OSU Buckeyes: Devin Gardner
When you live in Louisville, horse racing and handicapping are about all you can think of this time of year, in between bites of Derby Pie. So, like last year, I've imagined what the Big Ten 2013 program would look like if the championship chase were more like a horse race. I think the odds would go a little something like this (like the Churchill Downs toteboard, our odds only go up to 99-to-1),:
Ohio State: Even
Despite being scratched from last year's race by NCAA probation, the Buckeyes are the odds-on favorites this time around. They've got big-time winners both at trainer (Urban Meyer) and on the reins (Braxton Miller), and their schedule looks like they should get a clean trip.
The Wolverines are switching running styles this year, ditching the spread for a more traditional passing offense led by Devin Gardner. No need for blinders, as Taylor Lewan has the blind side locked down. Still, this entry hasn't had enough first-place finishes in its recent past performances.
The Huskers have been like one of those tantalizing horses in the program with a huge Beyer speed figure that always disappoints when you put the big money on them. Expect them to be a major pace-setter because of their early schedule, but that defense will determine whether they can make a long-awaited trip to the winners' circle.
Pretty good value here for a three-time defending champion of the Run for the Rose Bowl. Still, the Badgers are operating under new connections this time around (new coach Gary Andersen) and will have to prove they can track down Ohio State in the Leaders Division.
Another good option for those seeking value, as the Wildcats might be the wise-guy pick after last year's 10-win season. The problem is the potential of a very bumpy trip with that schedule (Ohio State and Wisconsin as crossover opponents). And there will be a lot of jostling in that Legends Division.
Michigan State: 20-to-1
Some bettors like to look for the bounce factor, meaning they seek out otherwise successful horses who are coming off one bad outing. The Spartans look like the best bounce candidate following last year's 6-6 season, which came after two straight double-digit win seasons. They have a more favorable post position (er, schedule) this time, but their early works suggest some lingering questions about the offense.
We've reached the real long shots now. Jerry Kill has shown that his charges take off in their third year of training, and the Gophers have turned in some encouraging works. Still, they'll need to run a perfect race to factor in the money.
This would be a Giacomo-level upset. An exotic pick, at best. But with the Hoosiers' ability to score points, they could pull off a shocker if everyone else falters.
Handicappers got burned by picking Purdue as their sleeper last year. The Boilermakers might be even more of a mystery horse this year with a new trainer in Darrell Hazell. Still looks like an also-ran, but don't forget that they seem to run neck-and-neck with Ohio State lately, for whatever reason.
Failed to fire last year, and the speed figures aren't pretty. If you're betting the Hawkeyes, you're basing it on the pedigree of Kirk Ferentz. Should show more fight this time, but might be too much of a plodder to hit the board.
Stumbled out of the gate, no rally, didn't factor in 2012. Equipment changes on offense (new coordinator Bill Cubit's spread system) should help. But Tim Beckman has a lot of work to do to show he's not saddling another nag.
Penn State: Scratched
DQ'd by the NCAA. (Now accepting future wagering on 2016).
So there's how I'd write the program. What kind of odds would you give to each team, and who would you put money on in 2013?
For those just joining us, we're each picking a Big Ten game to attend each week of the 2013 season. We aren't bound by a travel budget, pesky editors or anything steering us to a particular destination. If the game appeals to us, we can be there. What a world. We're trying to mix up our itinerary, and while we can stand to be in the same press box together, there are some weeks where we'll grin and bear it. Remember, this isn't our actual itinerary for the season.
There's one week left in the Big Ten season, and here's the slate for Week 14 (Nov. 29-30):
Iowa at Nebraska
Minnesota at Michigan State
Northwestern at Illinois
Ohio State at Michigan
Penn State at Wisconsin
Purdue at Indiana
Adam Rittenberg's pick: Ohio State at Michigan
The Game is the default pick for Rivalry Saturday in the Big Ten, but I also think it could be the most exciting and competitive contest on the slate. Perhaps it's wishful thinking on my part, as the Ohio State-Michigan game hasn't been a huge hit since we launched the blog in 2008. Michigan was down from 2008-10, and Ohio State backslid considerably in 2011. While last year's meeting pitted a good team (Michigan) against a great one (Ohio State), the Buckeyes' postseason ban took something away from the contest. I'm still waiting to cover an Ohio State-Michigan clash featuring two great teams in the running for a Big Ten championship. This year's game very well could meet those demands.
