Big Ten West mess puts pressure on Michigan, Ohio State to win big in November

Big Ten East powers Michigan and Ohio State enjoyed an open date Saturday before the November leg of the conference schedule. 

The Wolverines (7-1, 5-0) and Buckeyes (7-1, 4-1) both must win out to get the conference into the College Football Playoff, and they better look good doing it in the leadup to their matchup at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 24 to ensure that happens.  

Why is that? Because neither team will get much help by winning the conference championship game. Saturday’s results re-emphasized what a mess the Big Ten West is:  

— Northwestern (5-3, 5-1) leads the division after an impressive 31-17 victory over Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2). The Wildcats also have nonconference losses to Duke and Akron. The Badgers, who opened at No. 4 in the AP Preseason Poll, are out.  

— Iowa (6-2, 3-2) missed an opportunity to take charge of the division race by losing a 30-24 thriller at Penn State (6-2, 3-2). The Hawkeyes are relegated to being spoilers, even if they win the division.  

— Purdue (4-4, 3-2) lost to Michigan State (5-3, 3-2) in a 23-13 slopfest at Spartan Stadium. The Boilermakers failed to capitalize on the momentum from their victory last week over Ohio State. 

MORE: Takeaways from Penn State’s victory over Iowa

That mess in the West likely means the winner of the East — more than likely the Wolverines or Buckeyes — will not play a ranked team in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 2. The conference’s imbalance is not a new development, but the scope of that imbalance has been greater than expected.   

Does that matter? It might.

Michigan, which has turned a corner under fourth-year coach Jim Harbaugh, would seem to be a lock to make the Playoff if it wins out, considering its November matchups vs. Penn State and Ohio State. The Wolverines have the nation’s top-ranked defense and their only loss is to undefeated Notre Dame. They will likely open at No. 5 in the first set of CFP rankings Tuesday.  

Where are the potential issues?

There was momentum for the argument that if the Irish were to lose, then the Wolverines could jump them in the final rankings based on the schedule and the Big Ten championship game. That is no longer assured given how rough the Big Ten West looks. Plus, Notre Dame plays Northwestern next week, which means it could have victories over the Big Ten’s East and West champions if Michigan-Northwestern is the matchup in the conference title game.

At that point, Michigan would be pitted against a one-loss Big 12 champion for the final spot. The Wolverines would probably make it in that scenario, but perception always matters. The decision could be closer than it would seem.

BENDER: Harbaugh has Michigan ready to face bigger challenges

Ohio State faces a different challenge — a perception battle similar to the one it lost last season. The Buckeyes’ 49-20 defeat at Purdue on Oct. 20 is a scarlet letter — one they’ll wear even if they run the table after their bye. 

Ohio State still has to play Michigan State and Michigan, but it will encounter a similar problem if it reaches the Big Ten championship. Last year, the Buckeyes beat No. 3 Wisconsin for the title but still didn’t get in. This year, that one-loss Big 12 champion, especially if it’s Oklahoma, could easily finish ahead of Ohio State unless the Buckeyes look like a completely different team down the stretch. Such a turnaround is possible under Urban Meyer, but it would have to start with OSU putting up a big number on Nebraska on Nov. 3.  

That means the defense has to be better on the back end and quarterback Dwayne Haskins had better produce points with the offense. The score now matters. In other words, run it up, Urban.  

The messy West isn’t a deal-breaker for Ohio State and Michigan, though. There’s still The Game. The stakes at this point will be the same as the teams’ double-overtime thriller in 2016, and the winner will be favored to win in Indianapolis. The East champion has won the conference championship game every year in the College Football Playoff era.

The problem is the conference champion hasn’t made the playoff the last two seasons. The West won’t help make that possible this year, so it’s on Ohio State and Michigan to make it happen.  

Like so many other seasons in the conference’s history, it’s the Big Two and everybody else 

At this point, those two can only help themselves.

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