Why Ohio State's Most Important Game is Not USC

Ned DuttonCorrespondent IJuly 29, 2008

Here we are, one month from the opening kickoff of the 2008-'09 College Football season. The preseason magazines are being released, camps are about to open, and everybody has their own opinion about the upcoming year. Heisman contenders, conference champs, and hypothetical BCS bids are being tossed around.

But through it all, there seems to be one consensus among all College Football fans: The Game of the Year (capitalized for extra effect) is Ohio State going out west to play USC on September 13.

In what will surely be a battle of two top five (possibly top three or top two, if the voters really get excited) teams, the big bad Buckeyes play longtime Pac-10 foe USC in a game of the two most prolific programs of the past decade.

Though these two teams haven't played each other in 18 years, they do have a nice little rivalry through the years, with USC leading the series 11-9-1. Both teams are loaded for the '08 season, and whoever wins will surely have the inside track to the National Championship.

Any way you look at it (and trust me, there are many different angles from which to digest this matchup), this is College Football's most important game of the year. As for the reigning Pac-10 champs, who have Oregon and Arizona State at home (though in back-to-back weeks), it can be said with confidence that this is the Trojans' most important game of the year.

But, despite all that is at stake (in addition to the aforementioned "inside track" at the BCS Title game, Ohio State is fighting years of pent-up anger and frustration from fans and pundits across the country for scandals, high rankings, and a couple games against teams from the SEC), the USC game is not Ohio State's most important game this season.

Am I out of my mind? If Ohio State loses to USC, even if it's close, their already shrinking reputation will take another crippling blow. If Ohio State beats USC, yes, they will be a virtually undisputed No. 1; the critics will back down, etc. But then what? Win or lose, they still have to play nine more games.

In beating USC (hypothetically), all Ohio State will do is basically save face for a little bit. What they need to do to make sure they don't lose anything they gained from the USC game is to win at Wisconsin and to win at Illinois.

As long as Ohio State doesn't embarrass themselves in L.A., they can still make it to the National Championship game. Ohio State cannot make it to the title game without beating both Illinois and Wisconsin.

Even if you think the Big Ten is weak (and it may be true that there's not a whole bunch of depth this year), you have to acknowledge the legitimacy of Wisconsin and Illinois.

Like Ohio State, Illinois was "a year away" last year, and they made it to the Rose Bowl (forget the actual outcome of the game, making it to the game was Illinois' victory). Juice Williams is a year more mature, Ron Zook has another great recruiting class, the program is clearly headed up.

Two years ago they nearly stunned Ohio State, and of course last year they did pull off the upset. The Illibuck trophy (I'm not kidding) has never had more significance, and going to Champaign and winning what will probably end up being a night game (translation: sucks to be the visiting team) will put Ohio State (even a one-loss Ohio State) in great position to return to the National Championship.

The Illinois game will be meaningless if Ohio State doesn't get past Wisconsin first. For some reason, like an annoying younger brother, Wisconsin always gives Ohio State fits. It's easy to forget that Ohio State was losing to Wisconsin in the third quarter last year, and it may be surprising to discover that last year was Ohio State's first victory over the Badgers since the national title run in 2002.

Camp Randall Stadium is not the place to play at night against a bad Wisconsin team, but this year's Wisconsin is a very good team. Despite worries at quarterback, Wisconsin still has PJ Hill and all-world TE Travis Beckum...the offense will be fine. The defense was good but never really great last year, and with nine upperclassmen starting on defense this year will be improved on last year's 356 ypg/23 ppg effort.

Bret Bielema is 21-5 in his two years at Wisconsin, and he's looking at another top 15 team this year. Wisconsin would love nothing more than to throw the anchor down on Ohio State's BCS Bandwagon, and on October 4 they just might.

The eyes of nation are already focused in on September 13. The Ohio State-USC game will be the most anticipated, most watched, and most discussed game of the year. For the rest of the College Football world, it is the biggest regular season game of the year. But Ohio State can't get distracted by the spectacle...even if they lose, they can make it back to the National Title game.

It's always best to lose early in the year and work your way back up. To lose on the road to the No. 1 team is not really a bad loss, so they shouldn't lose too many style points. Any hopes of salvaging the season (and, for Ohio State, this means making it to the BCS Title game) rest on the two road games Ohio State has against Wisconsin and Illinois.

The USC game will be fun, but these two Big Ten tests will prove more important.