So here we are, the final week of the Big Ten season upon us, and the big games are aplenty.
Wait, you mean the games are all meaningless?
Hold on, Ohio State is playing Michigan. That’s for the right to be declared the greatest program in the history of sports, right? Or, at least, just determine who wins the warm-up for the rematch the following week in the Big Ten title game.
And the four-team Legends Division battle should finally shake out as well, I’m sure. Michigan State has plenty at stake against Minnesota and Northwestern is still hanging in, hoping to grab a share of the title. Nebraska’s rivalry with Iowa should also determine whether the Huskers are still in the race, as well.
Hmmm, so you’re telling me none of it matters? The only thing at stake is bragging rights, throw in a little BCS standing for the likes of Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.
It’s a little hard to understand, but turns out it’s all true. Ohio State’s last meaningful game came at the end of September when it beat Wisconsin. And over in the Legends, Northwestern decided winning was an option it no longer needed while Michigan wasn’t far off that plan, winning just twice in the last six games.
Nebraska hung around for a bit until the Spartans buried their hopes and Wisconsin has essentially been playing for bowl placement since that early-season loss to the Buckeyes.
So that’s where we are, wondering if we can fast-forward through this week and get to the Big Ten Championship game between Ohio State and Michigan State.
Ohio State was expected to be there while Michigan State had a chance, but the Spartans were considered one of several with a shot. They have, however, proved throughout the season they are the best team in the Legends and any thought of another team taking on the Buckeyes now seems silly.
The result is we must endure a week of clichés, mostly coming from Columbus and East Lansing. We’ll hear all about how Ohio State is focused on “The Game” and hates everything about Michigan. We’ll also hear all about Michigan State not looking past Minnesota.
And there is certainly some merit to that approach. After all, that’s been a big part of each team’s success. Ohio State has won 23 straight games. You don’t do that by looking ahead. Michigan State hasn’t lost in conference play, focusing each week without looking at the bigger picture.
I wouldn’t count on it being an issue for either team this week.
“I have great respect for this rivalry, humbled to be a part of it,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after Saturday’s victory over Indiana. “When I say great respect, almost makes me in awe. Eight of my nine (coaches) are from the state of Ohio. One wishes he was from Ohio. And the respect we have, which means with respect and being part of it comes incredible, I’ll say this, the responsibility sometimes can be overwhelming, what we have to do next week. So we take it very serious.”
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has his own focus for this week.
“We’ll worry about the championship the week after,” he said after the Spartans’ 30-6 victory over Northwestern. “We’re not ready to play that game this week. We play Minnesota this week and want to send our seniors out in their last game at Spartan Stadium.”
That’s all great, but let’s get to the real game, already.
Ohio State’s explosive offense against Michigan State’s powerful defense.
An emerging Spartans offense against a young but talented Buckeyes defense.
“I always wanted that matchup,” Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen said. “That’s what everybody on this defense wanted, what everybody on this team wanted.”
So did everybody else, at least for the last few weeks.
Now, if we could just get this week finished and get to it, already.
Hawkeyes keep rising
Iowa won’t be playing in the Big Ten title game, but it will be in a bowl game, and each week that status continues to skyrocket.
After the victory over Michigan on Saturday, the Hawkeyes now have seven wins and are a victory away from doubling their total from last season, when they failed to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2000.
It’s been quite the turnaround for coach Kirk Ferentz.
“We’ve been taking it a step at a time, a week at a time,” he said. “It all started right after the season when we met. We figured we’d get plenty of suggestions, plenty of critiques from the outside, so we didn’t spend too much time on that. But our attitude is we’re going to go back to work and try to do what we do, do it better, do it with more quality, and just see if we couldn’t improve.”
They did just that and on Saturday, the Hawkeyes rallied from a 21-7 deficit to knock off the Wolverines.
“I think the biggest thing, I think we grew up a little bit today,” Ferentz said. “So some of the younger guys caught up to the seniors a little bit, and that was good to see.”
It didn’t take coaches fighting on the sidelines this week, but Illinois managed to get its first Big Ten win in the last two seasons on Saturday.
Sure, it came against Purdue, but the Illini aren’t worried about that.
“It was just kind of serenity,” wide receiver Steve Hull told the Chicago Tribune. “It was kind of peaceful. It was an it’s-about-time kind of feeling. You can win nonconference games, but conference play is where your pride is and getting a Big Ten conference win has definitely electrified us a lot more.”
And it might have saved coach Tim Beckman’s job. Two years without a conference victory would have been tough to defend. But he wasn’t focused on his job security on Saturday.
“To see the kids crying, to see the kids filled with emotion after a victory, that’s what athletics is about,” he said. “That’s what football is about. It isn’t about me. … It’s about these players and the monkey is off their back.”