Seeking fourth straight title, Buckeyes dominate Big Ten like never before

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Ohio State will play in the Big 1 championship game on Saturday against Northwestern.

That is only a partial typo.

Of course, it is the Big Ten championship, and the No. 4 Buckeyes (5-0) have voiced genuine respect for the No. 14 Wildcats (6-1). But Ohio State is shooting for an unprecedented fourth straight outright league title and is a three-touchdown favorite to do so.

Back in the days of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, the Big Ten was mocked as the Big Two — Ohio State and Michigan — with the rest of the league serving as fodder. Now the Buckeyes alone dominate.

Ohio State is seeking its unprecedented fourth consecutive Big Ten football on Saturday against Northwestern, and the Buckeyes hope a win leads to bigger goals.

Asked if this margin between Ohio State and the rest of the conference is the widest he has seen, Big Ten analyst and former Indiana coach Gerry DiNardo didn’t hesitate.

“Yes, it is the biggest gap,” DiNardo said.

The Buckeyes are 73-5 against Big Ten opponents starting with Urban Meyer’s arrival in 2012.

Meanwhile, the league’s other traditionally strong programs are faltering, and that’s never been more stark than this year. Michigan staggered to a 2-4 record, putting Jim Harbaugh’s future in question. Penn State was ranked No. 7 in the preseason and proceeded to lose its first five games.

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Wisconsin, which led the Buckeyes 21-7 at halftime in last year’s Big Ten conference game, lost momentum because of a COVID-19 outbreak and is 2-3. Rebuilding under new coach Mel Tucker, Michigan State is 2-5. The Scott Frost era at Nebraska has been a major disappointment. The Cornhuskers also are 2-5.

Indiana has had a remarkable season, and Northwestern and Iowa emerged in the West Division. But none of those programs are built to be on the level of Ohio State.

DiNardo believes that applies to almost every other Big Ten team in this College Football Playoff era.

“If I'm a big-time prospect, I want to play in the playoff and I want to play in the NFL,” DiNardo said. “If you can't offer that to me, I'm going to look somewhere else.

“Most of the schools don't want to get in that game. Who's built for that game? Who in the Big Ten can sit at that poker table other than Ohio State? I maintain maybe Penn State. Nobody else.”

Before the CFP and the Bowl Championship Series era, the Big Ten championship was the biggest goal for league teams. DiNardo cited a quote attributed to Schembechler from 1989 when national championships were decided by polls: "If there are any Big Ten teams that shoot for a national championship, they're damn fools.”

Even if that was also Ohio State’s mindset back then, it isn’t now. The Big Ten championship matters a great deal to the Buckeyes, but partly because it’s a pathway to the playoff.

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“It's one stepping-stone moving forward to the end goal,” said Wyatt Davis, the Big Ten’s offensive lineman of the year. “The way we approach it is, during the season when we’re in league (play), it’s win every game and to get to Indy.

“Now we're at Indy, and it's not just to go out and get a Big Ten championship. It’s also to win a national championship. That's why everyone came here to Ohio State. And that's why we've worked so hard to put ourselves in this position to have the opportunity to be a playoff contender. So we don't want to just settle short for just being a Big Ten champion.”

In other words, winning the Big Ten is a big deal, but the Buckeyes have bigger things in mind.

More and more, Ohio State’s truer competition is programs like Clemson and Alabama. Those are the teams against which the Buckeyes are more often recruiting.

From 2017-20, Ohio State signed 35 players ranked among the top 100 players in the 247Sports composite rankings, and that doesn’t include star quarterback Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia. All other Big Ten schools signed a total of 36.

On Wednesday, Ohio State signed 12 top-100 players. The rest of the league added nine.

Talent wins, and the Buckeyes have accumulated so much compared to its league rivals that they really aren’t much of rivals anymore.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch