The no. 6 Ohio State Buckeyes will go for back-to-back conference titles when they face the no. 21 Northwestern Wildcats in the Big Ten Championship Game. Game time is set for 8:00 EST on Saturday, December 1, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The game will be broadcast nationally on Fox.
Oddsmakers are listing the Buckeyes as 14-point favorites with an over/under of 60.5 points. Click here to check out a full list of this week’s college football betting odds.
The Buckeyes enter Saturday’s game with their national title hopes still intact. Ohio State has had some rocky moments this year, particularly their lopsided loss to Purdue. But the Buckeyes made a statement with last week’s win over Michigan, putting up 62 points against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, they may not control their own fate as far as the College Football Playoff is concerned. Obviously, they will have to beat Northwestern and do so convincingly. But Ohio State may need both Georgia and Oklahoma to lose their conference title games in order to reach the top-4. Of course, based on the way they played a week ago, the Buckeyes have a strong case for making the top-4 no matter what happens elsewhere.
As for Northwestern, the Wildcats have accomplished some impressive feats under Pat Fitzgerald, but they’ve never played in the Big Ten title game. Just getting to this game is a big deal for Northwestern. The Wildcats haven’t won a Big Ten title since a three-way tie atop the standing in 2000 and they haven’t won an outright conference title since that magical 1995 season when they went a perfect 8-0 in conference play.
This year’s Northwestern team took a somewhat circuitous route to the Big Ten title game. The Wildcats started the season 1-3, including an embarrassing loss to Akron. However, Northwestern has won seven of their last eight games, losing only to Notre Dame during that stretch. The Wildcats finished the season 8-1 in conference play, even winning the two games they played after clinching the West division title.
With these two teams being in different divisions, they’ve only met twice in the last decade. Both games were wins for Ohio State. For what it’s worth, the Wildcats pushed the Buckeyes to the brink the last time they played in 2016, only losing 24-20 in Columbus.
Like a lot of people, I can’t help but be impressed by what Northwestern has accomplished the second half of the season. But if the Buckeyes play their best game, there’s no way the Wildcats can match them. After the way they demolished Michigan last week, I can’t bet against Ohio State, and after that game, 14 points doesn’t seem like that much. I’ll take the Buckeyes to cover.
To be fair, Northwestern has a solid defense. It’s not an elite defense, but the Wildcats are giving up less than 22 points per game this season. In fact, Northwestern has allowed 20 points or less in seven of their nine Big Ten games. But they’ve also struggled against teams with good quarterbacks. Most recently, they allowed over 300 yards passing against Notre Dame’s Ian Book. The Irish were one of the few teams to score over 20 points against the Wildcats, and that’s a concern heading into their matchup with Ohio State.
For once, the Buckeyes have a quarterback with serious arm talent. Dwayne Haskins has already surpassed 4,000 yards passing on the season. He was also lights out last week against Michigan, throwing for nearly 400 yards and six touchdowns on a mere 31 attempts. I have serious doubts about Northwestern being able to contain the Buckeyes if Haskins plays at that kind of level, especially given the speed and talent of Ohio State’s playmakers.
Of course, if there’s a concern for Ohio State, it could be on defense. The Buckeyes have conceded over 30 points in four of their last five games. They don’t appear to be getting better or coming together on that side of the ball late in the year. They were exposed through the air against Purdue and Nebraska and then gashed on the ground against Maryland, so there are definitely weaknesses that Northwestern may be able to exploit.
That being said, I just don’t think the Wildcats have the explosiveness to truly expose Ohio State’s flaws on defense. Northwestern only recently found consistency with their rushing attack behind freshman Isaiah Bowser. I also see quarterback Clayton Thorson as more of a game manager whose experience allows him to come up big in the clutch. He’s not the kind of quarterback who can put a team on his back for four quarters. Thorson also isn’t going to push the ball down the field too often and truly challenge the Ohio State secondary.
In the end, Northwestern will have to keep this game in the 10s or 20s to have a chance, and I’m not sure if that’s realistic. If the Ohio State offense plays anywhere near the level they did against Michigan, the Buckeyes should have no problem scoring 40-plus points. Even with the Ohio State defense having some issues, the Wildcats aren’t keeping pace in that kind of shootout. That makes me comfortable enough with the Buckeyes to swallow the points and lean toward them to cover.