The strength of the Big Ten has seldom been greater with No. 2 Penn State and No. 6 Ohio State set to face off on Saturday.
Well, the strength of the Big Ten East, that is.
In a crowded division, the implications to follow the heavyweight matchup are a plenty. The East has two top 10 teams and three ranked teams overall, each with no more than one loss as we head into the final six weeks of the college football season.
And with Michigan having already tapped out, that leaves Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State in the race for a spot in Indianapolis. All three have yet to play each other.
Cue the Big Ten insanity.
Here’s a look at the remaining schedules for the East’s contenders.
Ohio State (6-1, 4-0)
vs. Penn State
vs. Michigan State
Penn State (7-0, 4-0)
at Ohio State
at Michigan State
Michigan State (6-1, 4-0)
vs. Penn State
at Ohio State
The timeliness couldn’t be anymore perfect, but it’s hardly new territory for the teams involved.
Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State have successfully run the B1G gambit in recent years since divisions and a conference championship game were introduced prior to the 2011 campaign.
The Spartans have made three appearances in the Big Ten title bout in that time, winning twice. Coming off a down season, Mark Dantonio has Michigan State back on track. They’re tied for second in the East with Ohio State and earned a signature victory over rival Michigan in Week 6.
Dual-threat quarterback Brian Lewerke has paced their offense with 1,362 passing yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s added another 313 yards and three scores on the ground.
What’s more, the Spartans are ranked fourth nationally in total defense. They’re eighth in the FBS with 93.6 rushing yards per game allowed and lead the Big Ten in rush defense, yielding 72.5 yards per game in four conference contests.
Lining up across from Michigan State in about a week is Penn State.
The Nittany Lions captured their first Big Ten title in eight years last season, James Franklin’s third at the helm.
Now the folks in Columbus might take issue, but there isn’t a better backfield in college football today than Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. Barkley and his 1,494 all-purpose yards, 13 touchdowns, and ever-looping highlight reel are why he’s the Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
Defensively, a stingy secondary anchors Penn State’s No. 1 ranked scoring unit.
Then we have Ohio State.
The Scarlet and Gray are riding a five-game win streak. During that time, J.T. Barrett has thrown for 1,838 yards, 21 touchdowns, with a 72.1 completion percentage and zero interceptions. He’s run for 359 yards and five touchdowns, too.
For a better idea of how efficient Ohio State has been with the ball in their hands, they’re currently No. 3 in the country in total offense, No. 18 in rushing, No. 12 in passing, No. 4 in passing efficiency, and No. 2 in scoring.
Here's a look at J.T. Barrett's passing chart.. downfield numbers are still rough, but have been better in recent weeks. pic.twitter.com/Sa2AtUYplQ— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 24, 2017
Per the usual throughout the past two years, the Buckeyes defense is one of the very best in nation. Led by Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, and Jerome Baker, the defensive front is the backbone of the team.
So, if it isn’t clear by now, allow me to interject: No conference in all of college football has a division that’s as contentious as the Big Ten East.
It’s not even close.
The implications for Penn State’s meeting with Ohio State are at stratospheric levels.
Should the Nittany Lions lose, they risk putting the Buckeyes back in the driver’s seat. If Urban Meyer and Co. can’t pull off the upset, there’s no chance they qualify for the playoff, let alone the Big Ten championship game.
And what about Michigan State?
Regardless of who wins between Penn State and Ohio State, the Spartans season comes down to a critical two-week stretch in November featuring their aforementioned conference rivals.
There’s more on the line than a mere ‘W’ this Saturday.
The next month will be telling.