The marquee game of the Big Ten these days is between Ohio State and… Michigan State of all teams. The number 8 Spartans will try to win consecutive games against the Buckeyes for the first time in 15 years while improving their chances of moving up the rankings as the final committee decision regarding the playoff looms.
For the first time in quite a long while, Michigan State are actually favorites in their annual clash with the Buckeyes. It comes due to their win in the Big Ten championship game last season, leading up to the Spartans winning the Rose Bowl as well. The Buckeyes went on to lose to Clemson and lost Braxton Miller, giving J.T. Barrett a chance to show some Freshman magic, which has been working out well so far, but not perfect due to the home loss against Virginia Tech.
That loss didn’t derail Ohio State’s season, going on to win six games in a row. Sure, the Big Ten isn’t getting a lot of respect these days from outside or even inside the conference, but if they do win out, which probably also means playing Nebraska in the conference title game as long as they get past the Spartans unscathed, they have a very good shot of making the first ever college football playoff. A lot of ifs, but that loss to the Hokies wasn’t as damaging as initially thought.
Part of it has been Barrett, who is a much more efficient passer than Miller, at least according to the numbers. He might not be as exciting on the ground, but he’s a more accurate passer and gets more yards per throw than Miller, who’ll be back next season (probably) as a redshirt senior, which means back to the bench for Barrett (???). There’s also Ohio State focusing on running the ball to compensate. They’re averaging 295.3 rushing yards per game in their six consecutive wins, with Ezekiel Elliott running for 759 yards so far.
Michigan State are excellent at stopping the run, although that didn’t work out too well for them when they lost to Oregon, their one loss this season (also out of conference). They’re sixth in the nation against the run and fourth in overall defense. But the Spartans aren’t just about defense: They have a top 10 offense, fifth-most points and ninth most in yards per game. Connor Cook isn’t making mistakes (only five interceptions) and they’ve been running the ball very well with a ground game led by Jeremy Langford, rushing for 841 yards so far.
In East Lansing, Michigan State haven’t beaten the Buckeyes since 1999. Ohio State enjoyed a seven year win streak against Michigan State, but have lost two of their last three, averaging only 16 points per game in those games. It’s a game for probably the conference title, but also for Big Ten pride and possibly a spot in the playoff. One of those games that’s too important for each team to lose, because it means more than just how this season ends up.