Michigan gets the game at home, where it has yet to lose under coach Brady Hoke. The Buckeyes had some close calls away from Columbus in 2012 -- Michigan State, Indiana, Wisconsin -- and will need an efficient performance on both sides of the ball to win. Junior quarterback Braxton Miller enters the season among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy. His performance in Ann Arbor could make or break his campaign. The quarterback matchup between Miller and Michigan's Devin Gardner pits two exceptional athletes with varying styles who both can generate a lot of production.
I'm particularly interested to see what happens at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State boasts in my view the Big Ten's top offensive line, while Michigan is looking for difference-makers on its defensive front and hopes to spark a better pass rush. The Wolverines have arguably the nation's best offensive lineman in left tackle Taylor Lewan, who likely will go against dynamic young defensive end Noah Spence. Brace yourselves. Gardner and his receiving corps take aim at a Buckeyes secondary led by cornerback Bradley Roby, who talks big and usually backs it up. Michigan star linebacker Jake Ryan is rehabbing from ACL surgery, but hopes to return for the stretch run. Ryan could help Michigan neutralize Miller, Carlos Hyde and the Buckeye attack. The linebacker matchup between Ryan and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier would be tremendous.
Ohio State might be eying a spot in the national title game, and both teams should be in the mix for division titles and a spot in Indianapolis. The Game always has added meaning for both programs and both fan bases, but it has been too long since both teams had other goals on the table. This year's clash should be a great one, and I don't want to miss it. Who knows, maybe there will be a rematch the following week in Indy.
Brian Bennett's pick: Ohio State at Michigan
I seriously considered taking Northwestern at Illinois, since the Illini are the only team I haven't seen on this 14-week fantasy excursion. And the Land of Lincoln rivalry could be fun. But the odds are that Tim Beckman's team will be eliminated from bowl contention long before the final weekend.
Who knows? Maybe some of the other finales will have major implications, such as Wisconsin trying to win the Leaders Division, Nebraska attempting to clinch the Legends or Indiana possibly securing bowl eligibility.
Still, c'mon. This is The Game we're talking about. It's an easy choice -- even if I have to sit next to Rittenberg.
Week 1: Adam at Northwestern-Cal, Brian at Purdue-Cincinnati
Week 2: Brian and Adam at Notre Dame-Michigan
Week 3: Brian at UCLA-Nebraska, Adam at Wisconsin-Arizona State
Week 4: Adam at Michigan State-Notre Dame, Brian at Purdue-Wisconsin
Week 5: Adam at Wisconsin-Ohio State, Brian at Wisconsin-Ohio State
Week 6: Adam at Ohio State-Northwestern, Brian at Penn State-Indiana
Week 7: Adam at Penn State-Michigan, Brian at Northwestern-Wisconsin
Week 8: Brian at Iowa-Ohio State, Adam at Indiana-Michigan
Week 9: Adam at Nebraska-Minnesota, Brian at Penn State-Ohio State
Week 10: Brian at Michigan-Michigan State, Adam at Wisconsin-Iowa
Week 11: Adam at Nebraska-Michigan, Brian at Penn State-Minnesota
Week 12: Brian at Michigan State-Nebraska, Adam at Michigan-Northwestern
Week 13: Brian at Minnesota-Wisconsin, Adam at Nebraska-Penn State
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
We're going back now and issuing a final, postseason ranking for each position group, and these will be far less subjective now because we have an actual full season's worth of data on hand.
Quarterbacks, naturally, are up first. (Those guys hog all the glory). You can take a look back and see how we ranked this group in the preseason here. Depth is an important factor in these position rankings, but having a standout main guy under center (or in the shotgun) is the most overriding concern with this group.
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteThanks to consistent play by QB Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes finished the 2012 season unbeaten.
2. Penn State (Preseason: 12): The Nittany Lions were dead last in our preseason rankings, and with good reason considering their past performances at the position. But I did write at the time: "Call me an optimist, but I believe Matt McGloin will be more effective at quarterback now that he's got a more modern offensive system and peace of mind that he's the starter." Uh, yeah. McGloin led the Big Ten in passing yards (3,266) and passing touchdowns (24) while throwing only five interceptions. And he stayed healthy, keeping Penn State's youthful backups from getting exposed.
3. Nebraska (Preseason: 3): Taylor Martinez led the Big Ten in total offense and completed a career-best 62 percent of his passes. When he was good, he was as good as there was in the league. But he still struggled with turnovers in key games, including 12 interceptions and numerous fumbles. If he can eliminate the mistakes, the sky's the limit.
