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COLUMBUS — The map outlining the route to Indianapolis and the Big Ten championship game was never given to the Ohio State Buckeyes. They were considered broken down at the side of the road after scandal, suspensions and defections crippled their ability to even challenge for a seventh straight conference crown.
But entering the home stretch of the season, with three games to play, the Buckeyes are part of the pack jockeying for the inside track to that inaugural title game.
For Ohio State, the remaining games against Purdue, Penn State, and Michigan are the money round, the beer frame, or final Jeopardy
“For us, every game is a big game. Every game is a championship game,” Ohio State senior center Mike Brewster said after Saturday’s win over Indiana that keeps the Buckeyes in the title hunt.
The scenario that puts Ohio State (6-3, 3-2 Big Ten) in the championship showcase at Lucas Oil Stadium is simple – the Buckeyes need to win their final three games to finish atop the Leaders Division, and have either Wisconsin or Nebraska beat Penn State.
The scenarios that keep the Buckeyes out of the title game are a bit more varied.
A loss likely ends their chances, and if Penn State wins two of its final three games, then the Nittany Lions play for the championship.
The Buckeyes also could get pushed out of the Big Ten title match in Indy if the NCAA infractions committee delivers its penalty in the tattoo and memorabilia case prior to the Dec. 3 date for the game, and that penalty includes a bowl ban.
The Big Ten bylaws governing the game call for any team that is banned from post-season play to be barred from participating in the championship game. The league has a series of tie-breakers in place to decide which team would replace an ineligible division champion.
Ohio State coach Luke Fickell said the Buckeyes start every season with reaching the National Championship game as their primary goal, but once that becomes unattainable, the conference title is clearly the next-best trophy.
“We’ve obviously got a goal here to win the Big Ten every year,” Fickell said recently. “The guys on the team are more aware to make sure we understand that we’re not looking ahead of anything. We take care of our own business. We take care of the things we can control and good things will happen.”
Senior running back Dan Herron said he has tracked the contenders as the season moved closer to its end. With a quarter of the schedule left to play, Herron is paying attention to the field.
“I do kind of watch other teams just to see how they’re doing,” Herron said.
Teammate Travis Howard, who had the key interception against Indiana that allowed the heavily favored Buckeyes to finally put that game away in the fourth quarter, shuns any discussion that reaches beyond this Saturday’s game in West Lafayette.
“We focus on one game at a time. We can’t look ahead, that’s how we lose,” Howard said. “Now it’s time to focus on Purdue.”
Brewster said former head coach Jim Tressel used to hammer home the mantra that these November games amount to a championship elimination round every weekend.
“That’s something that we take to heart, and Coach Fickell has made it very clear that champions are made in November,” he said. “We’ve got three games left and we need to get the job done. This is it for us, it’s do or die.”
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @MattMarkey