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Big Ten Championship: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin

Turns out last week was only a warm up for teams getting blown out-only two BIG games this week were decided by less than 31 points.  Appropriately, they were the two most important ones. Ohio State came from behind after losing a net of six yards in the first quarter to defeat Michigan 31-20 and keep their slim playoff chances alive-more about that below. In the other close game, Purdue held on for a 31-24 victory over Indiana to become bowl-eligible and eliminate the Hoosiers from bowl consideration.  Let’s get right to the BIG question-which team will be crowned 2017 BIG Champion.

(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)

BIG PREVIEW:

Ohio State takes on Wisconsin in the BIG Championship Game in Indianapolis next Saturday at 8 PM on Fox Sports. 

I haven’t written much about Wisconsin this year because, week after week, they’ve just plodded along and won.  They have not even been seriously threatened and have not trailed in the fourth quarter all year.  The Badgers are the definition of a solid, consistent, football team.  They’ve recently cut down on penalties and turnovers (only three penalties and one turnover against Minnesota, for example) and have steadily improved as the season progressed.

I think the key to this game is Wisconsin’s ability to contain the Buckeye’s outstanding defensive line.  Interestingly, Ohio State actually rushes for more yards per game (250-243) then the Badgers, but I believe Wisconsin is more reliant on a ball control offense.  If the game is put into the QB’s hands, the comparison between even a less than 100% J. T. Barrett and Badger QB Alan Hornibrook would not bode well for Wisconsin. 

This is a difficult game for me to pick.  On their best days, the Buckeyes are the best team, and I don’t think there’s much debate about that.  From week to week, however, we don’t really know what we’re going to get from Urban Meyer’s team this year, and there’s the added complication of J. T. Barrett’s health.  When it’s championship time, give me solid and consistent over talented but erratic.  I’m taking the Badgers in an upset 23-20.

Playoffs?  Playoffs?

Yes, Jim Mora, we’re talking playoffs.  Specifically, the expectations for the BIG Champion. 

Thanks to losses by Miami and Alabama, if Wisconsin wins, they will be the only undefeated Power 5 team left.  They win, they’re in-it’s that simple.  They could even have a remote chance at the top seed with more help next week, but regardless of their position they would be in the playoffs.

Ohio State’s chances are kind of like those drab, grey uniforms they are becoming so fond of.  I have them #7 in my rankings.  If they win, they would likely move ahead of Wisconsin.  I have both Auburn and Georgia ahead of the Buckeyes-they play next week, and the loser should fall below Ohio State.  That gets them up to #5, and that’s where it gets very, well, gray.  The winner of Auburn-Georgia stays ahead of them.  Alabama, by not playing, stays ahead of them.  That leaves the Buckeyes needing Oklahoma or Clemson to lose.  Even if Oklahoma loses, they won decisively in Columbus in September so they probably stay ahead of Ohio State.  A Clemson loss could put the Buckeyes in play.  The ACC championship is being played at the same time as the BIG Championship, so it could be pushing midnight before that all shakes out next Saturday.  Good thing it’s not a school night.

Disappointments

A Jim Harbaugh Michigan team has STILL not defeated either of their key rivals (0-6 vs. Michigan State and, much more importantly, Ohio State) and this season has STILL not defeated a team with a winning record.  The Wolverines’ 8-4 record and 4th place finish in the BIG East is plenty respectable, but was a step back in Harbaugh’s third year and a major disappointment for a team that was ranked around 10th in the national pre-season polls.  For a coach with a reputation as a QB guru, Michigan suffered through some pretty mediocre, or less, QB play this year.

Michigan has a huge, passionate, fan base, and they have huge, passionate expectations, starting with beating Ohio State.  It’s going to be an uncomfortable off-season in Ann Arbor, one which will likely test Coach Harbaugh’s commitment to his alma matter, especially if the NFL comes calling (except Cleveland, it’s just common sense to say no to the Browns, right?)

Many teams’ seasons have peaks and valleys.  It’s always best to get your valley, your lowest point, out of the way early and try to finish a season, even a losing one, on a high note to give fans some tangible reason to hope for better results next year.  Maryland failed miserably in this area, suffering a humiliating, embarrassing, and depressing 66-3 pounding at the hands of Penn State to close out a 4-8 season on as low a note as possible.   The Terps failed to live up to even the modest expectations of a modestly sized and moderately passionate fan base.

The Terps finished 2-7 in the BIG, defeating Minnesota and Indiana, the other two teams that posted a 2-7 conference record, ahead of only 0-9 Illinois.  The marque victory and highlight of the season was the 51-41 win at Texas opening week, 12 weeks and three quarterbacks ago.  Much has been made, and appropriately so, of the carnage at the QB position and what a major handicap that was for Maryland.  To put that in perspective, though, Michigan started their 3rd string QB against Ohio State and was quite competitive (although better QB play may have enabled them to win). 