4. Michigan (Preseason: 2): The Wolverines are a hard to team to peg in these rankings. Do we rank them based on Denard Robinson's poor showings in big games against Alabama and Notre Dame? Do we rank them based on Devin Gardner's strong finish to the season, when he was as productive as any Big Ten QB? How much do we factor in the team's lack of a solid backup plan in the Nebraska loss when Robinson got hurt early? You have to weigh the good with the bad, which makes this spot feel about right.
5. Northwestern (Preseason: 9): Starting quarterback Kain Colter threw for 872 yards, which was nearly 450 yards less than nominal backup Trevor Siemian. But Colter also rushed for 894 yards and kept defenses off balance with his versatility. Meanwhile, the Wildcats could use Siemian when they needed to stretch the field. The next step for Northwestern is developing a more consistent downfield passing attack.
6. Indiana (Preseason: 11): Who would have guessed in the preseason that the Hoosiers would actually exhibit the best depth at quarterback? After starter Tre Roberson went down in Week 2, Indiana was able to plug in juco transfer Cameron Coffman and true freshman Nate Sudfeld to sustain the league's top passing offense. The three combined to throw for more than 3,700 yards. Coffman got the bulk of the work but needed a better touchdown-to-interception ration than his 15-to-11 mark.
7. Purdue (Preseason: 1): We overrated the Boilermakers' depth in the preseason. It turned out that only one of the trio of former starters performed at a high level, and Robert Marve didn't play enough because of a torn ACL and Danny Hope's misguided insistence on sticking with Caleb TerBush. Purdue actually led the Big Ten in passing touchdowns (30) and finished third in passing yards, but much of that was because the team often had to throw the ball a lot after falling way behind. This ranking could have been higher with a full season of Marve.
8. Wisconsin (Preseason: 8): Danny O'Brien quickly showed that he was not the next Russell Wilson, but luckily the Badgers had some depth. Redshirt freshman Joel Stave showed major promise before his season was derailed by a broken collarbone, and Curt Phillips turned in a nice comeback story by managing the team well down the stretch. Still, Wisconsin ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards.
9. Michigan State (Preseason: 10): It was not exactly a season to remember for first-year starter Andrew Maxwell, who was benched late in the Spartans' bowl game. But for all his struggles, Maxwell still finished No. 4 in the league in passing and had some nice games in the middle of the year.
10. Minnesota (Preseason: 6): What could MarQueis Gray have done if he hadn't hurt his ankle, prompting an eventual move to receiver? True freshman Philip Nelson took over the reins midseason and broke out with a huge first half against Purdue. However, he failed to throw for more than 80 yards in the team's final three regular season games. Nelson led the team with just 873 passing yards on the season, and the Gophers threw 15 interceptions.
11. Iowa (Preseason: 4): Nobody took a bigger tumble than the Hawkeyes, as James Vandenberg went from a 3,000-yard passer as a junior to often looking lost as a senior. He completed only 57.3 percent of his passes and tossed only seven touchdowns, with eight interceptions, and Iowa showed almost no ability to go vertical. And no other Hawkeye attempted a pass all season.
12. Illinois (Preseason: 7): The Illini had experience at the position with Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, but they were both part of a wildly dysfunctional offense. Illinois was next-to-last in passing yards in the Big Ten and also had just 11 touchdown passes versus 14 interceptions. In fairness, both QBs were often running for their lives and had very little help.
That doesn't always equate to success, but it's a pretty good gauge of experience and talent. Last season, Indiana had the most returning starters in the Big Ten with 19, and improved its win total from one to four. Ohio State was second with 18 returning starters and went 12-0. On the flip side, Purdue was tied for third with the most returning starters (16) and went 6-7, while Northwestern won 10 games despite returning just 12 starters from the previous season.
