It’s still September, but the Big Ten Leaders Division title could be decided Saturday night, when Wisconsin visits Ohio State.
The Legends Division looks wide open, with key matchups sprinkled throughout November, but Wisconsin and Ohio State know Saturday’s winner can pretty much punch its ticket to Indianapolis.
The past three matchups between Wisconsin and Ohio State were good theater. In 2010, the Badgers knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State in Madison. Two years ago in Columbus, with 20 seconds remaining, Braxton Miller hit Devin Smith with a 40-yard touchdown pass, giving the Buckeyes a 33-29 triumph. Last year’s game went to overtime, with Ohio State prevailing 21-14.
“I was here [as an assistant coach at Ohio State] a long time ago, and it was not a rivalry,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “But you have to give credit to Wisconsin. I think it all started with Coach [Barry] Alvarez, and then the following coaches have done a great job. They are one of, if not, the best programs in the Big Ten right now, and because of that, it’s become a very good rivalry.”
The first four weeks featured so many matchups void of meaning for Big Ten teams that it’ll be good to ratchet up the intensity this week.
According to Jeff Sagarin’s computations in USA Today, which compare all 251 FBS and FCS teams, here’s where Big Ten teams rank in strength of schedule: Purdue (12th), Illinois (53rd), Indiana (72nd), Nebraska (98th), Michigan (110th), Penn State (116th), Northwestern (129th), Iowa (139th), Michigan State (161st), Ohio State (165th), Wisconsin (182nd) and the Gophers (184th).
Heading into Saturday night, these are the two biggest questions facing the Badgers and Buckeyes:
• Will Ohio State’s inexperienced, yet talented front seven find a way to stop Wisconsin’s seemingly unstoppable running back trio of Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement?
“I’m watching this [film] right now, going, ‘My gosh, where do these guys come from?’ ” Meyer said. “I know [White’s] from Fort Lauderdale, but I think the other one’s from [Kenosha], Wisconsin — No. 25 [Gordon] is just a tremendous, tremendous player.
“I haven’t seen the whole country, but I can’t imagine two better backs on the same team.”
The Buckeyes actually might have the Big Ten’s second-best running back unit with Jordan Hall, Carlos Hyde, Rod Smith and true freshman Ezekiel Elliott.
The running game is crucial for Wisconsin, with Joel Stave’s limitations at quarterback, and the Buckeyes’ ability to use standout cornerback Bradley Roby to neutralize receiver Jared Abbrederis.
Ohio State’s offense is more dynamic, but that leads us to the second question:
• What if Miller looks rusty coming back from his knee injury?
Arizona State showed the way to beat Wisconsin is with pinpoint passing. As good as Miller is, that’s not his strength.
You can’t blame Meyer for saying Miller will start, as long as his knee is fully recovered. After all, Miller is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. But it has to be tough benching Kenny Guiton, who has 12 touchdown passes over the past three weeks.
Wisconsin’s front seven is loaded with veteran talent, and defensive coordinator David Aranda’s aggressive 3-4 system looks like a good fit for linebacker Chris Borland. If the Badgers can get a few quick stops early, Meyer might have to turn to Guiton for a spark.
It’s the most unexpected quarterback controversy in the country, but the stakes are simply too high this week for sentimentality.