All eyes will be focused on a raucous Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday night. And that’s the way it should be.
No. 2 Ohio State, the team plays for the second-damned-best-coach in the land, vs. No. 8 Wisconsin, which has taken a licking and kept on ticking.
But all is not as it seems. . .
Here’s what you think is on the line: The Buckeyes’ opportunity to win the national championship.
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Ohio State can lose this game, run the table and celebrate in Tampa on Jan. 9. The beauty of the four-team playoff is that one quality loss doesn’t disqualify a legitimate contender.
And Ohio State will be that, whether it’s 13-0, or 12-1 with a 17-16 loss in Madison on Saturday, and a payback win over the Badgers in the Big Ten championship game.
If the Buckeyes hoist the trophy in Tampa, and especially if they do it against the best damned coach in the land, Alabama’s Nick Saban, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer will be gaining on Saban. Which Saban will not like.
To sum up: However unlikely it is that Ohio State will be beaten by the plodding Badgers, all the Buckeyes’ goals will remain in front of them.
Here’s what is really on the line: A Wisconsin win would elevate Paul Chryst. That’s not just a symbolic deal. It would say that Wisconsin football is in awfully good hands, and is likely to be a major player for a long, long time.
First, a loss won’t tarnish what Chryst and the Badgers have done already by posting a 2-1 record vs. top-10 teams. But a win would make more Badger noise than that infernal Jump Around.
THE HEAT IS ON
I don’t want to pile on here. I play golf. I know sports can be frustrating.
But let’s just say that, after losing to Purdue, Lovie Smith lost his cool to a reporter.
When asked if he’s been too lax with his team, which has received a Big-Ten-worst 46 penalties for 375 yards, Smith over-reacted.
``Ask me that one more time,’’ he said. ``Are you freaking kidding me? Ask me one more time. You think I've been too lax? Freaking going out there every day and letting them do whatever they want to do? Absolutely not. I'm not going to give that question an answer. Lax with the football team? Are you freaking lax with your job? I'm not either.’’
No doubt, the question could have been phrased better. In a situation like that, I prefer, ``How disappointing is it. . . ‘’ or ``Why so many penalties?’’ or ``You have the most penalties in the league. What do you do to reduce that moving forward?’’
People, including me, often make fun of softball sports questions. I personally would like to see a constitutional amendment banning the ``What does it say about this team/person/mascot?'' line of examination.
I will also say that back in the day, when I was a news reporter, I learned that with all politicians and some business people, you have to be very direct—right between the eyes. Otherwise, they’ll spin off in Fantasyland.
With athletes, it’s often better just to throw the topic out there. A coach knows penalties are bad. He knows where his players need to play better, and be coached better. He doesn’t need to be reminded. He's already ticked off about this stuff.
That said, some modern coaches just assume every media person is out to get them. And they often don’t bother to find out who the axe-grinders are, and which media people just want to know what coaches and athletes are thinking.
I can attest that the axe-grinders in the Illini media corps are few and far between.
Faithful TMG readers will recall that I tried to warn Lovie of this in my pre-season Lovie Letter. If he had only ponied up his $19.95, he could have saved himself and a very fair and talented AP writer, David Mercer, a lot of aggravation.
In Lovie’s defense, the heat is on. Having muffed the chance to get off the FBS/Big Ten schneid vs. lowly Purdue, the Illini face a must-win in their someone-must-win-trip to incredibly feeble Rutgers.
I’m already hearing grumbles around Illini Nation about Lovie Smith being a bad choice. It’s way too early in my mind to draw any conclusions.
The day Lovie was hired, and every day since, Illinois’ best-case scenario was three or four wins. A 2-12 or 1-11 campaign would be brutal and painful, but within the realm of possibility. Trust me. I saw every exciting moment of Ron Turner’s 11-and-out (0-11), Ron Zook’s Central Illinois baptism (2-9) and Tim Beckman’s first Orange-and-Blue rodeo (2-10).
The key here is what happens next year—and beyond. And the key to that is how Lovie Smith moves forward. It's understandable that a man who coached in a Super Bowl would have trouble absorbing a loss to Purdue.
But getting snippy with a reporter who asks a question clumsily is not part of the solution.
Never let ‘em see you sweat.
HUSKERS A TOP 10 TEAM? AW, SHUCKS
The Big Ten has four teams in this week’s top 10 this for the first time since 1960: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 4 Michigan, No. 8 Wisconsin and No. 10 Nebraska.
I’m good with three of them.
And I understand why Nebraska has earned its poll position.
But I am not at all convinced that the Cornhuskers are one of the nation’s 10 best teams.
To recap: Nebraska squeaked past Oregon, where ordinarily mellow Ducks fans are ready to pull the plug on coach Mark Helfrich, one of the nicest men on the face of the earth. . . Nebraska trailed in the fourth quarter to Illinois, which already is testing the patience of Lovie Smith and Illini Nation. . . The Huskers’ best win? On the road at Northwestern, something Illinois State and Western Michigan also did.
No disrespect here. Nebraska has a great dual-threat quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr. It is well-coached, and it is finishing games, unlike last year.
That said, I see at least two losses, at Wisconsin and at Ohio State. No shame in that. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see more—if teams like Indiana, Iowa or Minnesota bring their A-games.
The real bottom line with Nebraska is, the Cornhuskers are this year’s example of what a watered-down schedule, courtesy of the bloated 14-team Big Ten, can do for a team.
I’m going to predict that Nebraska goes 4-3 the rest of the way, to finish with a very respectable 9-3 record. And 3-4 also is not off the table.
And if I’m wrong, I’ll eat a whole piece of corn on the cob. Dripping with Wisconsin butter. [/membership]