Ohio State and Michigan State meet Saturday with identical records.

Who would have predicted that at the start of this season?

The Buckeyes were Big Ten favorites and a leading contender to return to the College Football Playoff. Michigan State was coming off a 3-9 season and endured an offseason dominated by a sexual-assault investigation.

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Yet after last week, in which the Buckeyes were shockingly routed 55-24 by Iowa and the Spartans slipped by Penn State on a last-second field goal, both teams are 7-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big Ten.

The winner will have a clear path to representing the East Division in the Big Ten title game. For the Buckeyes, the question is: Is that enough incentive?

The Iowa loss was dispiriting in a number of ways. J.T. Barrett threw four interceptions after entering the game having thrown only one all season. The Buckeyes’ defense yielded almost 500 yards and 48 points against what had been a mediocre offense.

Coupled with the early loss to Oklahoma, Ohio State’s chances for the College Football Playoff have all but evaporated. But the Buckeyes insist they still have plenty of motivation.

“There’s a lot riding on the line,” defensive end Jalyn Holmes said. “We still have an opportunity to play for the Big Ten championship, and that means a lot to me, being that I’m a senior and have only got so many games left. I feel everybody’s amped up and still has a positive attitude, and we’re learning from our mistakes and moving forward.”

The Big Ten championship is so important because Michigan State has ruined Ohio State’s chances for that twice in Urban Meyer’s six years as coach.

In 2013, they stunned the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game, ending Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak and denying it a chance to play for the national championship. In 2015, Michigan State shocked the Buckeyes 17-14 at Ohio Stadium to deny them a chance at a repeat title.

The Spartans went on to qualify for the playoff that year before collapsing in 2016. Few gave them much of a chance to contend in a loaded East before this season, especially when they lost 38-18 to Notre Dame in late September. But their only league loss came in triple overtime to Northwestern on Oct. 28.

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said the turnaround started as soon as last season ended. He demanded more accountability from players. He started spring practice earlier. Young players were given more opportunities for early playing time, which is paying off now.

“We went back to basics, fundamental things that allowed us to get to this point in the first place,” Dantonio said.

In some ways, this is a typical Spartans team. On defense, they still emphasize stopping the run, and they lead the Big Ten (and are third nationally) in rushing defense, allowing only 87.0 yards per game. Like Ohio State, they rely on their defensive backs to be able to play man-to-man coverage.

“This is going to be a physical game,” left tackle Jamarco Jones said. “Every game in the past has been with these guys. They’re a really good team, especially with their seven up front.”

On offense, Michigan State has deviated from its usual run-first philosophy because of the rapid development of sophomore quarterback Brian Lewerke. He has thrown for 845 yards combined the last two weeks.

The visiting team has won the last six games in the series. A year ago, the Buckeyes needed a stop on a two-point conversion to escape with a 17-16 victory in East Lansing.

Oddsmakers aren’t putting much stock in the road-team-success history. They have made Ohio State a 17-point favorite.

The College Football Playoff committee sees it differently. It ranked Michigan State No. 12 this week, one spot ahead of Ohio State.

This late in the season, it seems impossible for even the victor to get back into serious playoff contention. But Jones said the Buckeyes aren’t letting go of that dream just yet.

“You never know what can happen,” Jones said. “It’s college football. We’ve seen crazy things happen the last few years. There’s always stuff to play for. The Big Ten title is our No. 1 goal every year. We still have that goal. All we can do is handle what we can handle and see what happens at the end of the season.”