Buckeyes, Badgers to Meet Again. Minnesota Disappointed. Michigan Devastated.
As sentimental picks, Little Brown Jug rivals Michigan and Minnesota were easy to spot.
The stakes were high in their games. And so was the drama.
Michigan was at home in the Big House. Riding high from a four-game streak in which it had walloped its opponents 166-45, beginning with a 45-14 smacking of a pretty good Notre Dame team.
This had all the makings of Jim Harbaugh cracking his 0 and 4 misery against Ohio State.
Minnesota was at home in a Twin Cities snowstorm, bundled up by eager Gophers fans hungry for their first trip to the Big Ten championship game and a chance for their first Rose Bowl since 1962, if not the College Football Playoff.
Beaten only in a difficult loss at Iowa, Minnesota had already taken down Penn State. Why not Wisconsin?
In both cases, though, Sentiment took a backseat to The Powers That Be.
Ohio State throttled the Wolverines 56-27, opening the larger question of how Michigan will ever catch up to the Buckeyes.
The pall at Harbaugh’s post-game media conference bordered on the funereal.
Wisconsin crushed Minnesota’s dreams 38-17, paying back the Gophers for a humiliating 37-15 loss and having to watch Minnesota celebrate in Camp Randall a year ago. That was Minnesota’s first clutching of Paul Bunyan’s Axe in 15 years. And it rekindled an intense Upper Midwest rivalry.
The sheer joy that the Badgers exhibited celebrating with the axe on Saturday reminded us that college football may be a serious game. But when it’s over, it is filled with childlike unbridled emotions.
Wisconsin will go to the Big Ten championship game a giant underdog, but it will go to Indy a league-leading sixth time. But since winning in their first two title-game trips, the Badgers have lost three straight, including both meetings with Ohio State.
This will be Ohio State’s fifth appearance. The Buckeyes, though, have emerged as the Big Ten champion in their last three conference championship games.
And they will be a whopping 17½ -point favorite to win their fourth straight title game this Saturday.
Underdog or not, the Badgers would have been one Ohio State upset away from being a strong candidate for the College Football Playoff—if they had not lost 24-23 at Illinois.
So. . . the regular season has not been diminished by the playoff, as so many opponents had argued.
The loss does not diminish the marvelous comeback season Minnesota (10-2) has had. With their 9-0 start, the Gophers attracted national attention and were in the hunt for the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff until losing to Wisconsin.
While Ohio State coach Ryan Day has had a sensational first season, P.J. Fleck remains the Big Ten coach of the year in my mind. Day has made all the right moves. But Fleck gave himself all the right roster ingredients, no small accomplishment at Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the fallout of Michigan’s second straight blowout loss to Ohio State is immense. It leaves the Wolverines as a second-rate power against their traditional rivalry. This isn’t just about the failure of Jim Harbaugh, who seemed to be the perfect coach to revive Michigan. It calls into question Michigan’s status as an equal of of the nation’s top-tier teams.
Wisconsin has lost twice to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, 27-21 in 2017 and a ridiculous 59-0 in 2014, when the Buckeyes were making (and winning) their case for inclusion in the College Football Playoff, which they went on to win.
The Badgers again figure to have their hands full with the Buckeyes.
They were drubbed 38-7 in Columbus on Oct. 26 by an Ohio State team that might be the best in the nation. Potential playoff matchups with LSU and/or Clemson are likely to decide that.
If Wisconsin is going to give Ohio State a game, it will need to borrow from the blueprint that Penn State used to hang around in its 28-17 loss in the Horseshoe: Come up with turnovers and cash in on them.
In Jack Coan, who is completing 72 percent of his passes, and receivers Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor plus tight end Jake Ferguson, the Badgers have a capable passing game. They’ll need it to make room for runner Jonathan Taylor, who averaged just 2.6 yards on 20 carries in Columbus.
Wisconsin, which allowed only 29 points in its first six games before being stunned at Illinois 24-23, is solid in defense. But the Ohio State tandem of quarterback Justin Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins is every bit as good as its Heisman hype. So is defensive end Chase Young, the rare defender who’s likely to make the final Heisman cut and earn a trip to New York.
In other words, barring a Badger shocker, Ohio State will roll.
But Wisconsin remains in good position to nudge past Penn State for a Rose Bowl berth with a competitive showing against the Buckeyes. And that’s not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.