Michigan and Ohio State will once again square off for title

Luke Middendorf

It’s all come down to this – Michigan and Ohio State for the Big Ten Championship.

While it may be seen as a normal occurrence, both teams have taken interesting routes to get the opportunity to play for the title on Saturday.

After receiving a No. 5 preseason ranking, Michigan fell in historic proportions to Appalachian State in its first game, followed by a blow-out loss to Oregon in the next, 39-7.

The Wolverines then quickly dropped out of the top 25 rankings, but slowly fought their way back to the top of the Big Ten by rattling off eight straight wins.

Michigan’s impressive streak ended last week in a loss at Wisconsin, but still have earned the right to play for the conference crown with a 6-1 record in the Big Ten.

Ohio State’s road to the conference title game featured less of an up-and-down rollercoaster ride, but rather more of a gradual climb to the top with a sudden drop at the end.

The Buckeyes obtained a preseason ranking of No. 11, and week-by-week began to work their way to the top of the national polls.

But after retaining the No. 1 spot for four straight weeks while also building upon a 20-game Big Ten winning streak, Ohio State was upset by Illinois in Columbus last week, 28-21.

It was the Illini’s first win over a No. 1 team since 1956 and also gave them their eighth win of the season, the most for Illinois since 2001.

One week after its most shocking loss of the season, Ohio State faces its toughest test of the year in Michigan on Saturday. Coach Jim Tressel said it’s time to forget the past and prepare for the future.

“Our kids played extremely hard last weekend and hats off to Illinois for doing what they needed to do to come up with a victory,” Tressel said. “Now we’ve got to get back up and get after it and get ready for this one.”

Michigan has a similar task to accomplish, but also has the advantage of experiencing and overcoming a difficult loss earlier in the season.

Wolverines head coach Lloyd Carr said that the perseverance of his team has been commendable through the ups and downs of the 2007 season.

“I think our guys have fought through a lot of issues, particularly on the injury front,” Carr said. “I think we’ve had great leadership from our seniors. And we’ve had a lot of different guys in the course of this season step in and fill the breach and compete and do the things that would help us to win. And I think that’s been a special thing about this team.”

And many are hoping that these two “special” teams will be able to produce one special game as they collide for one of the best rivalries in all of sports.

“It’s an exciting time,” Tressel said. “As you know, it’s what we are at Ohio State for and why the guys are at Michigan to play in the greatest game that there is and it’s exciting with the Big Ten title on the line and just a lot of tremendous history.”

10 eligible teams

With Iowa, Michigan State and Northwestern all gaining their sixth wins last weekend, the Big Ten now officially has 10 teams that are bowl-eligible.

That is the most teams in the history of the Big Ten that have earned eligibility for the postseason in one season, but not all of the teams may actually be playing in a bowl game.

The Big Ten has seven bowl tie-ins this season, with a chance for an eighth if the Big Ten Champion is ranked first or second in the final polling to play for the BCS National Championship Game.

Most likely the seven teams chosen for bowl games will be selected by how well their fans travel to away games, combined with their strength of schedule.

First-year coach Mark Dantonio of Michigan State said the bowl game helps give the program much-needed exposure and also sets the expectation of having a winning program.

“After this first season, we want to say, hey, we are a winning program,” he said. “I’d really rather say that than say we’re a .500 program right now. We’re building, building a foundation.”

Players of the week

Sophomore quarterback Juice Williams picked up the offensive player of the week award by tossing a career high four touchdown passes and rushing for 70 yards to lead Illinois over former No. 1 ranked Ohio State.

On defense, the co-players of the week are junior linebacker Dan Connor of Penn State and junior defensive end Matt Shaughnessy of Wisconsin. Connor matched a career-high with 18 tackles in the Nittany Lions shut-out win over Temple, while Shaughnessy collected seven tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss in the Badgers’ win over Michigan.

Junior kick returner James Bailey of Indiana received the award for special teams by returning four kickoffs for a career-best 161 yards, including a nifty 91-yard touchdown scamper.