With all that in mind, football prognosticator extraordinaire Phil Steele has come out with his list of returning starters for every FBS team. Let's take a look at how the Big Ten stacks up:
1. Indiana (19 total returning starters)
Offense: 10 (QB included)
National rank: T-1st
2. Minnesota (16)
Offense: 10 (QB included)
National rank: T-17th
T-3. Michigan State (15)
Offense: 8 (QB included)
National rank: T-24th
T-3. Northwestern (15)
Offense: 8 (QB included)
National rank: T-24th
T-3. Wisconsin (15)
Offense: 8 (QB included)
National rank: T-24th
6. Iowa (14)
National rank: T-41st
T-7. Nebraska (13)
Offense: 9 (QB included)
National rank: T-58th
T-7. Ohio State (13)
Offense: 9 (QB included)
National rank: T-58th
T-7. Penn State (13)
National rank: T-58th
T-7. Purdue (13)
National rank: T-58th
11. Illinois (12)
Offense: 9 (QB included)
National rank: T-88th
12. Michigan (12)
Offense: 6 (QB included)
National rank: T-88th
Some quick takeaways:
- You can see why there's hope for a bounceback season for the Big Ten. Ten of the 12 teams rank in the upper half of the FBS in number of returning starters, including five in the top 24. And nine of the teams return their starting quarterbacks.
- Indiana once again tops the league in returning starters, a testament to Kevin Wilson's severe youth movement in 2011. The Hoosiers also get back Tre Roberson at quarterback from his broken leg. But they might be breaking in new, young starters on defense as they continue to search for talent. Still, the experience could help IU get to a bowl game.
- Minnesota has a lot of starters back, but also a lot of questions, as they lose key defensive players like D.L. Wilhite, Michael Carter, Troy Stoudermire, Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis. The Gophers also need more playmakers on offense, though they showed they could be a physical run team in the bowl with a healthy offensive line.
- Of the three teams tied for third, Michigan State has the most question marks. The Spartans have a returning starting quarterback, but there's no guarantee that Andrew Maxwell starts in 2013. And they lost their two best playmakers in Le'Veon Bell and Dion Sims to the draft. Northwestern brings back almost all of its top players, while Wisconsin had a very small senior class in 2012.
- Last year's two division winners, Ohio State and Nebraska, each return nine starters on offense, but only four on defense. Both should be among the highest-scoring teams in the league and the country. But their seasons will likely depend on how well they integrate young players in key spots on defense.
- Illinois can't even finish high in these rankings. Though after an abysmal season, it might be time to break in some new faces. At least new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has some experience to work with, if not an abundance of dynamic athletes. Michigan also ranks low with only 12 returning starters. We know this will be a young Wolverines team in many spots, including the offensive line. But with Devin Gardner back and some excellent recent recruiting, Michigan has a chance to avoid a drop-off if those young players perform well.
But before a largely forgettable 2012 Big Ten season goes up in flames, let's take one final look at the power rankings following the bowls. Ohio State not surprisingly remains on top, and the bottom three teams stay the same as well. There's a bit of shuffling among the seven bowl teams after varying performances. As has been the case most of the season, very little separates Nos. 2-6.
Here's a look at the pre-bowl power rankings.
Let's get to it ...
1. Ohio State (12-0; previously: 1): The Buckeyes will occupy this spot until they lose a game, which might be a while under coach Urban Meyer. After recording just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history, Ohio State sets its sights on even bigger goals as it emerges from NCAA sanctions. The Buckeyes showed major strides on offense behind sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and improved on both lines as the season went on. Meyer exceeded most expectations in Year 1, but they'll be much higher in 2013.
2. Northwestern (10-3; previously: 5): Pat Fitzgerald's team moves up three spots after claiming its first bowl victory in 64 years. There was surprisingly little drama as Northwestern capitalized on Mississippi State's errors and won the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl by two touchdowns. The Wildcats recorded just the third 10-win season in team history and easily could have won another game or two despite a young roster. Things are headed in the right direction in Evanston.
3. Michigan (8-5; previously: 2): The Wolverines were one defensive stop away from recording the most impressive win in the Big Ten's bowl season and in the Brady Hoke era. They paced a very talented South Carolina team in the Outback Bowl and received big performances from wideout Jeremy Gallon, running back Denard Robinson and quarterback Devin Gardner. Unfortunately for Michigan, an elite pass defense couldn't get it done in the end. Four of Michigan's five losses came against top-10 teams, but an 8-5 record isn't what Hoke or his players had in mind this fall.
4. Penn State (8-4; previously: 3): Penn State and Michigan are similar in that both teams have "good" losses on their résumés (Michigan a few more than Penn State). Both teams rallied to beat Northwestern at home, while Penn State has another quality win against Wisconsin. The Lions and Wolverines didn't play one another, and we'll never know how Penn State would have fared against a team like South Carolina. Michigan gets the slight edge here, but Penn State had a terrific season behind a dramatically improved offense and a defense led by senior stars Michael Mauti, Jordan Hill and Gerald Hodges.