The QB issues do not explain away a 62-14 loss to Ohio State and the 66-3 loss to Penn State.  Before the season, I wrote that my expectation was for Maryland to at least compete against the top teams.  That expectation was not met, and even worse they fell behind Rutgers in the standings and lost to them head-to-head.  I am still hopeful that D. J. Durkin will be able to turn these excellent recruiting classes into wins on the field, but I’m starting to wonder if the Terps will need to bring in a new coach to win with Durkin’s players, like Ralph Friedgen did with Ron Vanderlinden’s players from 2001-2003.  More of the same results next year would likely bring more empty seats to Maryland Stadium and pressure for a change.

BIG NOTES:

There was some discussion recently about a 5-7 BIG team having a chance for a bowl if there were not enough six-win teams available.  Turns out there are enough teams with six wins or more to fill the spots for all 39 bowl games, so those with losing records, falling just short of the mediocrity needed for bowl eligibility, can stay home where they belong.

For his latest milestone, J. T. Barrett became only the second QB in NCAA history to run for 40 touchdowns and throw for 100 in his career.  The first was Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour, a reminder that notable accomplishments in college football do not necessarily point toward NFL stardom.

Speaking of milestones, Wisconsin freshman RB Jonathan Taylor now has 1,806 yards rushing, leaving him only 130 yards away from breaking Adrian Peterson’s single-season freshman record, and 194 from being the first freshman to reach 2,000 yards.  With two games left to play, Taylor has an excellent chance to do both, and perhaps earn a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony.

In another milestone, Maryland’s D. J. Moore broke the school’s single season record for receptions.  Moore, who finished with 80 catches for 1,033 yards and 8 TD’s, broke Geroy Simon’s record from 1994 and joined Marcus Badgett and Torey Smith as the only Terps with 1,000 receiving yards in a season.  Given the musical chairs at the QB position this year, I find this to be a remarkable accomplishment by Moore and a real bright spot in a season that sorely needed one.

Nebraska made the inevitable decision to fire Mike Riley after the Cornhuskers finished with a 4-8 record, their worst season since finishing 3-7 in 1958.  Interestingly, that was a step up from a 1-9 record in 1957, and Coach William Jennings endured three more losing seasons before Nebraska hired Bob Devaney in 1962 to turn the program around and establish the high expectations their next coach will face.  The school handled the change with class, and Riley acceptd it with class.  This was in contrast to Arkansas firing their coach as he was walking off the field following their loss to Missouri Friday-yeesh.  The Scott Frost (undefeated Central Florida’s head coach) derby has officially commenced, and according to reports Florida has the lead coming around the first turn.  Nebraska is likely to be the only BIG participant in the annual coaching carousel, but we need to see how it plays out across the nation to be sure.

Wisconsin won their 14th straight game in their battle with Minnesota for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the longest streak in a rivalry dating back to 1890. Their 127th meeting sustains its place as the most-played FBS rivalry in the nation.  Wisconsin broke a tie and now leads the rivalry 60-59-8.  The trophy goes back to 1948, with the winner taking the opportunity to “ceremonially” chop down the loser’s goal posts. This replaced the Slab of Bacon (bring home the bacon, get it?), which was actually a block of wood that changed hands from 1930 to 1943. This trophy was “lost” until 1994 when it was found in a storage closet at Wisconsin.

The Indiana-Purdue rivalry has its own trophy, the Old Oaken Bucket, which goes back to 1925.  The teams first played in 1891 and Saturday was their 121st meeting.  The trophy refers to a poem written by Samuel Woodworth in 1817 about his childhood in Massachusetts that apparently resonated in the heartland (Bing Crosby recorded a musical version of the poem in 1941).  The winning school gets to add a P or I link to the chain used to carry the bucket around.  Not quite as exciting as an axe, and the first game played for this trophy ended in a 0-0 tie, requiring an I-P link to be the first added to the bucket.

 

Don’t forget, you can follow me on Twitter @The_BIGBlog and reach me by e-mail at [email protected] I also hang out on the message boards, mostly in the University of Maryland & NCAA sections  You can also go there to find the Deified Dozen football national rankings by the experts (?) here at BSL.

Next week I’ll recap the BIG Championship Game and see where the BIG teams landed on the bowl schedule.  Until then, live large and have a BIG week everyone.

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Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson is a life-long Maryland Terrapins and college sports fan and a proud U of Md. alum. Jim started writing about the Terps on his own blog during the Steve Francis season of 1998-99. He then moved on to cover ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker "The Courtmaster" and becoming a frequent "expert" guest on Bob Haynie's old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. You can find some of his classic (?) work on his old blog. Jim laid down his gavel in 2007 and is returning to sportswriting after a sabbatical he spent furthering his career as a non-profit executive and senior accounting professional, becoming an ordained minister, and gnashing his teeth/sulking about Maryland joining the Big Ten. He figured the best way to scratch his sportswriting itch was to dive in head first to learn about the Big Ten, the current teams, schools, and history, and share what he learns with our readers. Jim enjoys interacting with readers, exchanging ideas, and most of all having fun. You can chat with him on the message boards or by e-mail at [email protected]

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