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Big Game Hunting: Will Penn State-Ohio State go down to the wire for a 4th straight year?

Nittany Lions coach James Franklin is 1-4 against the Buckeyes, but back-to-back one-point losses in 2018 and 2019 — following a PSU win in 2017 — made it clear the talent gap between the programs has narrowed.

It’s been a whole lot of tough sledding for J.K. Dobbins and the Buckeyes against Penn State.
It’s been a whole lot of tough sledding for J.K. Dobbins and the Buckeyes against Penn State.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It just might be that Ohio State is — hands down — the best team in the country.

But how would any of us truly believe that in our bones yet? Other than Wisconsin — which they wiped the floor with 38-7 in Week 9 — the Buckeyes haven’t faced an opponent with a pulse since mid-September.

LSU has battled with heavyweights and earned its No. 1 ranking. No. 8 Penn State (+18) at No. 2 Ohio State (11 a.m., Fox-32) is, though, the first of what could be three straight big-time brawls en route to the playoff for the 10-0 Buckeyes. If they beat the 9-1 Nittany Lions and follow that with victories at rival Michigan and in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, the No. 1 playoff seed could be their reward.

It’ll almost have to be if the Buckeyes get to 13-0 and still lead the nation in both scoring and scoring defense. That’s where they are in Week 13, at 51.5 and 9.8 points per game, respectively.

It’ll take both sides of the ball to beat the Nittany Lions, whose only loss came in Week 11 at then-unbeaten Minnesota. Coach James Franklin is 1-4 against the Buckeyes, but back-to-back one-point losses in 2018 and 2019 — following a PSU win in 2017 — made it clear the talent gap between the programs has narrowed.

That’s not because the Buckeyes have slipped, either.

“We all know we have been in some games where we’ve had more talent than some of the other teams we have played,” OSU coach Ryan Day said. “[PSU] is a team [whose] talent equates. So when that happens, it goes back to discipline, it goes back to fundamentals, it goes back to toughness — all those things that come into play when your talent no longer matters.”

A heavy dose of Chase Young helps, too. The best defensive player in the country is back for the Buckeyes after a two-game suspension for violating NCAA rules. They didn’t need the extraordinary pass rusher against Maryland and Rutgers. They probably didn’t need star quarterback Justin Fields (31 touchdowns, one interception) or elite running back J.K. Dobbins, either.

No more cupcakes on the menu.

“We’ve had a lot of competition with these guys,” Franklin said. “We’ve played them probably as well as anybody, [but] obviously not good enough. We’ve got to take the next step.”

The next step — an upset at the Horseshoe — might be all it would take to vault the Nittany Lions past the playoff hopefuls from the Pac-12 and Big 12. Wouldn’t that be a trip? Buckeyes by 10.

In other Week 13 action:

No. 13 Michigan (-9) at Indiana (2:30 p.m., ESPN): On the outside of all playoff conversation, the Wolverines (8-2) have quietly upped their game. No doubt, they’re busting at the seams in anticipation of the regular-season finale against Ohio State in Ann Arbor. But they’d better be serious about taking on the Hoosiers (7-3), who’ve been locked in since the end of September. Wolverines, 34-20.

Texas (+5½) at No. 14 Baylor (2:30 p.m., FS1): Have the Bears (9-1) been able to dig their hearts out of the McLane Stadium dirt after last week’s crushing loss to Oklahoma? One would hope they’d be able to get up for the Longhorns (6-4), who’ve beaten them four years in a row. Waco Kids by a field goal.

Texas A&M (+13½) at No. 4 Georgia (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): It’s hard to top an angry, age-old conference rivalry like this one, isn’t it? Actually, the Aggies (7-3) and Bulldogs (9-1) have yet to meet since A&M joined the SEC in 2012. Dogs, get to know A&M quarterback Kellen Mond. He’s better than you think. UGA, 27-21.

Purdue (+24) at No. 12 Wisconsin (3 p.m., Fox-32): All the Badgers (8-2) must do to set up next weekend’s Big Ten West title showdown at Minnesota is handle their business against the also-ran Boilermakers (4-6). No problem? Just to be on the safe side, coach Paul Chryst ought to have video of that colossal upset loss at Illinois on an endless loop. Badgers by 35.

No. 6 Oregon (-14½) at Arizona State (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): In 2017, Mario Cristobal took his first Oregon team to the desert and left with an “L.” The Ducks (9-1) are vastly improved since then. The Sun Devils (5-5)? They’re kind of a mess. Quack, 30-6.

My favorite favorite: No. 9 Oklahoma (-18) vs. TCU (7 p.m., Fox-32): In last weekend’s stirring comeback effort at Baylor, the Sooners played the best half of football any team in the country has played all season. The reward? A sorely disappointing ranking in the ensuing playoff poll. They have no choice now but to put both feet on the pedal.

My favorite underdog: Rutgers (+21½) vs. Michigan State (11 a.m., FS1): Have you met the Spartans? They’ve lost five straight. In related news, they’re not good. Scarlet Knights cover! Lose, of course, but cover.

Last week: 8-1 straight-up, 5-4 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 62-26 straight-up, 49-38-1 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

ILLINOIS AT NO. 17 IOWA

The facts: 11 a.m., BTN, BTN, 890-AM.

The records: Illinois 6-4, 4-3 Big Ten; Iowa 7-3, 4-3 Big Ten.

The storyline: The Illini are having fun with the fact that, yes, believe it or not, they still have a chance (think Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber”) to win the Big Ten West. That’s what happens when a team wakes all the way up and wins four straight league games for the first time since 2001. Tangling with the Hawkeyes on their turf is a whole new animal, though. Ask Minnesota how tough that can be.

The line: Hawkeyes by 15.

Greenberg’s pick: Iowa, 31-13.

NO. 10 MINNESOTA AT NORTHWESTERN

The facts: 11 a.m., Ch. 7, 720-AM.

The records: Minnesota 9-1, 6-1 Big Ten; Northwestern 2-9, 0-7 Big Ten.

The storyline: Last weekend’s loss at Iowa was painful for the Golden Gophers, but they’ll have no trouble finding the motivation for this one. They’re still shooting for the playoff, though the Rose Bowl would be a heck of a consolation prize. What about the Wildcats? Easy for us to say, but it might even be a fun position to be in to play a zero-pressure game at home against a top opponent. Let’s see if it brings out the best in Pat Fitzgerald’s guys.

The line: Gophers by 13½.

Greenberg’s pick: Minnesota, 23-14.

BOSTON COLLEGE AT NO. 16 NOTRE DAME

The facts: 1:30 p.m., Ch. 5, 1000-AM.

The records: BC 5-5, 3-4 ACC; Notre Dame 8-2.

The storyline: For the Irish, it boils down to stopping top-shelf Eagles running back AJ Dillon, the type of player who can tilt a game on its axis all by himself. And another thing about Dillon that’s super cool: His grandfather, Thom Gatewood, was an All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame. The Irish probably won’t need him.

The line: Irish by 19.

Greenberg’s pick: Notre Dame, 42-21.