COLUMBUS — When the Big Ten established a championship game in 2011, it was supposed to be a showcase for the nation’s richest conference.
Ohio State center Corey Linsley recalled his excitement. The games in Indianapolis’ palatial Lucas Oil Stadium surely would include the Buckeyes — then winners of at least a share of six straight league titles.
Then turmoil rocked the conference, the first two title contests went on without OSU — futile one year, ineligible the next — and Linsley and his teammates found a different way to spend their first Saturday night in December.
"I was probably sleeping last year," he said.
So was the rest of the country.
Only 41,260 fans dotted the stadium for five-loss Wisconsin’s 70-31 throttling of Nebraska while TV viewers tuned out at home. The tree-falls-in-a-forest snoozer drew a 2.9 rating — about the same as NBC’s simultaneous primetime broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life and half the audience that watched OSU beat Michigan a week earlier.
Yet Saturday night, when No. 2 Ohio State faces 10th-ranked Michigan State, the potential of the fledgling game will finally be realized.
For the first time, Ohio State is on the card — "It’s about time," Linsley said, smiling — and the eyes of a football nation will be lasered onto Indianapolis.
In the Big Ten’s biggest showdown since top-ranked OSU met No. 2 Michigan in 2006, a once-vaunted league with its reputation increasingly under siege will return to center stage.
ESPN’s College GameDay will be on site and scalper’s are smiling. According to the resale site TiqIQ.com, tickets on the secondary market are going for an average of $272. That’s up from $143 for the inaugural 2011 game between Michigan State and Wisconsin and $115 for last year’s rout.
What’s the big deal? It is only the second time since 1943 two teams have gone unbeaten in conference play — OSU and Iowa went 8-0 in 2002 — and both sides are fighting for BCS positioning. The Buckeyes can crash the national title game with a victory while the Spartans are likely bound for their first Rose Bowl since 1988, win or lose.
In an ironic twist, the conference everyone is chasing is now in pursuit of the Big Ten. "War Damn Spartans" is a rallying cry on Auburn’s campus this week while Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said he will wear a green tie to his league’s title game between the No. 3 Tigers and fifth-ranked Missouri. The one-loss teams need OSU to lose to have a shot at capturing the SEC’s eighth straight national championship.
“I mean, everything is at stake," OSU coach Urban Meyer said of the Big Ten game. "Like any other major conference, you’re dealing with two top-10 teams fighting for the ultimate prize and obviously some very good BCS bowls. I think it’s great for our conference.”
Big Ten Network host Dave Revsine called it "the best-case scenario of what a title game could look like."
"It's huge," he said. "I understand people have hesitations about the depth of the league, and how good it is at the bottom, and that's fair. We felt all year there's some really good teams at the top of the league and it's exciting you end up with the top two teams. You get this to be a showcase, it's sold out, you're going to have national championship implications. All of those things are good for the Big Ten."
And maybe just what it needed.
The Big Ten’s perception has endured a steady decline since Ohio State was stomped by Florida in the 2006 BCS title game, perhaps scraping bottom with last year’s league championship game. If Saturday’s contest is the best case, last year was the worst case, with middling Wisconsin the default team led to slaughter in Pasadena — its 20-14 loss to Stanford the Big Ten’s 11th defeat in the past 12 Rose Bowls. (Leaders Division champion OSU and second-place Penn State were ineligible).
Former Indiana coach and Big Ten analyst Gerry Dinardo labels this weekend’s showdown the "first step in rehabbing the Big Ten’s image."
In fact, the Buckeyes may have been left in the cold if not for the creation of a year-end title bout, which came to pass when Nebraska’s arrival in 2011 gave the league the NCAA minimum of 12 teams required to have a conference championship. Without OSU able to burnish its resume against a top-10 opponent for the first time since 2010, many suspect the one-loss winner of the SEC title game would have passed a perfect OSU team.
Instead, with the Big Ten front and center, the game will provide a meaty showcase for the Buckeyes and, just as important, their league.
“It’s very exciting,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “There’s obviously a buzz throughout the Big Ten and nationally."