Sunday, October 30

Taking 'em four games at a time

What a Halloween Saturday night that was! As you can see, I went out in costume (the blood is fake) and even had the chance to meet a former world champion! I'm actually still wearing that shirt as I type this.

Partying with celebrities aside, this night belonged to the Ohio State Buckeyes, by virtue of their dramatic 33-29 toppling of the Wisconsin Badgers. I was at a house party for the 4th quarter, and this girl (possibly a Wisconsin grad) who knew almost nothing about football (forward progress, for instance) was loudly and obnoxiously rooting on the Badger rally that put them ahead by a field goal with 78 ticks of the clock left. You just don't do that, especially in a pro-Buckeye room. I don't often feel the need to tell people out loud to shut up, but those were the circumstances. I didn't need to say anything after Braxton Miller's 40-yard chuck to Devin Smith put the good guys up on top to stay; I only wish I had the phone number of the guy who took a photo of her looking distraught after the Buckeye TD, so I could share it with you.

I'll let Figgs recap the game in greater, less party-centric detail later, but I have two things to discuss related to this huge win.

Item #1: Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. It's been hard for me over the past few years to adjust to Wisconsin no longer having a coach who, like Barry Alvarez, himself looked like a badger, but I admire Bielema's program, and at least he doesn't coach michigan. I did not approve of his comment following his club's second-straight last-minute defeat, however:

"The replay booth has definitely not been our friend the last two weeks."

Don't play the victim here, Bret. If there was no replay in college football, both of your games would have turned out exactly the same, because replay (correctly) upheld both of the crucial calls that were made on the field, not to mention Philly Brown's first-half sideline catch. The MSU Hail Mary last week was ruled a touchdown on the field and rightfully upheld by the replay official, and the Buckeye game-winner was correctly ruled a touchdown before the video booth confirmed that Miller was comfortably behind the line on his final toss. Let's not pretend that the refs were in any way at fault in Wisconsin's recent troubles, because both times they got calls right initially, and then through the review process. This is a weak, weak comment from Bielema.

Item #2: There is absolutely no reason Ohio State cannot win the Big 10 this season. Yeah, I know the Miami, Nebraska, and MSU losses all blew, but that's behind us. A look at the current situation and the remaining schedules shows that the Bucks are very much in contention for their seventh straight Big 10 crown.

At this point, I'd like to talk a bit about the overused cliche about taking things "one game at a time." Can we stop saying this? Can we just assume that's what every athlete and coach is doing, and have them advise us only when they're taking a different approach? Also, I'm not sure where the evidence is that this venerated perspective is so great for winning games. Might it be possible that teams would have more success if they took a higher view of the season? Possibly not, but it's natural for football players to look ahead to the rest of their schedule, even though I have no doubt their focus will be squarely on their next opponent.

Fortunately, I'm in no way encumbered by a need to conform to this cliche, so I can lay out for you why I think Ohio State can and will grab the Big 10 again. Let's first look at the conference standings in the dumbly-named "Leaders" half of the Big 10 (hey Big 10, have you noticed that no one else does this?):

Big 10 Leaders
Penn State (5-0)
Ohio State (2-2)
Wisconsin (2-2)
Illinois (2-3)
Indiana (0-5)

Obviously the Nittany Lions are the biggest hurdle for Ohio State right now, sitting two games above the Buckeyes in the standings as I write. OSU holds tiebreakers over Wisky and Illinois, so Ohio controls their own destiny with respect to those two foes. The Buckeye remaining schedule shakes out like this:

@ Purdue
Penn State
@ michigan

Again, unencumbered by the directive to go one game at a time, I can freely look ahead to games over the horizon. Indiana is horrible and (sorry, JHH) Purdue just got hammered by michigan of all people, so unless Joe Bauserman gets on the field we'll be 4-2 in a couple of weeks heading into a showdown in Columbus with Penn State. I think Ohio State will win this marquee matchup for a few reasons:

- Penn State is 5-0, yes, but they've grabbed those wins against Indiana, Purdue, Iowa, Northwestern, and Illinois. Somehow they've managed to avoid the three top teams in the Legends division and their top two opponents in Leaders this far, but those bills are about to come due as they finish against the Cornhuskers, Buckeyes, and Badgers.
- The game is in Columbus. It is not easy to win football games in Columbus.
- Ohio State is peaking and confident. Our QB position is stabilized, the defense has really started to step up, and after a rocky start the team is hitting its stride at the right time

And there's no way we lose to michigan.

So yes, I'm saying there's a very good chance OSU runs the table here and finishes 6-2 in conference play. One of those games will have handed Penn State a conference L, but the current two-game deficit means that the Buckeyes will need help to catch PSU. I'll take my chances on the Badgers handling the Lions in Madison on the final day of the regular season (assuming Nebraska hasn't already done it in Happy Valley, a distinct possibility), elevating the Buckeyes to first in the Leaders division with all the head-to-head tiebreakers in hand. Granted, this is what I want to happen, but I also think there's a more-than-fair shot of it coming true. There is an elaborate scenario in which OSU can actually suffer a 3rd loss and still come out on top: Penn State drops their remaining three, Wisconsin loses to the Illini, and the OSU loss is to either Indiana or michigan. But that's very unlikely, not least because it involves michigan beating the Buckeyes, so let's stick with the win-out scenario.

Half-conference title secured, our thoughts can then turn to a prospective Big 10 Championship between OSU and the winner on the Legends side. At present we have:

Michigan state (3-1)
Nebraska (3-1)
michigan (3-1)
Iowa (2-2)
Minnesota (1-3)
Northwestern (1-4)

The funniest thing that could happen for Buckeye fans would be this: michigan topples Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska, then loses to Ohio State as usual. This puts Nebraska out of the running (um would own a tiebreaker) and MSU somehow loses two games to the motley lot of Minny, Iowa, Indiana, and Northwestern. This would give michigan the Legends title with the tiebreaker over Nebraska, setting up an Ohio State - michigan rematch in the inaugural championship game.

That's not going to happen, though. michigan sucks and they're simply not going to win their half of the conference. Michigan State has no excuse not to finish 7-1 with the creampuffs they have remaining, and Nebraska is going to pummel michigan whenever they play. As I see it, Penn State - Nebraska will decide that side of the ledger; if the Lions hold serve at home, then MSU probably gets a berth in the title game; if not, Nebraska runs the table and edges Michigan State via the tiebreaker they earned by hammering the Spartans last night. My guess is the Huskers will be taking a trip to Indianapolis later this fall, hopefully to play Ohio State.

Take-home messages:

- Ohio State can very well win out, and I see PSU as their only real obstacle to doing so.
- If they do, and either Nebraska or Wisconsin beat Penn State, OSU wins the Leaders division.
- The Leaders winner will probably face Nebraska for the Big 10 championship

Go Bucks!

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