Northwestern vs. Ohio State: Crank up the mismatch-o-meter
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Nine times out of 10 — if not 99 times out of 100 — us-against-the-world sports quotes are, to put it about as nicely as possible, cringe-worthily disingenuous. Especially when they come from a coach.
And it seems, from Lou Holtz to Nick Saban (with many others before and since), no coaches have mastered this inane tactic quite like those in college football.
But we should give Pat Fitzgerald a pass for his us-against-the-world classic delivered early this week. Why? Because No. 21 Northwestern vs. No. 6 Ohio State (7 p.m. Saturday, Fox-32, 720-AM) registers higher on the mismatch-o-meter than any previous Big Ten championship game. The Wildcats (8-4, 8-1 Big Ten) are 14-point underdogs against the Buckeyes (11-1, 8-1).
‘‘I don’t think anyone outside these doors would pick us to win this game,’’ Fitzgerald told reporters before the Wildcats left for Indianapolis. ‘‘I mean, my mom and dad, I guess, would. I’m not even sure if my sisters will, so we’ll see. But I don’t need them. I just need the 74 guys who will put on purple and white on Saturday.’’
There are some formidable forces at work in this matchup. One is the Wildcats’ truly amazing run of 15 victories in their last 16 conference games. It’s not overstating things to say that Fitzgerald’s teams routinely come through when most figure they won’t.
‘‘Nobody had to beat somebody else for us to back-door our way into this game,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘Our guys went out in the arena, and they earned it. That’s what gives me confidence.’’
But there also are the talent and speed gaps between the Buckeyes and the rest of the Big Ten to consider. It took until late November for coach Urban Meyer’s team to play like the national powerhouse it is, but on clear display in Ohio State’s 62-39 dismantling last week of rival Michigan were the five-star-laden athleticism and explosiveness about which the other coaches in the conference only can dream.
The Buckeyes have one of the best passing quarterbacks in their history in Dwayne Haskins, and the run-after-the-catch ability of his receiving targets is off the charts. A year ago at Lucas Oil Stadium, unbeaten Wisconsin’s top-notch defense couldn’t handle those runs after catches. Watch out for Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Co.
And then there’s this: Ohio State isn’t looking merely to win the game; it’s looking to blow the doors off Northwestern and wow the College Football Playoff committee. If Oklahoma beats Texas in the Big 12 title game earlier in the day — or if Georgia upsets Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game, leaving the top-ranked Tide as a potential No. 3 or
No. 4 entrant in the playoff — the Buckeyes will put the pedal to the metal and keep it there, if they can, for 60 minutes.
Remember: Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0 in 2014. That was the astonishing result that blew the committee’s collective mind and put the Buckeyes — controversially — into the first playoff with the No. 4 ranking. And then they backed it up by winning the national title.
That’s the peak-late path the Buckeyes are looking to steamroll down again.
‘‘I’m going to be very hard on everybody this week, and we cannot see anything other than the same effort we did last week,’’ Meyer told reporters. ‘‘When you win [against Michigan] and win the way you did, now that’s the time to cut it loose and be very over-the-top demanding of them.’’
My own mind has been blown by this 15-in-16 Northwestern run. I’ve picked against the Wildcats and been dead wrong as many times as the next schmo. But I can’t unsee what Ohio State did to Michigan, nor can I unsee what happened in Indy in 2014.
We’re talking peak Buckeyes. They romp, 41-14.
MAC: NORTHERN ILLINOIS VS. BUFFALO
The facts: Friday, 6 p.m., ESPN2, 560-AM, Detroit.
The records: NIU 7-5, 6-2 MAC; Buffalo 10-2, 7-1 MAC.
The storyline: This is where the Huskies’ meat grinder of a non-conference schedule is supposed to pay off. Can they out-tough the talented Bulls, especially with their defensive front? An effective pass rush is a must against Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson, who has the best receivers in the conference. NIU has the most appearances in this game — this is No. 8 — but only three victories to show for it.
The line: Bulls by 3½.
Greenberg’s pick: Buffalo, 27-16.
PAC-12: NO. 17 UTAH VS. NO. 10 WASHINGTON
The facts: Friday, 7 p.m., Fox-32, Santa Clara, Calif.