5. Nebraska (10-4; previously: 4): The Huskers beat the three teams ahead of them in the rankings, but the power rankings place more weight on recent results, and Nebraska finished the season with a thud. Bo Pelini's team surrendered 105 points in its last two games -- losses to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. Nebraska showed it could move the ball and score against anyone, despite being turnover-prone. But the defense was abysmal in the four losses and raises serious concerns for Pelini's program going forward.
6. Wisconsin (8-6; previously: 6): The Barry Alvarez-led Badgers showed they could hang with Stanford, but they couldn't take advantage of the unique opportunity to play in the Rose Bowl Presented by Vizio despite finishing third in the Leaders Division. The inconsistent offensive execution that plagued Wisconsin throughout the season surfaced once again against a tough and talented Stanford defense. Wisconsin just didn't have enough firepower to get over the hump, which was really the story of its season.
7. Michigan State (7-6; previously: 7): A come-from-behind win against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl takes the sting off of a season that didn't go according to plan for Michigan State. The Spartans leaned on their defense and received just enough offense from backup quarterback Connor Cook and Co. to get past a young Horned Frogs team in Tempe, Ariz. Michigan State posted its second straight bowl win under coach Mark Dantonio and said goodbye to three juniors -- running back Le'Veon Bell, tight end Dion Sims and defensive end William Gholston -- in the days following the game.
8. Minnesota (6-7; previously: 9): Minnesota appeared poised to give the Big Ten a surprising 1-0 start to the bowl season. The Gophers made strides on offense between the end of the regular season and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, as young quarterback Philip Nelson and the offensive line looked a lot better against Texas Tech. But Minnesota still doesn't know how to finish and suffered breakdowns down the stretch in a tough loss to the Red Raiders. The team still doubled its win total in Jerry Kill's second season and could make some noise in a tough Legends Division next fall.
9. Purdue (6-7; previously: 8): The Boilermakers and Minnesota swap places after Minnesota performed much better in its bowl game than Purdue did. A mismatch on paper turned into a total whitewash on the field as Oklahoma State, which had no business being in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, outclassed Purdue from the get-go. Purdue's once-promising season ended with a thud as a veteran-laden Boilers team that kept pace with both Notre Dame and Ohio State struggled mightily against most of the good-to-great teams it faced this season.
10. Indiana (4-8; previously: 10): After going 1-11 in Kevin Wilson's first year, Indiana could only get better, and took some important steps this season. The Hoosiers showed they can score points on just about every defense in the Big Ten, and their group of skill players is among the league's best. IU's defense still isn't at a Big Ten level, and improving the talent and depth on that side of the ball is the chief challenge for Wilson and his staff entering the 2013 season.
11. Iowa (4-8; previously: 11): A bowl appearance looked like a guarantee before the season as the schedule set up favorably for eight or more wins. But the offense took a giant step backward, and injuries hurt the unit throughout the season. Iowa's defense kept it in quite a few games but also let down against better offenses like Northwestern and Michigan. The Hawkeyes will look for more cohesion on offense and more playmakers to emerge. The Legends Division seems to be getting only tougher.
12. Illinois (2-10; previously: 12): No team and no coach wants to turn the page on 2012 more than Illinois and Tim Beckman. Almost nothing went right in Beckman's first season, as the offense stalled and the defense struggled against spread offenses. The Illini dropped all eight of their Big Ten contests and lost by fewer than 14 points just once. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit can get the offense on track. The defense, meanwhile, must fill holes up front and in the secondary. At least Illinois gets a fresh start in 2013.
1. The Ineligibles overachieved under great coaches: We won't see Ohio State or Penn State until next fall, but both teams went out on positive notes to end seasons in which they overachieved. Aside from die-hard Buckeyes believers, who expected Ohio State to go 12-0 and record just the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history? Even fewer people expected Penn State to go 8-4 after a tumultuous offseason that featured the exodus of running back Silas Redd and other key players. And when the Lions started 0-2, most folks wrote them off. But Bill O'Brien and his team never lost faith and surged through most of the Big Ten season. It was fitting that kicker Sam Ficken, whose struggles at Virginia led to Penn State's loss, had the game-winning field goal Saturday as the Lions beat Wisconsin in overtime. O'Brien exceeded all expectations in his first season as a head coach, recording the most wins ever by a first-year Lions boss. Will he be Big Ten Coach of the Year? The only other worthy candidate is Urban Meyer, who took a seven-loss Buckeyes team with significant depth issues and transformed it into one of the nation's best.
