"We have the tendency to get everyone's best swing."
- Urban Meyer, via USA Today
It was perhaps said best by one Omar Little, of a little show called The Wire: You come at the king, you best not miss. For those counting at home, eight teams have come at Ohio State this season, with eight misses to their name. That's not to say they haven't showed up to play. Northern Illinois and Indiana both came astonishingly close to knocking off the defending national champs, and that's exactly what Minnesota will try to do this weekend in Columbus.
For the Golden Gophers, there's extra impetus to show up and fight. After losing head coach Jerry Kill in the middle of last week, thanks to health issues that made it impossible for him to keep coaching, Minnesota is without their emotional leader and program architect. Need proof that these guys will show and play for Kill even with him gone? The team marched out under a "Jerrysota" flag against Michigan last week.
Interim head coach Tracy Claeys, for his part, is promising that there won't be a letdown for Minnesota against undefeated Ohio State. "You're not very competitive at this game if you can't get ready to play this game...going into a great stadium. They haven't been beaten in a regular-season game yet. So there's no...talk about a letdown." For the 4-4 Gophers, it will take more than avoiding a letdown to shock a projected playoff contender.
"No one has more undefeated teams with a clearly-marked path to a national semifinal game than the Big Ten."
- Dan Murphy, ESPN.com
For all the talk about the so-called "soft schedules" of prominent Big Ten teams heading into the season, after nine weeks, it appears that people on the internet may have been wrong. Astounding. The truth is, 2015 has seen one of the strongest Big Ten seasons in quite some time. Iowa is a top-10 team with dark horse playoff aspirations. Michigan State and Ohio State can probably only lose to each other at this point, unless a scary-good two-loss Michigan team can knock off the Buckeyes. (Those two losses came at the hands of No. 12 Utah and No. 7 Michigan State -- hardly a slate of cupcakes.)
The second tier of teams looks incredibly strong as well. Wisconsin could finish the season 10-2 despite a significant downgrade from last year's talent pool. Northwestern, another two-loss team, still hangs inside the top 25 rankings on the strength of its wins, most notably Pac-12 darlings Stanford.
Per ESPN's power rankings, the top six teams in the Big Ten have combined to post a record of 42-6. The six losses are hardly anything to sneeze at, either, coming at the hands of Alabama (No. 4), Ohio State (No. 3), Iowa (No. 9), Utah (No. 12), Temple (No. 23), and Michigan State (No. 7). In a wacky college football season where we're considering Clemson the best team in the country for lack of a clearer option, the Big Ten conference is clawing its way towards the top.
"Combining that stifling nature with a knack for creating turnovers creates the kind of defense that can carry the Buckeyes even if the offense still doesn't quite know what's going on."
- Bill Landis, Cleveland.com
This week, Cleveland.com's Bill Landis laid out five reasons that the Buckeyes will come away with a win against Minnesota on Saturday. The most prominent of those reasons? That this could be the game that the Ohio State turnover machine gets back on track. After forcing nine turnovers in the season's first four games, the Buckeyes have just four takeaways since. That slide could come to an end against Minnesota, who have given the ball away fourteen times so far this year. That could lead to the kind of defensive fireworks we saw early on, with Ohio State scoring defensive touchdowns in each of their first three games.
Some of the other advantages highlighted by Landis include Joshua Perry playing at full strength again, the ability to check down to Ezekiel Elliott in the passing game, Michael Thomas' ability to exploit single coverage, and the Buckeyes being prepared for a scrambler like Mitch Leidner. I think Thomas is really the one to watch here. He'll be pressed all day by one of Minnesota's talented pair of cornerbacks, but the defensive scheme employed by the Gophers involves safeties attacking at the line of scrimmage as much as they drop into coverage. That means that Thomas' man won't have much help over the top if No. 3 beats him. It will be a dogfight, to be sure, but one that could turn up one or two huge plays for the Buckeyes.
"Maybe, just maybe, New Jersey could determine the future of the Big Ten East."
Rutgers was ostensibly added to the Big Ten, in part, to gain the NY/NJ television market to the conference's revenue stream. Perhaps the biggest unintended consequence of the move, however, is that it appears to have made Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State better. All three schools had done some recruiting in New Jersey in the past, but with Rutgers' addition to the conference, the floodgates have really opened.
For Ohio State, their man on the ground is offensive line coach Ed Warinner. Warinner has been recruiting in New Jersey dating back to his time as an assistant coach at Army, and has developed friendships with many local coaches. That certainly doesn't hurt the Ohio State brand. Cleveland.com's Ari Wasserman cites Warriner's three biggest recent scoops from the Garden State -- Noah Brown, Kevin Feder, and Darius Slade -- as evidence that the Buckeyes' presence there is strong. (You may have heard that another prominent NJ Ohio State commit, Kareem Walker, decided not to play for the Buckeyes earlier in the week.)
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