This used to be so easy for Ohio State. Go out, beat Penn State and Michigan, and you'd usually win the Big Ten outright. Simple! But that isn't the case anymore. With 14 teams in the conference, and now two divisions, there's a Championship Game at the end of the tunnel, another chance to impress the College Football Playoff Committee and perhaps earn a spot in the Playoff. Buckeye fans know this all too well, as a loss to Michigan State in 2013 likely cost them a shot at a BCS championship, while a blowout win over Wisconsin last year gave the committee all the reason it needed to slot the Buckeyes in the first-ever Playoff.
But enough with the history lesson. 2013 seems like a decade ago; 2014 is far in the rear view mirror. As some pundits have stated, Ohio State's season officially starts this week, with a season-making tilt against Michigan State...before another season-making tilt in Ann Arbor the following Saturday. It's a lazy #take, sure, but it is more than fair, as the Buckeyes have seen plenty of weak talent across the field and, despite turning away all comers, remains a team that's undefeated and unimpressive (stay on that page, too. The next story is about a buck running through a picture window, which is interesting story placement).
Regardless of how impressive the Buckeyes have been, it does come down to two more games for Ohio State. But this situation isn't unique to fans in Columbus. With the two divisions full of teams jockeying for a potential championship berth, it's safe to say that a few teams are looking at a two-game slate to make or break their year. Ahead of Senior Day against Sparty, here's how the divisions and conference will be decided.
Big Ten West
Teams alive: Iowa (10-0 overall, 6-0 conference); Wisconsin (8-2, 5-1)
Teams out of contention: Northwestern (8-2, 4-2); Nebraska (5-6, 3-4); Illinois (5-5, 2-4); Minnesota (4-6, 1-5); Purdue (2-8, 1-5)
Remember when there were so many jokes about how Iowa couldn't fire Kirk Ferentz because his buyout was too high, and the Hawkeyes would be stuck with him forever? Welp, Ferentz is laughing all the way to the bank, and maybe even down to Miami for a College Football Playoff game. Iowa need only win one of two remaining games to end Wisconsin's stranglehold on the Big Ten West (née Legends and/or Leaders Division, I can't remember which was which) and the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship. This week's opponent: the mighty, fighting Purdue Boilermakers. The Advanced Stats love the Hawkeyes by 18+ points. In Kinnick Stadium with a chance to reset their own record for best start, this should be a blowout.
Maybe just maybe: Wisconsin
Get a load of Wisconsin: the Badgers lost in Week 1 to Alabama (ranked No. 2 in the country right now, and maybe the best team regardless of record) and to undefeated and aforementioned Iowa. The rest of the slate are all wins. And yet...no one is talking about the Badgers, who will probably finish their year with wins over Northwestern and Minnesota, and be looking at a high-tier bowl for their efforts. But they have to go undefeated to close out their season and have Iowa absorb two losses in order to go to the Big Ten Championship game. Not going to happen.
Big Ten East
Teams alive: Ohio State (10-0, 6-0); Michigan State (9-1, 5-1); Michigan (8-2, 5-1); Penn State (7-3, 4-2)
Favorite: Ohio State
No need to add any suspense: Ohio State is in the driver's seat for a chance to play in a third consecutive Big Ten Championship. If the Buckeyes win out, the division is theirs. Being in the driver's seat also has some rewards, like the ability to "back in" to a division title. Ohio State wins the division if Michigan loses to Penn State, and the Buckeyes only beat Sparty. Ohio State wins the division if Penn State beats Michigan State and the Buckeyes only beat Michigan. By virtue of the fact that the Buckeyes have the most "wiggle room" in their scenarios, they're the favorite here.
Still very, very much alive: Michigan State
Ohio State's opponent this week doesn't have the wiggle room that the Buckeyes have, but does control its own destiny. Mark Dantonio's team can win the division if it wins out over Ohio State this week, and Penn State next week. No wiggle room, though, as any loss would hand the chance at a division crown to either Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State. Connor Cook says he's good to go for a 3:30 tilt in The Shoe, and he'll need to be good on the road once more, and at home the following week if the Spartans want to play for a conference championship.
On-Paper favorite: Michigan
Michigan's only shot at winning the Big Ten East Division hinges on getting some help along the way. First, it must take care of business, with wins at Penn State, and home to the Buckeyes. But Michigan also needs Little Brother to lose one of its two remaining games (see above). We love advanced stats, so let's look to those to see how things are going to finish up this season for Michigan:
Ohio State 35.2 - 20.8 Michigan State
Michigan 26.7 - 19.6 Penn State
Michigan 26.0 - 23.7 Ohio State
Michigan State 28.5 - 24.0 Penn State
A Michigan State loss? Check. A win over Penn State? Check. A win over Ohio State? Check. Michigan, if the stats are true, is going to win the Big Ten East.
Now before raising the torches and pitchforks, let's remember something about advanced stats: they are fluid. Just a few short weeks ago, Ohio State was ranked 28th in the country, with a likely loss to Illinois and blowout loss to Michigan. Now, however, the Buckeyes are up to 3 in the S&P+ rankings, and the projected line for The Game is down to Michigan (-2.2), a virtual toss-up. If you add some super sabermetrics to the party (like our friends at Maize and Brew did here), Ohio State is still the favorite to win the Division.
#TeamChaos favorite: Penn State
Here's Campus Insiders:
Penn State wins with wins over Michigan and at Michigan State AND Ohio State losses to Michigan State and at Michigan. In this case, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State would all be 6-2 in conference. It would then come down to wins within division, which would make it Penn State vs. Michigan State – Penn State would have the tie-breaker.
Crazier things have happened. Not in a long time, but they've happened.
Six teams still have the chance to extend their seasons at least one game, but only two can punch their tickets. For now, it's clear: Ohio State isn't the only team with a real season beginning on Saturday.