Heather DinichESPN Senior Writer
In the end, as many had expected, it didn’t matter that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was suspended for the first three games — at least as far as the Buckeyes’ win-loss record is concerned. With its 40-28 win against No. 15 TCU in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday night, Ohio State showed its resiliency and resolve against its first really challenging opponent, and made a statement that it’s to be taken seriously in the College Football Playoff race.
The rest of the Big Ten … not so much.
Michigan lost to Notre Dame in Week 1 and on Saturday had 13 penalties for 137 yards in a win against SMU. Penn State needed overtime to beat Appalachian State in its opener, but is still 3-0 and looking amazing! — against nobody. Michigan State blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead last week and lost at Arizona State. Nebraska lost at home to Troy. Maryland lost at home to Temple. Northwestern lost at home to Akron. Rutgers lost at Kansas. Oh, and Wisconsin lost at home on Saturday to BYU (yes, the same team that lost to Cal) in what was the biggest upset of the season so far.
In spite of everything that has gone embarrassingly wrong for the Big Ten, though, it still has a true playoff contender and one of the best-looking teams in the country in Ohio State — and the Buckeyes did it with acting head coach Ryan Day — not Meyer. At 3-0, Ohio State is the only team in the Big Ten with three things that will continue to impress the 13-member selection committee: a neutral-site win over a ranked opponent, convincing wins and an A on the so-called eye test.
It’s a good thing, because after Wisconsin’s loss to BYU, the last thing the league needed Saturday night was for standout defensive end Nick Bosaand the Buckeyes to go down.
With 41 seconds left and a chance to send the game into overtime, Wisconsin fifth-year senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone‘s field goal attempt sailed wide left, cementing a shocking 24-21 BYU win and sending the Badgers’ playoff hopes plummeting.
“It was disappointing letting the team down,” Gaglianone said, “but I’m not going to let one play define me — or define this season.”
One play won’t — but one loss might.
Wisconsin, a team that has consistently had to fight for national respect in spite of its sustained success, is going to have to keep on clawing after Saturday’s embarrassing home loss. Wisconsin was a 23.5-point favorite against BYU and had a 93.1 percent chance to win, according to ESPN Football power Index, but couldn’t overcome a fourth-quarter deficit. Wisconsin was the third Big Ten team to lose on Saturday as a double-digit favorite (along with Maryland minus-16 and Nebraska minus-10.5).
Last year, even when Wisconsin was undefeated, the selection committee kept it out of the top four for a majority of the rankings in favor of some one-loss teams because of a weak strength of schedule — and the Badgers trounced BYU 40-6. “I still like this team,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said in his postgame news conference. “I like them and who they are. This is where we’re at right now, and I have confidence in the group making the choice to go forward.
“We’re 2-1, and we start Big Ten play against Iowa, and that’s a rivalry and all that. We’ll continue to find out about these guys, but I do like this group, and I’m confident of the response, but we’ve got to go do it. We’ve got to put that into action.”
Wisconsin travels to Iowa on Saturday, one of five remaining Big Ten road games, along with Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue. Iowa embarrassed Ohio State last year, beating the Buckeyes 55-24 in a game that essentially kept them out of the playoff last year in spite of winning the Big Ten. In 2016, Iowa beat then-No. 3 Michigan, another ink blot on a playoff résumé.
Wisconsin certainly can’t afford another one.
Wisconsin’s only other nonconference wins are against Western Kentucky and New Mexico, which does nothing for its playoff résumé. It amounts to little more than a slow golf clap.
“Heading into Big Ten play we know that these games count,” Wisconsin senior running back Taiwan Deal said. “We still have the Big Ten championship ahead of us, so that will be our goal moving forward.”
The rest of the Big Ten should be cheering on the Badgers, because it will only help the winner of the East and the conference championship game as a whole to feature two highly ranked opponents. If Wisconsin continues to stumble, though, it will devalue a win against the Badgers. Ohio State beat Wisconsin last year and it wasn’t enough.
Last year, though, the Buckeyes lost their marquee nonconference game, against Oklahoma.
Ohio State’s win over TCU is one of the most impressive nonconference wins of the season, along with Clemson’s true road win at Texas A&M. The selection committee will take note of the Buckeyes’ two defensive touchdowns, especially considering the loss of Bosa to injury. It’s a better nonconference win than Georgia or Alabama have.
“We’ve tried to create games that are challenging but also interesting, whether it’s in the nonconference or playing nine games in the conference or playing the best teams we can play in the bowl season,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said at conference’s media days in July. “It’s not for everybody. Some people would rather play fewer conference games or FCS, but we believe in strength of schedule because we’re trying to do a variety of things.
“That’s not to say everybody’s playing an [autonomous 5] opponent every week in the nonconference, but you can see there’s real effort to put together schedules that are as strong as anybody’s in the country.”
It doesn’t always work out that way, though. Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule — Western Kentucky, New Mexico and BYU — was supposed to be a breeze.
“Anytime you lose, it hurts,” said Wisconsin senior safety D’Cota Dixon. “All the preparation you put in with the guys you have been practicing with all week. But it hurts even worse to see that reaction on the guys’ faces on the sideline having to accept a loss. It is not necessarily the loss itself, but the opportunity we let go. But it is fuel and we will get better from this.”