The Big Ten still has a couple of teams fighting for playoff consideration, but when it comes to the conference race, the intrigue has disappeared.
While there’s still a week to play in the regular season, the conference championship game on Dec. 2 at Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis has been set. Wisconsin will take on Ohio State for the second time in the title game.
The Badgers are unbeaten and have had the West locked up while the Buckeyes have shaken off an ugly loss two weeks ago at Iowa and clinched the East on Saturday with a victory over Illinois.
So, the matchup is decided, but that hardly means there’s nothing to play for next week.
Wisconsin, of course, is trying to remain undefeated and convince the College Football Playoff committee it deserves to be in the top four after getting to No. 5 in last week’s rankings. The Badgers will hit the road to take on Minnesota in the regular-season finale before heading to Indy.
After beating Michigan on Saturday, they weren’t about to start assuming anything.
“We're not done yet,” coach Paul Chryst said. “You want them to enjoy this victory — they're not easy — and then come back and get ready for next week.
“We were just talking about opportunities, and you want them to enjoy this one tonight, and all the work and effort that goes into it by everyone on that team and the coaches, and you appreciate it. And then we get an opportunity to come back and get ready for next week. That's a pretty good world.”
Take care of business at Minnesota and find a way to knock off the Buckeyes the following week, and odds are the Badgers are in the playoff field. Once they get to Indy, they’ll be familiar with the setting.
Wisconsin will play in its fifth conference title game and be looking for its third title, but before that, it will have to beat Minnesota.
“We always talk about focusing on the now,” wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. “So, Week 1 we were just focusing on Utah State and now since we're closer to the end of the season we have those goals in the back of our minds, but each week we just try to focus on who our opponent is and what we need to do that week to beat them. Last week our focus was just Michigan, not worrying about Minnesota, Big Ten championship or College Football Playoff.”
It’s a similar approach in Columbus as the Buckeyes hope the roll they’re on leads to a two-loss team finding its way into the playoff field.
Of course, before Ohio State can do that, it has the minor task of playing a rivalry game. The Buckeyes will head to Ann Arbor next week to face Michigan, something that has no chance of getting overlooked by a team that might have its mind on the postseason.
“Pretty quick,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said when asked at what point he realized Michigan had lost. “We celebrated the chance that we're going to go to Indianapolis, which is a goal every year. And, yes, I was aware. And we dived right into getting ready to go.
“It's rivalry week. Say that 10 times. It's officially started.”
So, the final week still matters, even to the teams that already know they’re headed to Indy.
Northwestern's top cat
Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor is leading the Big Ten in rushing and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley gets plenty of attention, but in terms of consistent production, it’s hard to match what Northwestern’s Justin Jackson has accomplished.
He ran for 166 yards on Saturday in the Wildcats’ win, their sixth straight. But that wasn’t what was most noteworthy. Jackson has now rushed for 1,010 yards this season and is just the second Big Ten player — and ninth in FBS history — to rush for 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. Wisconsin's Ron Dayne (1996-99) is the other Big Ten player.
Jackson has 5,139 career yards and moved past Michigan's Mike Hart (5,040) for fifth place on the Big Ten's all-time rushing list while Northwestern has won 21 of the last 22 games in which Jackson has rushed for 100 yards or more.
“He's a once in a coaching lifetime type of young man,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He's a terrific leader, he's got an amazing work ethic and what you see on Saturday is a byproduct of his preparation. He's done it from the minute he got here.”
Barkley sets Penn State mark
Barkley hit his own milestone on Saturday as he broke Penn State's career touchdown record with three scores and had 208 of 224 total yards in the first half to lead the to their 18th win in 21 games by rolling over Nebraska.
Barkley passed Lydell Mitchell for the record with his 39th rushing touchdown. Odds are, he’ll add to that total.
“I’m not gone yet, guys,” Barkley said. “Hopefully there’s plenty more to come, plenty more the rest of the season. Hopefully we can make some more memories.”