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireBill O'Brien faced tough questions from prospective recruits, but the Penn State coach and his staff kept a top-25 recruiting class together.
3. Rex Burkhead still can make an impact: This hasn't been the season the Nebraska senior running back envisioned, but he can still play a major role in how it turns out for Big Red. Burkhead returned to the field in the second half Friday against Iowa after Nebraska's offense stumbled and fell behind 7-3. In his first appearance since Oct. 20, Burkhead racked up 69 yards and Nebraska's only touchdown on 16 carries. He might not be 100 percent, but he showed the skills that make him beloved in the Cornhusker State, particularly on a grinding 9-yard run to pick up a first down after Nebraska was pinned inside its own 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Nebraska had hoped to get through the Iowa game without Burkhead, but when the team needed him, he delivered. He likely will play a bigger role this week against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Burkhead had 86 rush yards against the Badgers in the Big Ten opener, the only full game he has played this season. He could be the boost Nebraska needs to win its first league title since 1999 and possibly win the Rose Bowl, too.
4. Danny Hope's players didn't quit on him: Many Purdue fans have seen enough of fourth-year coach Danny Hope, but Hope has plenty of allies in his locker room. The Boilers easily could have quit after dropping their first five Big Ten games -- four blowouts (three at home) plus the heartbreaker at Ohio State. Some teams projected to do much more would have gone in the tank. But Purdue rallied behind Hope and gutsy quarterback Robert Marve, who played despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and won its final three games to secure a bowl berth. The product rarely looked pretty, and even Saturday's Bucket game against Indiana featured some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments. But Purdue's players never stopped fighting and will head somewhere warm for the holidays. Whether Hope joins them remains to be seen, but he deserves some credit for keeping the team afloat during such a difficult stretch.
5. Bowl practices will be crucial for Big Ten teams: We don't know the bowl matchups yet, but they will be daunting for the Big Ten, which will be without two of its best teams (Ohio State and Penn State) in the postseason. For the league to avoid another bad bowl performance, several teams must take significant steps during bowl practices. Michigan State has the defense and the running back (Le'Veon Bell) to win its bowl game, but it needs quarterback Andrew Maxwell and a young receiving corps to develop. Coach Mark Dantonio hinted this week that his offense needed an update to keep up with the times. Maybe that can start next month in earnest. Minnesota has to get healthy and re-establish its offensive identity behind true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who will benefit from the 15 practices. Wisconsin also will have a chance to iron out its offensive issues, while a young Northwestern team that made major strides this fall must make another before facing what should be a heavily favored SEC foe in Florida. Michigan also gets some extra time to figure out its vision on offense with Gardner and Robinson.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State won't have a chance to play for a national title and won't get to prove itself a 13th time this season because of NCAA sanctions.
But in a way, the Buckeyes earned something just as lasting as any crystal football. By finishing off a 12-0 campaign with Saturday's 26-21 win over archrival Michigan, they will remain perfect in memory and ideal in their fans' imagination.
If -- as several Ohio State players like Carlos Hyde and Ryan Shazier did Saturday afternoon -- this team wants to say it deserves the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press poll, how can you convincingly tell the players they're wrong? A Notre Dame loss would leave the Buckeyes as the only undefeated team in the country, and we'll never know for sure how they would stack up against the other national powers.
"You can say what you want, but we're 12-0," senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. "People can talk what they want and say a bunch of what-ifs now, but I know we took care of what we had to do. At the beginning of the year we set out to win every single game, and that's what we did. It wasn't pretty, but it happened."
Ohio State fans sure didn't seem to care much about bowl bans. They poured onto the field in droves when the win was secured and stayed there long after the game had ended, taking photos and singing with the school band.
In between the first and second quarter, former coach Jim Tressel was honored along with other members of the 2002 national championship team. Those former players picked Tressel up and carried him off the field on their shoulders as the crowd roared. Of course, Tressel's deception of his bosses and the NCAA directly led to the sanctions that will keep this year's team home. But the irony of choosing the day when the current team would finish 12-0 to honor Tressel appeared lost on a forgiving fan base.
Time may heal all wounds, but going undefeated helps wipe out even the memory of those pains. Instead, fans can now remember this team as one of six unbeaten squads in school history, yet the first since 1944 to do so without going to a bowl.
