A week ago, the Big Ten wasn't even sure whether its best team would be able to participate in the conference championship game Dec. 19.
After deciding on a six-game minimum for teams to make the Big Ten title game before the season, the league reversed course—with the blessing of its member schools—to allow the 5-0 Ohio State Buckeyes to represent the Big Ten East in the title game. If they win, they will likely make the College Football Playoff as well, which would be a reported $40 million-50 million revenue boost to the league in a year wherein schools have collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The league got smart, though, and the Buckeyes will face a Northwestern team ranked No. 14 and coming off of a commanding win over Illinois. Ohio State is likely to be a double-digit favorite, and the Buckeyes will need to be at least that convincing to get the CFP committee to put them into the playoff ahead of teams with eight, nine and 10 games under their belts.
Let's begin by breaking things down a little further.
Justin Fields vs. Northwestern Defense
Despite only getting to play in five games, Justin Fields has again shown why he's considered a Heisman contender and prospective top-five overall NFL draft pick. He's completed nearly 74 percent of his throws, tossed 15 touchdowns to just three interceptions, and he's run for five more scores. He's the straw that stirs Ohio State's offensive drink, and Northwestern's biggest challenge will be getting pressure on him and forcing him to win the game with his legs.
The Wildcats rank 15th in the country in total defense, but they rank No. 3 out of 127 teams in points against, No. 6 in yards allowed per play and are among the top 25 in turnovers gained. They have been particularly elite against the pass, allowing just a 51 percent completion rate among opposing quarterbacks, while forcing 10 interceptions in eight games.
Ohio State will put them to the test with Fields, who utilizes the Buckeyes' skill players to get the ball out quickly and avoid sacks that would put OSU in long-yardage situations.
Northwestern Run Game vs. Ohio State Defense
One of the biggest keys for Northwestern's defense has nothing at all to do with that side of the ball. Ohio State has the fourth-highest scoring offense in college football (46.6 points per game), and if the Wildcats get into a shootout, this one will be over quickly. Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey has been serviceable this year, but he's completed just 59 percent of his passes and averages just 5.8 yards per attempt.
On the ground, though, Northwestern has six players with more than 100 yards rushing this season, and their success mainly comes through ball control. The Wildcats won't gauge Ohio State—or anyone—with eye-popping runs, but they are physical up front and will do everything they can to make this a 14-10 or 10-7 game in the final minutes.
Whether they can do that is a different story. While it isn't an elite unit like it has been in previous years, Ohio State's defense still ranks among the top 45 nationally in total defense, and the Buckeyes have been especially good (No. 13) at getting off the field on third down and getting their offense the ball back. Simply put, the Wildcats have a steep hill to climb to keep this a low-scoring affair.
Prediction: Ohio State 42, Northwestern 21
Follow Keegan on Twitter, @ByKeeganPope.