After the Big Ten decided to change its policies on the fly, the Ohio State Buckeyes are now ready to return to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten title. The Buckeyes are playing in their fourth straight Big Ten Championship Game this weekend, with hopes of a College Football Playoff berth still dancing in their heads. Their opponent will be the Northwestern Wildcats, champions of the Big Ten West Division.
Ohio State looks every bit the national title contender they were expected to be this season, and the opportunity to play in the Big Ten Championship Game figures to help the push into the playoff if things go well in Indianapolis for Ryan Day’s program, led by Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and quarterback Justin Fields.
Northwestern isn't a program simply happy to be on the same field as the Buckeyes though. Two years removed from their last Big Ten title bout with the Buckeyes, Pat Fitzgerald and his Wildcats are looking to prove they are a legitimate threat to the Big Ten throne. With a defense that has been locked in all season long, Northwestern will be ready for its biggest challenge of the season.
Big Ten Championship Game: No. 14 Northwestern vs. No. 4 Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
Spread: Ohio State –20.5
When Northwestern Has the Ball
If Northwestern is going to find a way to pull off the monumental upset, it may have to rely on the defense to create some opportunities. Northwestern's offensive numbers won't impress much, as they rank 12th in the Big Ten in total yards per game. But the addition of quarterback Peyton Ramsey from Indiana plugged one of the biggest holes in the team from a year ago. Ramsey has completed just 59 percent of his pass attempts for 1,218 yards and nine touchdowns with six interceptions. Northwestern won't ask Ramsey to do anything out of the ordinary and may rely on him to manage the offense with some solid, time-consuming possessions.
Ramsey should be under a good amount of pressure. Ohio State may have only played five games this season, but that was enough to record more sacks this season than eight other Big Ten programs did in six or seven games. Tommy Togiai leads the Buckeyes with three sacks.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
To say Ohio State is loaded with talent on offense is a bit of an understatement. Quarterback Justin Fields was named the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the year this week, but he also has the luxury of playing behind one of the best lines in the conference. Wyatt Davis was named the Big Ten's offensive lineman of the year, and center Josh Myers and tackle Thayer Munford joined him as first-team All-Big Ten honorees. Tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere landed on the second team.
The Buckeyes also have the Big Ten's best 1-2 combo at wide receiver with Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson each receiving first-team honors from the Big Ten coaches and second-team from the media.
Northwestern will have a solid linebacker unit for the Buckeyes to focus on. Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher are among the Big Ten's leaders in tackles this season, each with 65 in seven games. Chris Bergin added another 58 to the pile.
If there is one thing to expect from Northwestern, it will be a good defensive effort to slow down the Buckeyes. And it may even work for a while. But ultimately, as was the case two years ago, Ohio State's talent will create some big plays at some point. When they do, the floodgates will be open for the Buckeyes, who know they could benefit from style points at the expense of the Wildcats. Ohio State makes their point(s) and leaves the decision up to the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Prediction: Ohio State 40, Northwestern 17
Podcast: Path to the Playoff + Championship Game Previews and Picks