So, here we are. It's gameday for the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game. It's Michigan State and Wisconsin, Spartans and Badgers, Legends and Leaders. If history is any indication, we are in for one heck of a game.
Last year, these two teams shared the title of Big Ten Champion. Without the luxury of a championship game, the Badgers went to the Rose Bowl and the Spartans went to the Capital One Bowl.
If you have forgotten this year's matchup between the Badgers and Wisconsin, shame on you. It was a classic Big Ten battle that came down to the final play and a Hail Mary from the Spartans that proved football really is a game of inches.
Now, they get to play for the Stagg Trophy and a trip to the Rose Bowl. It's not quite "win or go home" but it has that feel. They'll have the national spotlight and a chance to prove they are the Big Ten's best.
For Wisconsin, the story of the season has been on the offensive side of the football. Pick your poison. Try containing junior running back Montee Ball and Russell Wilson will pick you apart. If you're lucky enough to control one or both of those, the Badgers have Nick Toon (or as Badger fans say, "Toooooooooon") to make plays from the receiver position.
Ball (appropriately named) has already broken the Big Ten single-season touchdown record with 34 and is just five behind the national record set by Barry Sanders (you might have heard of him). Meanwhile, Wilson has just been plugging along having one of the most efficient seasons from the quarterback position in the history of NCAA football. With a 192.90 rating, he is on pace to set a new NCAA record for pass efficiency. Oh, and don't forget about Tooooon who has 52 receptions, 788 yards and nine touchdowns.
If there is any team up to the challenge of slowing the Badger offense, it is Michigan State. The Spartans rank third nationally in total defense at 266.67 yards per game, rank sixth in scoring defense at 15.42 points per game, seventh in pass efficiency defense, eighth in pass defense and 11th in rushing defense. Sparty is tough.
Michigan State may lack the star power on the offensive side of the ball that Wisconsin has but they have a leader who just refuses to lose. Fifth-year senior quarterback Kirk Cousins is the winningest quarterback in school history. Cousins has compiled a 26-11 record in his 37 starts and is 21-4 in his last 25 starts. And honestly, it feels like he's been at MSU forever. I can't confirm it but I think he and Earvin "Magic" Johnson were a part of the same recruiting class.
Maybe Sparty's lack of star power is what makes this team special. The collective whole is better than its individual pieces. Coach Dantonio knows how to get the most out of his players and he is not shy about their goal. He mentioned in his press conference that they have placed roses in all the players' lockers. Of course, a not so subtle reference to the Rose Bowl.
So what should we expect out of the game? I don't know, that's a great question. (Yes, I just complemented my own question)
I would expect that Wisconsin is playing with a chip on their shoulder (I would also expect them to play with shoulder pads on their shoulders). They may be an angry football team tonight. Meanwhile, Michigan State wants to prove that they belong at College Football's "Grown Ups Table." There's just something about the Spartans that makes the team special. They didn't have an individual award winner but here they are, ranked ninth in the country and playing for the Big Ten Championship and a ticket to the Rose Bowl.
In the end, I think the Badgers offense is just too good. And I know that's the "easy" pick. Indoors, on turf, I'm expecting a high scoring game but a close one. I wouldn't be shocked if Montee Ball has that "Heisman Moment" that seems to have escaped college football this season. A big game from him and he may shoot up some Heisman ballots which are due Monday. (Why is Ball not getting more consideration for the Heisman? All he has done is score. And to think he hasn't even played in most of his team's fourth quarters!) The final? I'll go 38-35, Badgers win.
More than anything, embrace tonight's game. 100 years from now, they may still be playing a Big Ten Championship Game and we'll get to say we witnessed the first one. It's a special night for not only these student-athletes but the Big Ten as a whole. Be proud. Be Leaders. Be Legends... And be B1G.