By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) Ohio State and Michigan State are the two dominant teams in the Big Ten and they deserve to be playing for the Big Ten championship.
There’s plenty to get excited about when you look at Ohio State’s explosive offense led by quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde going up against Michigan State’s fortress-like defense led by linebackers Denicos Allen and Max Bullough.
A great case can be made that this is the best Big Ten championship game in the short history of the event, but there’s one problem looming.
Ohio State is in the catbird’s seat as the No. 2 team in the nation. If the favored Buckeyes (-5.5) win this game, they get to square off with Florida State and play for the national championship. That would obviously add a ton of luster to the Big Ten, a conference that has gotten its nose rubbed in quite a bit of mud in recent bowl seasons.
With all the love and glory that goes to SEC schools, Jim Delany and anyone associated with the Big Ten would start venerating with rapturous joy at the thought of a Big Ten team bringing home the glass football that is the sport’s national championship trophy.
With that thought in mind, you have to wonder how officials are going to call this game. Michigan State’s physical defense has punished nearly every opponent it has played this year. They have beaten every opponent they have played by 11 points or more this season.
Everyone except Notre Dame. The Spartans dropped a September game to the Irish at South Bend in which the hosts were the beneficiaries of a number of favorable pass interference and other defensive fouls that were called on the Spartans.
Michigan State outplayed Notre Dame, but it lost a 17-13 decision. Great teams almost always find a way to win when the breaks – like inconsistent officiating – go against them. But in this case, the penalty calls were so systematic and back-breaking that it became impossible for a team with a mediocre offense to overcome.
It was a painful loss, but head coach Mark Dantonio did a stellar job of keeping his team focused after that. They buried every Big Ten opponent they faced and it seemed the Spartans were able to play their physical game without any interference from the officials against conference opponents.
Will the Spartans be allowed to play the same kind of game against Ohio State, or will officials keep a tight rein on this one? Insiders have whispered that Urban Meyer has been on the phone for a couple of weeks to help make sure the Big Ten officials “keep it fair.”
Just picture Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik paying off Lou Loomis prior to the big match with Judge Elihu Smails in “Caddyshack.”
You want to believe that the game will be decided by the players and that the officials will not have an agenda.
While the Ohio State offense vs. the Michigan State defense is the headline battle, the other half of the equation may be decisive.
At the start of the season, Michigan State did not get a lot of respect because the offensive looked ordinary. The Spartans have improved quite a bit and while they may not be explosive, they are opportunistic.
Quarterback Connor Cook has completed 58.2 percent of his passes and he has a 17-4 TD-interception ratio. The Spartans are also dependent on running back Jeremy Langford, who has rushed for 1,210 yards and 16 touchdowns.
On the other hand, the Buckeyes are coming off a game in which they gave up 41 points to a Michigan team that the Spartans battered. The Wolverines were held to minus-48 yards rushing by the Spartans and 168 total yards.
Michigan had 603 totals yards against Ohio State, and that’s got to encourage the Spartans as they get set to take on the undefeated Buckeyes.
Ohio State is the glamour team that has a chance to punch its ticket to the national championship. Michigan State just may be the better team that has a chance to punch the Buckeyes right in the mouth.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.