Dienhart: Finally, a big B1G title game

This is what the Big Ten needs: A league championship game with some true national big-game appeal that could launch the conference on an upward trajectory.

The event is in just its third year, so it’s not like there has been some long run of irrelevant games. But the much-anticipated event hasn’t gotten off to the most scintillating start for a league that’s looking to gain a foothold with the national elite after some challenging years.

In the first two Big Ten championship games, nothing beyond a bid to the Rose Bowl was on the line. Yes, that’s a big deal. But there was no national buzz or high stakes to make America take notice.

Listen to Coach Urban Meyer and Coach Mark Dantonio: 

Remember the inaugural event that pitted Michigan State vs. Wisconsin in 2011? There was an ad placed supposedly by the Big Ten looking for “seat fillers” to juice up the crowd at Lucas Oil Stadium. It turned out to be hoax.

Still, seats could be had at very reasonable prices right up until kickoff. Those who did attend saw a very entertaining game won 42-39 by Wisconsin in front of 64,152 fans. In fact, it was an instant classic in the eyes of some.

The game hung in the balance until the waning moments, as the Badgers clung to a 42-39 lead. The Spartans were about to get the ball back for one last chance. That’s when Michigan State safety Isaiah Lewis—an Indianapolis native–was penalized for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman with less than two minutes remaining in the game. That wiped out a long punt return by Keshawn Martin that would have set up Michigan State inside Wisconsin’s 5-yard line with a chance to win.

[ MORE: Michigan State vs. Ohio State: This is what good football looks like ]

Last year’s game was an absolute bomb. There was no denying the credentials of Legends Division champion Nebraska. But a five-loss Wisconsin team represented the Leaders Division—even though it finished third behind NCAA probation-strapped Ohio State and Penn State. Then, the Badgers proceeded to steamroll the Cornhuskers, 70-31, behind 539 yards rushing before an intimate gathering of 41,260.

But this Saturday night in glistening Lucas Oil Stadium, the nation will be peering in. ESPN GameDay will set up shop. And tickets will be at a premium.

There is a tangible buzz for the clash between BCS No. 2 Ohio State and BCS No. 10 Michigan State. Why? Because there may be a spot in the BCS championship game on the line.

Listen to the Ohio State’s Jack Mewhort, Ryan Shazier and Michael Bennett: 

Listen to the Michigan State’s Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and Connor Cook: 

If the Buckeyes beat the Spartans, they should remain at No. 2 in the BCS and hold off No. 3 Auburn—even if the Tigers beat Missouri in the SEC championship game. BCS No. 1 Florida State plays Duke in the ACC title game. The Seminoles should cruise, which means we could have a Florida State vs. Ohio State BCS title game on Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif. Does it get much better than that?

[ MORE: Power Rankings | Bowl Projections | Biggest B1G game since 2006? ]

It would be 13-0 vs. 13-0, Jimbo Fisher vs. Urban Meyer. And, best of all, the game would feature arguably the top two players in college football, in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. That’s assuming nothing materializes between now and then concerning Winston’s off-field issue.

The Big Ten hasn’t had a team in the BCS title game since Ohio State made consecutive trips after the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The Buckeyes lost each time, falling to Urban Meyer-coach Florida and then to LSU. Ohio State was the last Big Ten squad to win a national crown, shocking Miami (Fla.) in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2002 season.

If Michigan State wins, it would punch its ticket to its first Rose Bowl since the 1987 season. Even if they lose, the Spartans still may be headed for the Rose Bowl. (Ohio State likely would land a spot in a BCS bowl with a loss.) So, the winner and loser of this game look headed to a sweet postseason destination, adding to the importance of this game.

No doubt, Ohio State’s presence on the Big Ten’s biggest stage adds appeal to the third edition of the league title game. No offense to Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska, who combined for the appearances in the first two events, but Ohio State has been the Big Ten’s bellwether program for about 15 years. The Buckeyes and their rabid fan base and volumes of history and tradition make this is a big-time event. Fan will stream west on I-70 from Columbus to Indianapolis, making the three-hour drive to worship their Buckeyes.

“I feel very strongly about my team,” said Meyer, in his second season at OSU. “I would take this team anywhere with me. A team that knows how to win and refuses to lose is a special team and this is a very special team.”

[ MORE: Urban Meyer won't suspend ejected Buckeyes | Marcus Hall tweets apology ]

Michigan State isn’t the national brand that Ohio State is, but the Spartans have been one of the top programs in the nation the past four seasons, thanks largely to a disciplined style and foundation built on defense. Aside for a difficult 2012 that saw MSU lose myriad close games in a 7-6 season, the Spartans won 11 games in 2010, 2011 and 2013. That’s a 33-6 overall record in those seasons with a 22-2 Big Ten mark. But the stakes are what make the 2013 Big Ten championship game glow.

Ohio State is 12-0, in the midst of a school-record and national-best 24-game winning streak under Meyer, who incidentally won a national title in his second season at Florida (in the aforementioned 2006 BCS game vs. Ohio State).

Michigan State is 11-1, its lone loss being a 17-13 setback at Notre Dame. Since then, the Spartans have ripped off eight victories in a row.

Imagine if this had been a clash between 12-0 teams? As it is, 12-0 vs. 11-1 is still very appealing. And we can’t wait to watch the chess match between the monster Ohio State offense and the killer Michigan State defense, the ultimate story within the story. It will be fun to watch Buckeye offensive coordinator Tom Herman and Spartan defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi match wits and Xs and Os.

[ MORE: Ohio State deserving of No. 2 BCS ranking ]

“It’s as good a defense as there is in America,” Meyer said. “Great players, great scheme. Obviously, statistically, I think they are No. 1 in America. The film I’ve watched, it’s as good of a defense as I’ve seen.”

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio is equally as awed by Ohio State.

“Great offense, tremendous offense, (they’ve) got a big running back (Carlos Hyde), great skill players, quarterback is a game-breaker, he can throw it, he can run it, the thing he can do is create,” Dantonio said. “He can take a bad play and make it a good one. Those are the things that make it so difficult to defend him. He’s going to be able to create numerous times in a football game.

“I think the key to our success will be being able to contain the quarterback in those type of situations. We have to be fundamentally sound, but we have to control him in those broken situations.”

Check out the numbers of the Buckeye offense and Spartan defense. It’s the ultimate irresistible force vs. the immovable object clash. Ohio State has the Big Ten’s No. 1 scoring offense (48.2 ppg); Michigan State has the No. 1 scoring defense (11.8 ppg). OSU is No. 1 in total offense (530.5 ypg); MSU is No. 1 in total defense (237.7 ypg). OSU is No. 1 in rushing offense (321.2 ypg); MSU is No. 1 in rushing defense (64.8 ypg). OSU is No. 1 in passing efficiency defense; MSU is No. 1 passing efficiency defense.

“Two top-10 teams are going to be playing against each other,” Meyer said, “with a lot at stake, everything at stake.”

That’s what makes this 2013 Big Ten title game so big—and the most anticipated yet.

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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