Big Ten title runs through Michigan State and Ohio State - for now

·4 min read

The crowded club of College Football Playoff contenders atop the Big Ten will keep the conference at the center of the conversation until the end of the regular season.

After a revealing Saturday, clarity is starting to come to the Big Ten, and with it the race for the national semifinals.

The early slate of games included No. 7 Michigan State's thrilling 37-33 win against No. 6 Michigan and No. 10 Iowa getting blasted by Wisconsin, which held the Hawkeyes to just 156 yards of offense in the 27-7 win.

In prime time, No. 5 Ohio State survived a stiff challenge from No. 17 Penn State, winning 33-24 behind 152 yards from freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson to hand the Nittany Lions a third straight loss.

That lopsided loss knocks Iowa out of the playoff race and even sends the Hawkeyes out of the driver's seat in the Big Ten West. Iowa's razor-thin margin for error, evident even when winning six straight to open the year, has been erased by consistently putrid play on offense. First place in the division now belongs to Minnesota, which has won three in a row since losing to Bowling Green.

A heavy favorite against the slumping Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes remained fairly productive on a per-play basis — gaining 470 yards on 66 plays, or 7.1 yards per snap — but struggled in the red zone, scoring just one touchdown in six trips. If imperfect, the win still represents the strongest data point on Ohio State's résumé heading into Tuesday's release of the debut College Football Playoff rankings.

Still, that Ohio State couldn't put away an opponent sliding out of the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll stands in contrast to the Buckeyes' high level of play since the loss to Oregon in non-conference play.

For the Big Ten, the biggest takeaway from Saturday centers on the play of the Spartans and the increasing potential that Michigan State and Ohio State will meet in late November in a winner-take-all matchup with very few analogs in the rivalry's history.

Michigan's loss will reawaken the scrutiny on coach Jim Harbaugh, who after a dreadful pandemic year had the Wolverines in the mix for the top four. After this year's first setback, Harbaugh will need to answer questions about the play of his defense, which couldn't stop Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, and whether his offense has the balance needed to beat the best teams in the country.

That the Wolverines were in control of this game in the second half and had multiple chances to retake the lead late in the fourth quarter could be seen as a microcosm of Harbaugh's entire tenure. Even when ignoring last season, his run at Michigan has been defined by a series of blowouts, close calls and utter failures against the rival Spartans and Buckeyes.

This loss might be the worst of them all. Michigan outgained the Spartans by more than 150 yards, threw for more than 400 yards for the first time since 2015, won the turnover battle until the final play from scrimmage and led by 16 points deep into the third quarter. Who deserves blame for the meltdown more than Harbaugh?

Credit goes to Walker III, who went for 197 yards and five scores, the most Michigan has ever allowed a single player, to make a Heisman Trophy statement in the biggest game of the Spartans' season. If not atop the list heading into November, the former Wake Forest transfer should move ahead of Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud and rank just behind SEC quarterbacks Bryce Young and Matt Corral.

In his second season, coach Mel Tucker has rebuilt the Spartans' roster, inserted more than a dozen transfers into key roles and remade Michigan State into the toughest team in the conference after the program slid toward irrelevance during the final years under former coach Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans' running game will face off against the Buckeyes' tremendously improved run defense when the two meet on Nov. 20. After giving up 427 yards and six touchdowns against Minnesota and Oregon to open the year, OSU has allowed 383 rushing yards on 1.9 yards per carry in its past six games.

Michigan State players hold up the Paul Bunyan trophy in celebration after its win over Michigan.
Michigan State players hold up the Paul Bunyan trophy in celebration after its win over Michigan.

Heading into the weekend, the Big Ten touted four teams with one or fewer losses, tied with the SEC for the most in any Power Five conference, and the high probability that every weekend from here on out would impact the playoff chase.

That's still the case. Despite the loss, Michigan is only a step away from playing for the Big Ten championship: Ohio State needs to beat the Spartans and the Wolverines need to take care of Indiana, Penn State and Maryland to make the rivalry with the Buckeyes decide the East. But the division, the Big Ten and a spot in the playoff now goes through the Buckeyes and Spartans.

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Big Ten title focus on Michigan State, Ohio State