The Rivals, Part IX: Endings

Is the Big Ten East the best division in college football? Its four best teams include two unbeatens (Ohio State, Michigan State) and two teams (Penn State, Michigan) with two losses each. Penn State’s two losses are to Temple (7-0) and Ohio State (7-0). Michigan’s two losses are to Utah (6-0) and Michigan State (7-0). That’s right: None of the division’s top four teams have lost to anything other than an undefeated team. No other division comes close to matching that feat.

Michigan’s streak of shut outs came to end last week in the most unimaginable way. The bizarre botched punt and ensuing touchdown return defies description. But its impact goes beyond the collective jaw-drop of a sports fan nation. The Big Ten East race has been significantly altered by that single, mind-boggling play. While I won’t pretend that there weren’t other ways Michigan State could’ve won that game, they were all just as unlikely to happen as the thing that did. So take away that or some other equally absurd ending, and we’d be looking at this:

1t. Ohio State (3-0)
1t. Michigan (3-0)
3t. Michigan State (2-1)
3t. Penn State (2-1)

At this point, Penn State seems to be at least a step behind the other three, although it’s never safe to count anyone out. But let’s assume that both Michigan and Michigan State beat the Lions and win their games against all other non-OSU Big Ten teams. That leaves us with two potential end-game scenarios: Ohio State beats Michigan State and heads into a battle with Michigan for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and probably the playoff, or Ohio State loses to Michigan State and can not make the conference title game. Beating Michigan would only put us into a tie with Sparty, who already owns the tie-breaker. And not making the conference championship game most likely means not making the playoff.

But that didn’t happen. Michigan isn’t out of the running yet, but it’s likely going to take Michigan State losing twice and Michigan running the table for the Wolverines to get to Indianapolis. With virtually no reasonable road blocks ahead of them except for each other, the top four Big Ten East teams are headed for a heck of an ending.

Since it has been the dominant topic of this space for most of the season thus far, I have to address the change at the quarterback position for Ohio State. When the Buckeyes take the field tonight, J.T. Barrett will be the starter for the first time since last November. His performance on third down and in the red zone in recent weeks (and particularly against Penn State) has earned him the spot. Ultimately, the inability of Ohio State to develop a deep-passing game was Cardale Jones’ downfall. It’s bizarre that a quarterback who’s 10-0 as a starter, was MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game and won a national title is going to be the backup, but it was just as bizarre that a quarterback who owns most of the school’s passing records and finished in the top 5 in Heisman voting the previous year was a backup. We always knew it was a strange situation we were in, and I hope that fans don’t forget how much Jones has contributed to this team.

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