5 Most Likely Matchups for the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game
It's still six months away, but even at this early stage eyes are starting to focus on the Big Ten Championship Game on December 6. With the addition of two new teams bringing changes to the divisions of the conference, the Big Ten is sure to be exciting this season.
But which teams will be able to ride that excitement to Indianapolis and play for a likely berth in the first-ever College Football Playoff?
Michigan State made an impressive run through the conference last season, finishing 8-0 and knocking off Ohio State in the conference title game. What's more, MSU beat every Big Ten opponent last season by double digits. Can you remember the last team to do that? We can't.
(For the record, it was Michigan in 1943).
New teams and new divisions mean new challenges. Michigan State and Ohio State, once cross-division foes, will now battle it out in the regular season for the right to play in Indianapolis.
And what about the West Division? Can Nebraska finally capture that elusive Big Ten title? Can the Huskers finally make it through a season under Bo Pelini without losing four games? Is Wisconsin ready for a championship comeback?
We'll ponder those questions and more as we take a peek at the five most likely Big Ten Championship Game matchups for 2014.
Michigan State vs. Iowa
A week ago, we named Iowa as one of the five teams with the best shots at winning the Big Ten in 2014. How could we leave the Hawkeyes off a list talking about likely championship game matchups?
From the perspective of Iowa, it really only comes down to two things in 2014: beating Wisconsin and beating Nebraska. Sure, the Hawkeyes will need plenty of other conference victories along the way, but is anyone out there really picking Indiana, Purdue, Illinois or Maryland over the Hawkeyes this fall?
The downside for Iowa is a back-loaded schedule. The Hawkeyes will face Wisconsin on November 22 and Nebraska a week later on November 28. The upside? Both games are at Kinnick Stadium.
For the other half of the matchup, we're going with defending Big Ten Champion Michigan State. The Spartans have a much more treacherous road to Indianapolis, as Sparty draws one of the toughest cross-division opponents while residing in what is sure to be a rough-and-tumble East Division.
Michigan State opens Big Ten play against a Nebraska team eager to avenge its first-ever loss to MSU in 2013. The Spartans then face archrival Michigan and East favorite Ohio State in back-to-back games (with a bye in between) on October 25 and November 8, respectively. MSU then finishes up the season with a trip to Beaver Stadium to take on Penn State for the Land Grant Trophy on November 29.
In reality, you could substitute Ohio State for MSU in this slot and the likelihood of the matchup would be just as valid. But we're going to go ahead and stick with Michigan State, if for no other reason than to give the Spartans a little credit for an impressive 2013 capped off with a much-needed win for the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl.
Michigan State vs. Wisconsin
Last season, Wisconsin's James White and Melvin Gordon combined for 3,053 rushing yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. White is moving on, but Gordon is back for another season in Madison and will be joined by Corey Clement in the Badgers' backfield to form what is sure to be another prolific rushing tandem.
The real question now is how the Badgers can put all of the pieces together in order to return to championship form. Wisconsin won three Big Ten titles in 2010 (shared with Michigan State), 2011 and 2012.
The key ingredient during the Badgers' string of championships was the ability of their passing game to make hay when the running game ran into the (rare) defense that could hold it in check. With Joel Stave back for his junior year after a solid 2013, head coach Gary Andersen may have all the ingredients for a winning formula in 2014.
We've already talked about Michigan State, but one thing we didn't talk about is the history between the Badgers and Spartans. The two teams shared the Big Ten title in 2010 and then met in the first Big Ten Championship Game in 2011. Wisconsin won a close battle, avenging a regular-season loss by MSU on a last-second Hail Mary.
Michigan State won again in 2012, and the two teams did not meet in 2013. Wisconsin's last regular-season victory was a 38-30 victory in 2009. MSU and Wisconsin will not meet in the 2014 regular season.
Regardless of the records, regardless of what's on the line, one thing seems constant: Wisconsin and Michigan State always manage to provide great entertainment. Wouldn't it be fitting to watch another epic battle between these two recent powers in the Big Ten? After all, they did inaugurate the Big Ten Championship Game in style; perhaps they can inaugurate a new divisional era, too.
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
OK, Ohio State fans, you can relax now. You didn't think we'd get much further into this list without coming to the early East Division favorite, did you?
We've heard this song and dance before from Ohio State: team of destiny, head and shoulders above everyone else in the conference, unbeatable, dominating...but that hasn't worked out too terribly well for Ohio State recently.
Ohio State vacated its share of the 2010 Big Ten title (and eventual Sugar Bowl victory) thanks to ineligible players and the cover-up that followed. The Buckeyes muddled through the 2011 season to a 6-7 record (their first losing season since 1988). Rather than self-imposing sanctions that season, Ohio State waited until the NCAA issued a one-year postseason ban in 2012.
Oh, what might have been. The 12-0 Buckeyes were forced to wait until 2013 to make a run at a conference or national title. Despite being a favorite and beginning with another 12-0 mark, Ohio State lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and followed that up with a loss to Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
So you'll have to pardon us if we're not buying into the Ohio State hype quite yet. We're not saying Ohio State can't win its first conference title since 2009 this season. In fact, the Buckeyes are probably one of the better bets. But lofty expectations can sometimes be as dangerous as a Michigan State secondary.
The interesting footnote to a potential Ohio State-Wisconsin Big Ten title showdown is the fact that the 2010 meeting between these two teams is the only Ohio State contest from that season that's still officially on the books. Wisconsin won 31-18, giving Ohio State a 12-1 record on the field (0-1, officially).
Other than 2010, Wisconsin has not beaten Ohio State since 2004.
Michigan State vs. Nebraska
Nebraska hasn't been in the Big Ten all that long, but the Huskers have tangled with the Michigan State Spartans eight times over the years.
Prior to last season, Nebraska was perfect against Sparty. Now, Nebraska must find a way to not only beat teams like MSU (in East Lansing on October 4), but also divisional rivals like Wisconsin (in Madison on November 15) and Iowa (in Iowa City on November 28).
While not having a direct bearing on the Big Ten Championship Game, Nebraska will also have a decent road test against Miami when the Hurricanes come for a visit on September 20. All of this leads to the bigger point: Bo Pelini has never guided the Cornhuskers to anything less than four losses in a single season. If Nebraska wants to win the West this season, that's going to have to change.
If it doesn't we might see a real push for new leadership.
Ohio State vs. Nebraska
Now we finally come that what we believe is the most likely matchup for the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game: Ohio State and Nebraska. Both teams have excellent shots at winning their respective divisions, and a meeting between the Huskers and Buckeyes would be nothing short of exciting.
Nebraska doesn't have the greatest history in the brief story of the Big Ten title game. Nebraska's lone appearance resulted in an embarrassing 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in 2013. Ohio State's history, however, is only slightly better: a 34-24 loss last season in its only appearance.
Both Ohio State and Nebraska are loaded with offensive weapons. Both teams are looking to rebuild a defense that was less than spectacular last season. Both teams have coaches desperate in their own ways for a championship.
Both teams have the tools; both teams have ample motivation. It's fairly easy to see why we're picking Ohio State and Nebraska to represent their divisions in the 2014 Big Ten Championship Game. All that is left is to actually get out on the field this fall and chase down the division crowns that lead to Indianapolis.
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