No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan State are two trains charging toward each other for a head-on Nov. 21 collision.
Amid years of criticism about the overall strength of the Big Ten, the Buckeyes and Spartans are trying to buck that trend with strong play on both sides of the ball.
“Just seeing our conference build and improve upon what we did last year, it’s great to see for the conference,” OSU sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan said.
While the engines of the two teams are what got them to the top of the rankings, as much as anything it’s the obstacles standing in their ways that have a No.1 vs. No. 2 matchup seem like fate.
The only other currently ranked school on each team’s schedule is No. 22 Michigan. Northwestern (No. 16) and Wisconsin (No. 19) are the other two Big Ten teams in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, but the only way OSU or MSU would meet one of them would be in the Big Ten Championship Game — likely to be represented by the winner of the OSU-MSU game.
The Buckeyes entered the season seeming like they might very well coast their way back to the College Football Playoff. In the preseason AP poll, OSU received all 61 first-place votes — the first team ever to achieve the feat.
Fast-forward to the poll heading into Week 5, and the Scarlet and Gray have lost 16 of those votes — with five shifting to the team directly under them, MSU.
The Spartans have trended up since opening the season at No. 5. After an unconvincing 37-24 victory at Western Michigan — which OSU beat 38-12 in Week 4 — MSU turned heads nationally by topping then-No. 7 Oregon 31-28.
Double-digit victories over Air Force and Central Michigan followed, led by redshirt senior Connor Cook, who is considered by many to be the top quarterback entering the 2016 NFL draft.
OSU, on the other hand, has faced a downward spiral in perception, especially on offense. After scoring 42 points at Virginia Tech in the opener, it put up a misleading 38 against Hawaii — which included no passing touchdowns — and just 20 against Northern Illinois. The 38-point performance against Western Michigan alleviated many of the players’ concerns for the time being, players such as senior linebacker Joshua Perry said he knows the current trend won’t cut it in Big Ten play.
“The way that we’re playing right now, I don’t know if we can (win the Big Ten). All phases — offense, defense, special teams — we have to know that we’re going to have some big challenges in the Big Ten,” Perry said after the Northern Illinois game on Sept. 19. “But with the guys that we have, the way that we train and coaches prepare us, I think we can get there.”
While disappointed in its early showings, that mindset has been the rallying cry for the Buckeyes this season. The team is setting its sights on following the same path it did last season: starting slowly before finding its rhythm as Big Ten play heats up — just in time for the matchup with the Spartans.
“We definitely take more emphasis into the Big Ten schedule, because now we’re playing for a championship,” McMillan said. “I think we have the top two teams in the nation in the Big Ten now, so we’re going to see what happens.”
Perry agreed that the team is fortunate to still be in its No. 1 position — perhaps aided by not having a nonconference opponent like Oregon on its schedule — and will have to be better if it wants to avoid being passed by the Spartans.
“We take everything we do around here seriously, but we’re just trying to get in all the guys’ heads that this is Big Ten season, this is where we have to achieve all of our goals for this year,” Perry said. “We have to play really well, we know we’re going to face some really good matchups.”
In 2014, the game against MSU was a pivotal matchup for the Buckeyes, as OSU traveled to East Lansing, Michigan, as the No. 14 team to take on the eighth-ranked Spartans.
Then-redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was responsible for 386 yards and five touchdowns, and then-sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott added two more scores for the Buckeyes as they left East Lansing with a 49-37 shootout victory.
That win vaulted the Buckeyes to the No. 8 spot previously held by the Spartans, and they won their final three regular-season games to earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and then the playoff.
The upcoming OSU vs. MSU game has drawn comparisons to the 2006 “Game of the Century,” in which No. 1 OSU topped No. 2 Michigan 42-39 to secure a spot in the championship game.
The game this year could have similar ramifications, as it could single-handedly decide which school earns a spot in the playoff — if both don’t — as only one of them can represent the East division in the Big Ten Championship Game.
That kind of intense pressure isn’t something OSU is worried about, redshirt junior safety Tyvis Powell said — it is what the team lives for.
“Absolutely I’m excited,” Powell said. “Isn’t that why we came to Ohio State?”