"It kind of stinks," said tight end/receiver Jake Stoneburner. "We wish we were playing in a bowl game. But, shoot, I'll take 12-0 any day of the week."
A postseason game would bring the potential of a loss that could tarnish this team's legacy. Instead, it will be revered for turning last year's 6-7 disaster into the best possible building block for the future under first-year coach Urban Meyer.
Meyer said he would make sure the 2012 team would get some sort of permanent recognition around the team's facilities. He joked about erecting 19 bronze statues for each of this year's seniors.
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith his defense much improved, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he feels his team can now compete with the nation's elite.
"I'd say at this point in time, Ohio State could go play with anybody in America," he said.
Meyer wouldn't have put his own team in such company back in mid-October. But the improvement of his defense from a poor-tackling, easily exploitable bunch to a true strength has changed his perception.
In fact, Saturday's game was a perfect encapsulation of the Buckeyes' season. In the first half, they needed some great work by quarterback Braxton Miller to keep them in the game as Michigan rolled up 21 points and several explosive plays, like a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree and Denard Robinson's 67-yard touchdown sprint.
But just like in the season as a whole, the defense took over in the second half. Keying on Robinson as a runner and aided by some bizarre Michigan play calling, the Silver Bullets (yes, they've earned back that nickname) didn't let the Wolverines cross midfield after halftime. They allowed only 39 total yards and no points in the second half and forced three turnovers. Robinson and Devin Gardner were hemmed in as Michigan ran only 21 offensive plays in the second half.
"We just had to limit the big plays," linebacker Shazier said. "We were missing way too many tackles at the beginning of the game. We settled down on that and settled down on the big plays in the second half."
This wouldn't have been the 2012 Buckeyes without some adversity and drama. The defense played without star defensive end John Simon, who experienced swelling in his knee after last week's Wisconsin game. And even with the second-half defensive domination, Ohio State kept frittering away excellent scoring chances and settled for just two field goals to keep Michigan in the thick of it.
In the end, that's the signature of these Buckeyes. They never made things easy, but they never lost.
"We have so much confidence because we've been in so many close games like this," Sabino said. "We know how to come out with the win."
Now all they can do is watch football until the spring. Several players said they planned to watch next week's Big Ten championship game between Wisconsin and Nebraska, two teams they beat earlier this season.
They will do so believing someone else will get a trophy they earned.
"I feel like we're the true Big Ten champions," Shazier said. "We won every game and did exactly what we're supposed to do and finished out strong. We showed it today."
The Buckeyes can do nothing more to prove themselves. But no one can ever definitively tell them they weren't the best team in the country, either. They'd love a shot at the national title. They'll settle for perfection.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Hello from the Horseshoe, where one of the best rivalries in sports is about to kick off with some extra meaning.
Nebraska's win against Iowa took a little bit of drama away from the proceedings, as Michigan now cannot make the Big Ten title game. In another situation, you might wonder how that would affect a team's motivation. But not this one. The records don't really matter in The Game.
But one record does matter to Ohio State: 12-0. The Buckeyes are one win away from perfection, and while they can't go bowling, finishing up the season with a victory against the Wolverines would be better than just about any bowl victory.
We've got some perfect Big Ten late November weather here, with temperatures in the low 30s and a light snow. The snow isn't sticking, so it shouldn't have too much impact on the game, except maybe adding some moisture to challenge ball carriers. I still expect Brady Hoke to come out in short sleeves.
It just doesn't get much better than this rivalry. Some Michigan fans already fired the first shot by writing "Beat Ohio" and a giant "M" in chalk on the south stadium wall this morning.
A key question looming over this game is the health of John Simon. Reports surfaced Friday that Ohio State's star defensive end is injured and might not play. We have confirmed that Simon is a game-time decision with a knee issue. It's hard to imagine the senior not trying to go on senior day if there's any way his body can be held together. But if he's missing or at far less than 100 percent, that's a big loss for a Buckeyes defense going against an explosive Michigan attack led by Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson.
Both teams have had some trouble stopping spread offenses and containing the perimeter on defense this season. Both offenses will look to exploit that weakness. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller has been a little more cautious with his running style since suffering an injury against Purdue, trying to stay healthy for the rest of the season. But there is no more season to worry about after today, and the Michigan game is where Buckeyes players build their legacies, so I'd expect the sophomore star to play with abandon this afternoon.
