Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Heading into the 2012 season, Ohio State’s ban from the Big Ten Football Championship Game didn’t seem so bad. Coming off its first losing season since 1988, turning around to win the conference title in one season seemed like a very tough task in a conference with four other teams ranked ahead of the Buckeyes.
However, three of those four teams have already lost one game just two weeks into the college football season. Now, the Big Ten looks very winnable for the Buckeyes - except for the fact that they are still ineligible to win.
The Big Ten’s top-ranked team in the preseason, Michigan, which was ranked No. 8 in the preseason Associated Press top 25 poll, has gotten off to a very rough start. Michigan was blown out by a score of 41-14 in its season-opening game against Alabama, and struggled to a 31-25 victory over Air Force last Saturday.
While Michigan at least won its game last week, two other Big Ten favorites were not so lucky, losing road games to Pac-12 Conference opponents. Wisconsin suffered a 10-7 defeat in a close game at Oregon State, while Nebraska lost 36-30 at UCLA.
The Big Ten’s stature among major conferences has taken several hits over the first two weeks, but the Buckeyes are off to a 2-0 start, and have risen to No. 12 in the AP top 25. Only one Big Ten team, No. 10-ranked Michigan State, still stands ahead of OSU in that poll.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska all still have teams strong enough to regroup and win the Big Ten, but behind Michigan State, the conference already looks wide open. Now, what could have been a blessing in disguise for the Buckeyes in gearing up for a more realistic championship run in 2013 instead seems like a missed opportunity.
This is especially true because of how weak the Leaders Division looks.
There are only four teams in the Leaders Division eligible to play in the conference championship game, as Penn State, which does not look like it would have factored in anyway after a 0-2 start, is also ineligible, while in its first season of a four-year postseason ban. That leaves Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana as the only four teams that could represent the Leaders Division in the conference’s championship game on Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.
Wisconsin came into the season as the overwhelming favorite, but its loss follows a struggle to a 26-21 win in its season-opener against Northern Iowa. Among the other three teams, only Indiana stands at 2-0 thus far, and although it has already won one more game than it did in all of 2011, both wins have come against teams that did not play in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season.
Unless Wisconsin has a drastic turnaround from its first two games of the season, the Leaders Division has set up perfectly for OSU to finish first. The Buckeyes can still earn a trophy and the distinction of being Leaders Division champions, but that hardly matters in the big picture of the situation, because when December rolls around, they still will not be representing the division in the conference title game.
Buckeyes coaches and players are unlikely to admit it, but it has to sting to see a window of opportunity opening wide for them to play for their conference’s biggest title, but be barred from capitalizing upon that opportunity. Instead, it appears increasingly likely that the winner of the Leaders Division will be in for a defeat at the hands of Michigan State, or whichever team finishes atop the Big Ten’s Legends Division, when the championship game comes around.