The 2014 Big Ten Championship game is set for this weekend in Indianapolis. The Ohio State Buckeyes and Wisconsin Badgers will face off with the winner claiming the conference title and … actually, we don’t know what else.
For the first time ever, we really can’t be sure if the Big Ten’s champion even has a shot at playing in the Rose Bowl. That’s probably okay. Nothing against The Grandaddy of Them All, but there are bigger prizes to be had now. Of course, with the Rose Bowl hosting one of this season’s semifinal playoff games, it’s still a mighty big prize.
But only one of these two teams has a shot — a long shot — of making it to Pasadena if it wins.
You already know who.
Ohio State might be the Big Ten’s representative in the inaugural playoff, but the Buckeyes are going to need some help. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and somebody from the Big XII look to be locked in to the top four slots. All are active this weekend. All could lose. At least one of them has to for the Buckeyes to have any chance at making the playoff. Even then, they could still wind up in the Sugar Bowl instead.
Of course, the Buckeyes have to beat the Badgers first. But will they?
Look, I’ve been predicting Big Ten football games for sixteen seasons now. I’ve had to do some difficult things, most involving researching FCS opponents playing the Big Ten’s less-capable teams, trying to sniff out potential upsets. There have only been a handful of games that have left me staring at a blinking cursor, not knowing which team’s name I should write first.
None of those games have been as difficult to predict as this one appears to be.
It would have been easier if Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett hadn’t gotten hurt last weekend against Michigan. Barrett, who himself replaced the injured Braxton Miller before the season even began, has been nothing short of spectacular for the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer’s team has barely missed a beat under Barrett, the horrible Virginia Tech loss notwithstanding.
(I know, Bucknuts, you’re tired of hearing about VT. It’s still a thing that happened. Deal with it. It’s the reason your team isn’t in the top four of the playoff rankings; therefore, it’s still relevant.)
But Barrett is out and Cardale Jones is in. Jones is not a complete newbie to the Buckeye lineup; he saw limited action in garbage time last season and a bit more this year. Jones finished out the Michigan game, obviously, but also played against Illinois. There isn’t a lot for all of us to go on, but honestly, when was the last time Ohio State had somebody truly incompetent under center?
Still, it’ll be Jones’s first career college start, and it’s in a game where both the conference championship and his team’s slim-but-existent playoff hopes are on the line. Oh, and it’s against one of the best and most improved defenses in college football.
This is the sort of game where legends are made. It’s also the sort of game where spirits can be broken.
Jones and his performance against the Badger defense are essentially the storyline of this game. There’s not a lot of other drama here.
Ohio State’s defense and special teams have been a potential liability all season. Wisconsin’s special teams are solid and obviously you know all about Melvin Gordon and the Badger rushing game. Once Gary Andersen figured out that his team wasn’t going to be able to pass the ball very well this season (we all knew this in the second half of the LSU game; Andersen needed a couple more weeks), he put his team’s offensive fate on Gordon’s shoulders. It worked. It worked even without a credible passing threat.
Ohio State is not going to be able to stop Gordon. Its defense is just not at that level this season. You will know early how Andersen expects Urban Meyer to try to slow Gordon down. Watch the Wisconsin quarterbacks. The more Tanner McEvoy you see, the less eight-in-the-box Andersen is anticipating. The more Joel Stave you see, the more Andersen expects the Buckeyes to do everything they can to contain Gordon.
My thought? “Big dog gonna eat.” OSU’s best bet is to let Gordon get his yards, try to limit the Badgers in the red zone, and play aggressively on offense. The Badger defense is strong, but not invincible.
I said this game was hard to predict and I’m sticking to that. If J.T. Barrett was playing, it wouldn’t be. I’d take OSU by three or four points. But he’s out. I think Cardale Jones will do just fine, but the Buckeyes won’t quite be able to keep pace with the Badgers.
My pick: Wisconsin 27, Ohio State 24. But my confidence is low.