But will Miller be able to throw effectively against a Michigan team that leads the nation in defending the pass? The Wolverines have not allowed anybody to pass for 200 yards this season.
Speaking of passing games, Michigan's has gotten a lot better since Gardner took over the quarterback job. But receivers Jeremy Gallon and Roy Roundtree will face a good challenge today, going up against certain first-team All-Big Ten selection Bradley Roby and teammate Travis Howard. The Buckeyes' cornerbacks have been ball-hawks, and should give Gardner more of a test than Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa did.
There are great matchups all over the field, as you'd expect, and another great one on the sidelines between Hoke and Urban Meyer. Can't wait to get this one started.
- The basics: The sophomore running back didn’t hide his frustration with not getting the football more often last week, but the Buckeyes won’t hold it against him. Urban Meyer admitted almost as soon as the victory over Wisconsin was over that Hyde needed more touches to spark the rushing attack, particularly because he only gets more difficult to bring down the deeper a game gets with his unique combination of size and undervalued speed.
- By the numbers: With the benefit of a conference championship game and a bowl appearance, Hyde would be in line to go over 1,000 yards pretty easily -- even after missing two full outings and part of another. He’s still got a shot at hitting that milestone, but he’ll need a steady diet of carries to get the 176 yards necessary to cross that barrier.
To continue reading this article you must be an Insider
No. 14 Nebraska (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) at Iowa (4-7, 2-5), Noon, ABC: In the second installment of the Heroes Game, Iowa will need a heroic effort to pull off the upset, even at home. The Hawkeyes have lost five straight, while Nebraska comes in riding a five-game winning streak and just needing to take care of business here to win the Legends Division. It's hard to imagine the Huskers slipping up now, but as we saw this past weekend, sometimes crazy stuff happens.
No. 19 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) at Ohio State (11-0, 7-0), Noon, ABC: Perhaps you've heard that these two schools have a little bit of a rivalry going on. The Game is always a big deal, and this year's edition looks like the biggest one since 2006. The Buckeyes are looking to finish off a perfect season, while the Wolverines would not only love to ruin that but need it to stay alive for a division title and for an outside shot at a BCS at-large bid. The Devin Gardner/Denard Robinson combo gives Michigan some crazy explosiveness, while Braxton Miller will try to rebound from his first subpar game of the season at Wisconsin. And it's Urban Meyer's first entry into this rivalry as head coach. Is it Saturday yet?
Wisconsin (7-4, 4-3) at Penn State (7-4, 5-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN2: This game is meaningless in the big picture, but it won't feel that way for the Nittany Lions' seniors who have created a unique legacy. The Badgers no longer have a division title to play for and are going to Indianapolis regardless. Still, Wisconsin can help its bowl placement with a win and doesn't want to go into the Big Ten title game on a two-game losing streak. Montee Ball needs one more touchdown to break a tie with Travis Prentice for the NCAA career record.
Michigan State (5-6, 2-5) at Minnesota (6-5, 2-5), 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network: It's still a little hard to believe that the Spartans have to win their finale just to go bowling, but that's the predicament they put themselves in. At least they're on the road and not at home, where they went winless in Big Ten play. Will any Michigan State fan even want to travel to watch this team play another game? Minnesota could make that a moot point by winning on senior day and getting to seven wins, which would be a great achievement in Jerry Kill's second year. The Gophers' home finale could be overshadowed by the A.J. Barker controversy this week, however.
Indiana (4-7, 2-5) at Purdue (5-6, 2-5), Noon, BTN: The Old Oaken Bucket game takes on real meaning as Purdue needs to win to reach its second straight bowl. Indiana saw its bowl hopes end last week, but the Hoosiers will be fired up for this rivalry and would love to keep the Boilermakers home. Danny Hope could be coaching for his job. Purdue has won eight of the last 10 meetings between these two, but Indiana came out on top the last time they met in West Lafayette in 2010.
Illinois (2-9, 0-7) at Northwestern (8-3, 4-3), Noon, BTN: Northwestern can wrap up a pretty impressive nine-win season and extend the misery of its top rival. The health of Kain Colter and Venric Mark will be the main angle to watch this week. Illinois coach Tim Beckman hasn't done much if anything to endear himself to Illini fans this season, but a win here could be a small step in that direction. His team is really thin, though, after enduring several more injuries last week. What are the chances Daniel Day-Lewis can show up in character to present the Land of Lincoln Trophy?