Big Ten Playbook: Can Buckeyes & Wolverines both earn playoff berths?

Can the Big Ten land two teams in the College Football Playoff?

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This week will tell a lot. But Ohio State and Michigan have history on their side.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines checked in at No. 3 and No. 4 in the AP poll this week. Their most obvious path is to win out and play an epic game in the Horseshoe on Nov. 26 that leaves everyone wanting a rematch.

They pretty much did that in 2006, when Ohio State defeated Michigan 42-39 in a frantic battle between unbeatens on Nov. 18, the day after Bo Schembechler died. I covered that game. That was a very eerie week.

There was serious chatter about a national championship rematch. In the end, Ohio State got clobbered by Florida in the BCS championship game and Michigan lost to USC in the Rose Bowl. But Buckeyes-Wolverines wasn't out of the question.

A single-conference championship game finally happened in 2011, when LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in November and lost 21-0 in their title showdown.

Even with the new four-team playoff, a lot of dominoes need to fall into place for both the Buckeyes and Wolverines to qualify. But some of them are coming up on Saturday.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

First, obviously, is Ohio State’s trip to No. 14 Oklahoma. Give the Sooners credit for fearless scheduling. But after their opening loss to No. 6 Houson, question their boldness. This shapes up as a must-win for their CFP hopes.

And as good as the Buckeyes have looked in crushing Bowling Green and Tulsa, those games aren’t necessarily an indicator of future results with a young team going on the road for the first time against a very accomplished opponent.

Bolstered by Wisconsin’s upset of LSU and other SEC struggles that have taken the edge off college football’s toughest conference, the Big Ten has received a lot of love so far.

The Midwestern behemoths have five teams in the top 13, with No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 12 Michigan State and No. 13 Iowa joining the Ohio State/Michigan 3-4 punch.

But there’s an absence of quality wins beyond the Badgers’ takedown of LSU. . . Like none.

SPARTY FACES IRISH TEST

That lack of opportunity changes this week. Not only do the Buckeyes go to Oklahoma. Nebraska can make a statement vs. No. 22 Oregon. And Michigan State plays at No. 18 Notre Dame on the 50th anniversary of their celebrated 10-10 tie. In that simpler time, the Irish managed to win the 1966 national championship, courtesy of voters.

This week, the Irish, who lost a dramatic overtime opener at No. 11 Texas, will be playing for their playoff lives.

What makes that game more difficult to assess is the fact that Michigan State hasn’t shown much, plodding past Furman 28-13 in its only game.

The Spartans’ trip to South Bend looms large because a victory would bolster the strengthh-of-schecule argument for Ohio Statte and Michigan down the road. And it would likely consign potential playoff candidate Notre Dame to ``wait till next year’’ status.

Also of interest this week is Oregon at Nebraska. Not only do we have no idea whether the Cornhuskers are going to revive this year. With a victory, they could bolster the schedule strength of Ohio State as well as Wisconsin and Iowa—if they don’t cause problems for them.

That’s the other issue to keep in mind.

While we’re all focused on the hyped Buckeyes and Wolverines, that creates opportunity for the league’s other ranked teams, as well as Nebraska if it wants to really over-achieve.

Iowa got to 12-0 a year ago and was knocking on the CFP door in the Big Ten title game.

So. . . play some more games and then we’ll see.

IOWA ON GUARD

Beyond the three ranked-opponent games, three other games stand out on this week’s Big Ten slate.

Iowa plays North Dakota State in a no-win/must-win. If the Hawkeyes beat the Bison, we’ll all yawn. If they don’t, we’ll all gasp.

It’s a tough deal because North Dakota State not only is the five-time FCS defending champion. It has won five straight against FBS opponents (Kansas, Minnesota, Colorado State, Kansas State and Iowa State) since 2010.

PERILS OF NORTHWESTERN, ILLINOS

Meanwhile, Northwestern and Illinois both face backs-to-the-wall games.

The Wildcats are off to a dreadful start, with losses to Western Michigan and FCS member Illinois State. They need a win over Duke in the worst way, or any way they can manage it. With three of their next four games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, the Wildcats figure to be in for a rough ride even if they handle the Blue Devils.

Blame a brutal offense that’s averaging just 14 points a game, half as many as the Big Ten’s 13th-rated scoring offense. The Cats also are 13th in total defense.

Going into the season, NU looked a lot better than this on paper.

Also facing a tricky game is Illinois, which finds itself a three-point underdog at home against Western Michigan.

Tricky nonconference games are nothing new to the Illini. They lost to Western Michigan 23-17 at Ford Field in Detroit in 2008 on Nov. 8—a rare late-season nonconfrence game that cost Illinois, which finished 5-7, a bowl trip the year after its surprising Rose Bowl appearance.

In 2002, when Illinois was trying to build on its 2001 Big Ten championship/Sugar Bowl, it lost two bizarre nonconference games that left it 5-7. First, the Illini got beat AT Southern Miss 23-20 in a rainstorm. Then they lost at home to San Jose State 38-35.

On the bright side, if Lovie Smith goes 5-7, it won’t be the worst thing. He’s not coming off a New Year’s Day bowl.

However, this is an important game for the new Illini coach from an image standpoint.

The Illini showed early flashes that they couldn’t back up last week vs. North Carolina. Illini Nation expects more against a Mid-American Conference school, and never mind that Western Michigan is a very talented and experienced squad with a coach who’s going places. This is very much a momentum game for Illinois, one way or another.

Broncos coach T.J. Fleck, a suburban Chicago (Sugar Grove) native who played and coached at Northern Illinois, will be getting looks from bigger schools if Western Michigan plays to its potential this fall.

My advice to him? Aim higher than Purdue. That’s a tougher place to win than Illinois these days.[/membership]

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