Badgers look to stay undefeated and punch their playoff ticket with a win over the Buckeyes
It has been quite a week off the field leading up to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Ohio State and Wisconsin meet again for the first time since the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff. A 59-0 victory for the Buckeyes launched Ohio State into the playoff and set the tone for a remarkable national championship run. J.T. Barrett watched from the sideline as Cardale Jones stole the show and Ezekiel Elliott ran his way past Alabama and Oregon, while Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen decided enough was enough and got out of town to take the job at Oregon State.
The sting of that 59-0 defeat has not sat well for Wisconsin. Just last year, Wisconsin was back in Indianapolis and things were looking good with a 28-7 lead on Penn State in the first half. But Wisconsin was unable to hold the fort and Penn State celebrated a 38-31 victory on their way to the Rose Bowl after Ohio State advanced to the playoff.
The stage is set now for a Big Ten Championship Game that either sees Wisconsin improve to 13-0 to erase the stain of last year's conference title game and wrap up a spot in the College Football Playoff for the first time in school history, or Barrett finally leads the Buckeyes to a Big Ten championship to further cement his legacy in Columbus, with a slight chance to wiggle into the playoff.
The ACC and SEC title games may be de facto play-in games for the playoff, but the stakes are incredibly high in the Big Ten too. The latest playoff rankings moved Wisconsin up to No. 4, which means they should feel confident about being in the four-team field with a win. If Ohio State wins, the Buckeyes may have to hope TCU knocked off Oklahoma or hope they have enough good quality wins to help overcome their two losses to win a debate between them and 11-1 Alabama, who sits home in Tuscaloosa watching the events unfold.
Big Ten Championship: Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis)
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Young workhorse running backs
For a conference as deep as it is at the running back position, two of the best in the conference this season have been Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins. Both are freshmen and completed the regular season leading the Big Ten in average rushing yards per game, total rushing yards, and yards per carry. It was a monster year for each, with Taylor racking up 1,806 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Dobbins recorded 1,190 rushing yards and just seven touchdowns, but his impact and ability to make big runs happen gave Ohio State some more confidence in the running game when it chose not to ignore it.
How much of an impact will either have in this game? That remains to be seen, but both Taylor and Dobbins will be going up against some of the best rushing defenses in the Big Ten. Wisconsin allowed just 966 rushing yards all season, with just four rushing touchdowns surrendered in 12 games. The Buckeyes allowed roughly 400 more rushing yards this season and 11 touchdowns, but Ohio State ranks second behind Wisconsin in opposing rushing average. There may not be much room to run for either team in this one, but Ohio State may have the advantage in having a few more reliable rushing options with Mike Weber and, if healthy, J.T. Barrett.
Speaking of which...
2. How effective is J.T. Barrett?
Barrett (right) was forced to leave the regular season finale against Michigan with an injury, which apparently occurred on the sideline before the game thanks to a camera cart. We don't know if Urban Meyer has had the time to track down the alleged camera assailant, but we do know we can expect to see Barrett available for this week's conference championship game. But at what capacity? Will Barrett be limited from the injury last week, or will he be fully available to play without physical limitations?
Barrett is at his best when he can roll out of the pocket and keep plays alive until a receiver can get open or he sees room to take off and run for yardage himself. Wisconsin will not make that easy with the way it has played defense all year, but pay close attention to what Barrett is doing with the football and his legs. If he seems content to stay in one spot, then he may not be going at full capacity and that could weigh him down.
3. Can Badgers' defense wear down Buckeyes?
Wisconsin has had a distinct advantage on defense and in the trenches all season long. This is why Wisconsin continues to be so strong running the football and why the Badgers have allowed so few yards on defense. Until now, Wisconsin has had the better-conditioned roster with the deepest reserves in the tank. Ohio State will be a stark contrast to much of what Wisconsin has seen this season (of course, Wisconsin throttled the same Iowa team that manhandled Ohio State, which should not be forgotten)., and the Buckeyes' depth is what makes them so scary.
Iowa just jumped all over Ohio State from the start, but Oklahoma is a textbook example of how much Wisconsin could potentially gain the edge. Oklahoma was one of the few teams to wear down Ohio State in the trenches this season, especially with the Sooners' offensive line. Few teams are capable of doing that to an Ohio State line that is deep and athletic, but Wisconsin will have to try gaining the edge there as the running game plays a key role.
Despite having two losses, it is Ohio State that arrives in Indianapolis as the favorite in this game. But why that is the case when the Buckeyes were blown away by the same Iowa team that couldn't move the ball at all against Wisconsin remains a bit of an example of how much the Badgers are still looking to make a statement. They can make no bigger statement than by taking down the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer and punching their ticket to the College Football Playoff.
To do that, the defense and running game have to continue doing what they have been accustomed to, but quarterback Alex Hornibrook must avoid making mistakes. The sophomore has thrown the second-most interceptions among Big Ten quarterbacks this season (13). Hornbrook had been picked off at least once in eight consecutive games this season until snapping that streak last week against Minnesota. Hornibook had his best game of the year against the Gophers and will hope to ride the momentum into Indianapolis against a much tougher defense.
After getting a feel for what the opposition is going to do, this looks like a game in which Wisconsin can dictate tempo. Chewing up clock and putting points on the board will be the key to success for the Badgers and their quest to go 13-0.
Prediction: Wisconsin 26, Ohio State 20
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.