the field. Wisconsin has few of those. But the Badgers do have one of the best running backs in the country in freshman Jonathan Taylor. And Ohio State’s defense did just give up 55 points to Iowa a few weeks ago.
Most importantly, the Badgers have an elite defense that should keep them from getting blown out. They entered Week 12 with the country’s No. 3 scoring D, allowing 13 points per game. They haven’t allowed more than 24 in any game. If you’re looking for another Ohio State rout, you probably will not find it at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Even sorting out matchup advantages is difficult.
That’s because Ohio State switches between unstoppable and completely stoppable all the time. The Buckeyes are capable of being the most dominant team in the country, and they’re also capable of disasters like their losses to Oklahoma (when the Sooners’ offense picked them apart) and Iowa (when the Hawkeyes’ O did the same).
If you want to pick Ohio State, the argument is straightforward: The Buckeyes have one of the most talented defensive fronts in the country, so Taylor won’t be able to find running space. UW quarterback Alex Hornibrook isn’t good enough to beat the OSU secondary, and J.T. Barrett won’t need to put up more than 17 points to win.
If you want to pick Wisconsin, you can just point at the box score from that Ohio State-Iowa game and walk away laughing. Or you can point out that your defense is one of the best anywhere, and Barrett sometimes looks totally lost in the downfield passing game. You can say, “Defense wins championships” and leave it there.
Each team prefers a certain type of game, though.
The slower the tempo, the fewer plays that get run, and the fewer points that are scored, the more chance Wisconsin’s going to have. If the game becomes a track meet with lots of possessions, the better off Ohio State should be. The Buckeyes’ talent advantage would give them more chances to get separation.
The only thing that’s certain about the 2017 Big Ten title game is the matchup. I don’t have a clue how it’ll go or what that’ll mean for the Playoff picture, and that’s fun.