The records: Utah 9-3, 6-3 Pac-12; Washington 9-3, 7-2 Pac-12.
The storyline: Is there a more capable three-loss team than the Huskies? They fell to Auburn, Oregon and California by a combined 10 points and could’ve won all three of those games. They have better athletes than Utah — maybe not by a lot — and seem to have gotten over the pain of falling out of playoff contention. Oh, and they won by 14 in Salt Lake City in September. If you like good defense, this one’s for you. Isn’t that a crazy thing to say about the Pac-12?
The line: Huskies by 5½.
Greenberg’s pick: Washington, 24-19.
BIG 12: NO. 14 TEXAS VS. NO. 5 OKLAHOMA
The facts: Saturday, 11 a.m., Ch. 7, Arlington, Texas.
The records: Texas 9-3, 7-2 Big 12; Oklahoma 11-1, 8-1 Big 12.
The storyline: Like Ohio State in the Big Ten title game, the Sooners aren’t just trying to win; they’re trying to dominate and give the playoff committee no choice but to reward them. Unlike Ohio State, however, the Sooners are facing an opponent they’ve already played — and lost to. Despite that 48-45 barnburner, give me QB Kyler Murray and the OU offense in the rematch. OU’s defense is a sick, twisted joke, but its offense is capable of lighting up any defense, even Alabama’s.
The line: Sooners by 8.
Greenberg’s pick: Oklahoma, 48-35.
AMERICAN: MEMPHIS VS. NO. 8 UCF
The facts: Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7, Orlando, Fla.
The records: Memphis 8-4, 5-3 AAC; UCF 11-0, 8-0 AAC.
The storyline: It’s still feels like a punch in the gut to think about last week’s devastating knee injury suffered by the Knights’ McKenzie Milton, who for the last two seasons had been the most underrated, underappreciated QB in the country. What becomes of this team — unbeaten since 2016 — without him? The Tigers lost by one point at home when the teams met in October. They have the speed defensively to make things difficult on Milton’s backup, Darriel Mack Jr.
The line: Knights by 3.
Greenberg’s pick: Memphis, 31-24.
SEC: NO. 1 ALABAMA VS. NO. 4 GEORGIA
The facts: 3 p.m., Ch. 2, Atlanta.
The records: Alabama 12-0, 8-0 SEC: Georgia 11-1, 7-1 SEC.
The storyline: The point spread below tells all about how much stronger than anyone else the Crimson Tide are believed to be. Despite its ranking, Georgia likely would be the favorite head-to-head against No. 3 Notre Dame. Against No. 2 Clemson? It might be a pick-’em. But this is two touchdowns’ worth of uh-oh against Tua Tagovailoa — the QB who zapped the Bulldogs’ national-title hopes last season with an overtime heave on this same field — and what clearly could be Nick Saban’s best team yet. The Tide haven’t been challenged yet.
The line: Crimson Tide by 13½.
Greenberg’s pick: Alabama, 37-24.
MOUNTAIN WEST: NO. 25 FRESNO STATE AT NO. 19 BOISE STATE
The facts: 6:45 p.m., ESPN.
The records: Fresno State 10-2, 7-1 MWC; Boise State 10-2, 7-1 MWC.
The storyline: The Bulldogs have a wide receiver, KeeSean Johnson — no, he’s not related to longtime NFLer Keyshawn — who’s probably the most potent individual player in this game. The Broncos have the blue turf, though, which somehow seems to be where they find themselves for every big game. Fair? Nope, not at all. But beating Boise on its home field is as difficult a proposition as there is.
The line: Broncos -2½.
Greenberg’s pick: Boise State, 27-24.
ACC: NO. 2 CLEMSON VS. PITTSBURGH
The facts: 7 p.m., Ch. 7, Charlotte, N.C.
The records: Clemson 12-0, 8-0 ACC; Pittsburgh 7-5, 6-2 ACC.
The storyline: The ACC has outdone itself with its biggest letdown of a title game yet. Our crack squad of researches dug deep for something — anything — the Panthers do better than the Tigers, and, by golly, it turns out Pitt is pretty dang great at returning kickoffs. Which is good, because it’ll be doing that all night long.
The line: Tigers by 27½.
Greenberg’s pick: Clemson, 45-10.