Michigan State has already lost to Arizona State. Nebraska dropped to Colorado. Northwestern is 1-2, and Penn State barely eked out a win against Pittsburgh.
When then-No. 11 Michigan kicked off against then-No. 13 Wisconsin this past Saturday, the matchup’s implications would decide who was the most worthy adversary to challenge Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy.
The Badgers didn’t make us wait long for the answer, scoring 35 unanswered points –– 28 in the first half –– before Michigan got on the board.
Boasting the nation’s best running back, No. 1 rushing, scoring and total defense and the No. 3 total offense in the Big Ten, Wisconsin is the biggest threat on Ohio State’s schedule, and Oct. 26 may not be the only meeting between the two.
“They’re off to a great start, and the quarterback looks like he’s in a rhythm,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “Running back is running hard. Offensive line is always doing a great job, and the defense is swarming to the ball.”
With an NCAA-most five of the top 50 career rushers in college football history, Wisconsin has historically been designed to run the ball and stop the run. This year is no different.
Wisconsin junior running back Jonathan Taylor led the country with 2,194 rushing yards in 2018, and coming off a 203-yard performance against Michigan this past week, Taylor’s well on his way to another dominant season that will keep him in the Heisman Trophy discussion.
His 10 touchdowns are the most of any nonquarterback in the nation, and most of the country has played one more game than Wisconsin thus far.
The Badgers are giving up a college football best 27 rushing yards per game, but Ohio State isn’t far behind, allowing just 60.3 per game through four games.
In fact, the Buckeyes’ current construction is much closer to Wisconsin’s than this past season’s prolific Dwayne Haskins-led pass attack.
Ohio State and Wisconsin are No. 14 and No. 13, respectively, nationally, with just more than 260 rushing yards per game and both top seven in rush defense. The Buckeyes are chewing up 83 more yards per game on the ground and giving up 100 less on defense than they did a season ago.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields appears to be the more dynamic passer in comparison with Wisconsin junior quarterback Jack Coan, with eight more touchdown tosses on the year, but the Badgers throw only 20 fewer yards per game, and account for 18 fewer yards of total offense.
With Wisconsin propelled to No. 8 in the Associated Press Poll after dismantling the Wolverines, if neither Ohio State nor Wisconsin loses before their October clash, it will mark three straight top 10 meetings between the two dating back to 2016. Before that, only twice in the centurylong rivalry had the teams met with each holding a top 10 ranking.
Ohio State has won each matchup since 2011, including a memorable 59-0 Cardale Jones-helmed beatdown in the 2014 Big Ten Championship, but the past two games between the pair have been decided by one score.
Taylor should remember it well –– it was the worst performance of his collegiate tenure. After rushing for nearly 2,000 yards as a true freshman, his 41 yards against the Buckeyes are the least he’s ever rushed for, and his 2.7 yards per carry in the game are still a career low.
The 174 yards Ohio State junior running back J.K. Dobbins ran for on Wisconsin are still the most it’s given up to any single rusher since.
Both teams will have to go through Michigan State at home before they meet. However, even if Wisconsin drops to Ohio State on the road, it will likely have to get through only No. 14 Iowa, a team it has beaten in three straight years, in order to coast to a potential rematch with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship.
Ohio State’s path to Indianapolis is not set in stone, however.
The Buckeyes will need to avoid the trap game pitfall that has allowed Purdue and Iowa to best them in recent years, but they also face ranked opponents in the final two weeks of the regular season in Penn State and Michigan, whereas Wisconsin faces unranked Purdue and Minnesota.
Whether or not they meet in the postseason, the two have been the most dominant teams in the conference, turning in a spotless seven collective games that have seen them combine to outscore opponents 359-50.
While neither team may admit it, Week 9 is circled on the calendar as a matchup that will serve as the Big Ten Championship before the Big Ten Championship.