Big Game Hunting: Northwestern-Ohio State leads the way on Championship Saturday
Is Justin Fields just too much? The Buckeyes’ quarterback — the Big Ten’s best in a long time — will challenge the Wildcats like no one else has.
How strange and topsy-turvy has this pandemic season in college football been? So strange that College Football Playoff berths are on the line Saturday and the best bets to get into the four-team field are Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Wait, that isn’t strange at all.
But everything else has been as three-sheets-to-the-wind as your Uncle Earl at after-hours karaoke, OK? Conferences opening play on totally different schedules. Countless game postponements and cancellations, including at least three (Purdue-Indiana, Michigan-Iowa, Michigan State-Maryland) in the Big Ten during this newfangled ‘‘Champions Week.’’ Star players opting out. Star coaches testing positive. On and on, yet here we are.
Before the playoff selection committee unveils its choices late Sunday morning, chances are we’ll have figured out the likeliest scenarios, begun arguing their merits and all that. For example: If the heavy-hitter favorites win the conference championship games Saturday — which would include Clemson avenging its November loss to Notre Dame in the ACC title game — the playoff field very likely will be the four teams in the opening paragraph. If the Irish get absolutely rocked, like by 30? In that case, maybe Texas A&M gets in at No. 4.
Other unexpected things could happen, of course. The Irish knocking off Clemson again probably would kick the Tigers out of the field (hello again, Texas A&M). Then again, if A&M is upset at Tennessee (not a title game), some other sudden interloper (Iowa State? Cincinnati?) might be rewarded with a spot. That’s assuming two-loss Florida hasn’t reinvolved itself by shocking Alabama for the SEC crown.
Or? Imagine it: A No. 15 Northwestern (+20) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (11 a.m., Fox-32, 720-AM) game for the Big Ten title could deliver the boat-rocking result of the season.
Purple reign at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is a scenario almost nobody is even entertaining (witness that massive point spread). But can it happen? I’m literally shaking my head ‘‘no’’ while typing ‘‘yes.’’ Does that mean anything?
Look, of course it can happen. The Wildcats (6-1) have been rock-solid all season. Their comeback victory at Iowa — after trailing 17-0 in the first quarter — was the mark of a bad-to-the-bone team. Their defense, led by all-leaguers Paddy Fisher, Greg Newsome and Brandon Joseph, is rugged and opportunistic. Their spirits are high and their mojo is working.
But these are the Buckeyes (5-0). In Justin Fields, they have the Big Ten’s best quarterback since Drew Brees. They have an almost unstoppable receiving duo in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. They can run the ball, they throw it as efficiently as anybody and they’re great on third down. And that’s just the offense. The five-star guys are everywhere.
‘‘What do you have to do [to beat them]?’’ Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. ‘‘First of all, you’ve got to handle your business. You’ve got to prepare right, you’ve got to put a great week of practice together, you’ve got to be mentally focused, you’ve got to communicate well. And then you’ve got to execute fundamentally [and] schematically. And then, when you have opportunities, you’ve got to take advantage of them because they will be few and far between.’’
Gee, is that all?
Northwestern last won the Big Ten when it shared the title with Ohio State in 1996. Eleven more Buckeyes teams — including the last three — have done it since then, and this would be the 12th. The Wildcats, 14th in the CFP rankings, probably can’t climb all the way into the final four with a victory. Alas, it’s kind of a moot point. The Buckeyes have themselves a day — 34-17 — then it’s on to the Rose Bowl for a semifinal Jan. 1.
OTHER TITLE GAMES
Big 12: No. 8 Iowa State (+5½) vs. No. 12 Oklahoma (11 a.m., Ch. 7): Are we really to believe the Cyclones are capable of beating the big, bad Sooners twice in the same season? Oklahoma has played like a top-five team since that 37-30 loss in early October. Boomer, 37-24.
ACC: No. 2 Notre Dame (+10½) vs. No. 4 Clemson (3 p.m., Ch. 7, 1000-AM): Hey, you might’ve heard 8 billion times that Tigers superstar quarterback Trevor Lawrence didn’t play in the teams’ first go-round, a 47-40 overtime triumph by the Irish. The bigger deal is how two talented defenses will adjust. Irish lose — but cover — in Charlotte, North Carolina, and to the playoff both go.
Mountain West: No. 25 San Jose State (+6½) vs. Boise State (3:15 p.m., Fox-32): Go on, take a wild stab at which of these teams is 13-0 all-time against the other. With all due respect to Boise State, it’s time for that streak to end. Spartans by a field goal in Las Vegas.
SEC: No. 1 Alabama (-17) vs. No. 11 Florida (7 p.m., CBS): The Gators are seventh in the CFP rankings, but they hardly deserve it (though quarterback Kyle Trask would look mighty fine in a Bears uniform). Alabama, meanwhile, might be even better offensively than LSU was last season. Atlanta is just another word for Tide country. Yawn, 41-20.
American: No. 20 Tulsa (+14) at No. 6 Cincinnati (7 p.m., Ch. 7): The Bearcats are only ninth in the CFP rankings, a real snow job. They’re very good, they’re very ticked off and they’re on their home turf at Nippert Stadium. Cincy, 45-17.
My favorite favorite: Penn State (-15) vs. Illinois (4:30 p.m., FS1, 890-AM): It’s a final, needed chance for the Nittany Lions — who’ve won three in a row after a confounding 0-5 start — to resemble Nittany Lions.
My favorite underdog: Minnesota (+12½) at Wisconsin (3 p.m., BTN): What part of ‘‘badly broken Badgers offense’’ don’t you understand?
Last week: 7-1 straight-up, 6-2 against the spread. Who’s your buddy?
Season to date: 48-20 straight-up, 42-25-1 against the spread.