While Michigan State is riding a wave of confidence this week as it prepares for its trip to Columbus to take on Ohio State on Saturday, the Buckeyes are in a far different position.
A team many expected to compete for the Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff is coming off its worst loss under coach Urban Meyer, and coupled with a non-conference defeat at the hands of Oklahoma back in September, the Buckeyes are now unlikely to get back to the playoffs.
That leaves the conference title, something that’s still up for grabs as No. 11 Ohio State and No. 13 Michigan State are tied for first place in the Big Ten East.
But the key for the Buckeyes (7-2, 5-1 Big Ten) will be recapturing the emotion they had two weeks ago after rallying to beat Penn State, and get it back in time to still manage to win the division.
“That’s something we work on not today, that’s something we’ve been working on all year,” Meyer said Monday. “You try to get a close team that cares about each other and plays really hard. It’s not going to be some speech I give to the team.
“So, it’s a process. It’s a journey that we’re on. And there’s still plenty of great things ahead.”
That division title is first and foremost, something the Buckeyes are familiar with. Since the Big Ten split into divisions in 2011, Ohio State has won or shared a division title four times. However, it’s only played in two Big Ten Championship games — 2013 and 2014.
In 2012, the Buckeyes were undefeated in the regular season, but were ineligible for postseason play, so the Leaders Division champs stayed home. In 2015, Ohio State tied with Michigan State for the East Division but the Spartans went to the title game based on the head-to-head win. The same happened last year when Penn State beat the Buckeyes, giving them the invite to Indianapolis.
Bouncing back for a win this week would keep Ohio State on track to at least get a shot at winning the Big Ten, but there are bigger questions around Columbus these days. The Buckeyes expect to be fighting for a playoff spot every year, and with that now likely gone, Meyer was asked where his program is headed.
He preferred to focus on the moment.
“That’s kind of deep,” Meyer said. “We’re playing Michigan State this week. We gotta really practice well and fix the turnover issue on offense and play a little better on defense.”
What Meyer is clear on is the fact nothing will come easy this week. In five meetings since Meyer took over at Ohio State, the Spartans (7-2, 5-1) have won twice with the three Michigan State losses coming by a combined 14 points.
Ohio State escaped with one-point wins in 2012 and 2016. Michigan State is the only Big Ten team to beat the Buckeyes twice under Meyer.
So, getting the emotion back this week will be vital for Ohio State as it takes on a young Michigan State team that is hitting its stride.
“It’s going to be key,” Meyer said. “This is something that we’ve been working on for a long time. You still look at the standings and Ohio State and Michigan State are 1-2 in the Big Ten East.
“And everybody knows this game for the last — what’s it our sixth year of playing them or something —usually it’s just a prize fight. So, the tougher team usually wins. And we’ve got to understand what we’re going to play against. Great respect for them and they’re playing well.”