Ohio State-Michigan State: The 'Big' 10 things to watch

Ohio State-Michigan State: The 'Big' 10 things to watch
December 6, 2013, 2:00 pm
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Vinnie Duber

Big Ten, big stage.

That was one of many advertising slogans the conference dreamt up over the past few years, and perhaps they should dust it off again Saturday night, when No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State battle for the conference championship in Indianapolis.

The stakes are high, with a BCS championship game slot on the line for the scarlet and gray and a potential first Rose Bowl trip since the 1980s for the green and white. The Coach of the Year, Mark Dantonio. The Offensive Player of the Year, Braxton Miller. This game's star-studded.

Perhaps that's why it's being played on the big stage.

Here are the "Big" 10 things to watch when you flip this one on Saturday. The game kicks off at 7:17 p.m. on FOX.

1. Braxton Miller, the Heisman candidate. Written off for the award real early in the season thanks to an injury that caused him to miss all of two games and the vast majority of a third, the Ohio State quarterback has put together a tremendous season that should definitely put his name in the Heisman discussion. Though that probably won't happen, even though it's deserved, Miller is still playing some of the best football of any individual athlete in the country. On the ground, through the air, Miller can do it all. He's got 1,759 pass yards, 891 rush yards and 29 total touchdowns. He's the two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and this year's quarterback on both the coaches and media All-Big Ten First Teams. Braxton Miller's pretty great, and you should watch him.

2. College football still has defense. And it lives in East Lansing. All season long, the Spartans have boasted "the nation's top defense." Here's what that means: No. 1 in total defense (237.7 yards per game), No. 1 in rush defense (64.8 yards per game), No. 3 in scoring defense (11.8 points per game) and No. 9 in passing defense (172.9 yards per game). Those eye-popping numbers are courtesy of a defense that placed five different players on the rosters of either of the two All-Big Ten First Teams. Highlights include shutdown corner Darqueze Dennard (four interceptions this season), linebacker Max Bullough (73 tackles including nine for loss) and defensive linemen Shilique Calhoun (seven sacks). NFL Draft fans might want to take notes while watching the Sparty D.

[MORE: Improved Michigan State offense a factor in Big Ten title game]

3. Carlos Hyde is an unstoppable machine. If Miller's dual-threat excellence isn't your cup of tea, perhaps Carlos Hyde's incredible rushing ability will get you tuned in. Hyde is the conference's Running Back of the Year and deservedly so. Despite missing three games himself (due to suspension), he finished the season as the Big Ten's leading rusher, averaging 143.3 yards per game, also good for sixth in the nation. In raw numbers, he still ranked fourth in the conference and 16th in the country, with 1,290 yards on the ground. His 14 rushing TDs ranked second in the conference. Michigan State has the world's best run defense, but they haven't seen Hyde yet.

4. Can Shilique Calhoun score a touchdown? We've already mentioned the dominance of the Michigan State defense, and perhaps no one has starred more than Calhoun. His seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss are very impressive. But Calhoun has also had the uncanny ability to find the end zone this season. He scored three touchdowns — three! — in the Spartans' first two games of the season, a fumble return against Western Michigan and both a fumble and interception return against South Florida. Michigan State has scored a whopping five defensive touchdowns on the season. Calhoun, an All-Big Ten First Team member, finished the year with two forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, not to mention 17 quarterback hits.

[RELATED: Dantonio on Spartans' national-title hopes: 'Why not us?']

5. That other defense. Michigan State's defense deservedly grabs the headlines, but Ohio State is no slouch on that side of the ball either. The Buckeyes finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing an average of 20.2 points per game, and total defense, allowing 355.8 yards per game. Sure, those numbers are far cries from Sparty's superhuman totals, but the Buckeyes allowed 14 points or fewer in five of their 12 games this season. Plus, three Buckeyes — linebacker Ryan Shazier, cornerback Bradley Roby and defensive lineman Noah Spence — were named to All-Big Ten First Teams. Shazier was the conference leader in tackles, accounting for 10.2 per game, and tackles for loss, finishing with 21 of them. Spence was the conference's second-best sack-man, dragging down the quarterback eight times. And Roby ranked third in the Big Ten with 16 passes defended.

6. The continued maturation of Connor Cook. The Michigan State quarterback won't bowl you over with numbers, but this guy's just a sophomore and he already has a bunch of wins to his name. Assisted by a great running back in Jeremy Langford, Cook has led the Sparty offense through a midseason rebirth. This offense was once being outscored by its defense, and a dreadful passing game was being outscored by Calhoun, a defensive lineman. Cook has turned things around and made this an offense worth respecting, finishing with 2,119 passing yards (more than Miller) and 17 touchdown throws.

[MORE: Buckeyes know what they're getting in elite Spartans defense]

7. Can Urban Meyer stay perfect? Since arriving in Columbus prior to the start of the 2012 season, Meyer has not lost a game as the Buckeyes head coach. After going 12-0 a year ago — no bowl game due to NCAA penalties — he's 12-0 again. Though he won a pair of national championships at Florida, he came to Columbus with just one prior undefeated season: 2004 with Utah. Should the Buckeyes win Saturday, he'll have a chance to make it two in a row with a win in Ohio State's eventual bowl game, which give him his first 14-win season.

8. Let's try this again. The Spartans appeared in the first-ever Big Ten title game back in 2011 and lost to Wisconsin in a classic 42-39 game. After last year's Badger win over Nebraska, this year's Michigan State inclusion means all three editions of the recently installed championship game have featured either Wisconsin or Michigan State. The Spartans were co-champs with the Badgers and Buckeyes in 2010. A win Saturday would mark Michigan State's first outright Big Ten title since 1987.

[RELATED: Buckeyes, Spartans dominate All-Big Ten teams, year-end honors]

9. History for the Spartans. Should Michigan State grab a victory, they'll be guaranteed a spot in the program's first-ever BCS bowl game. Dantonio's in his seventh season in East Lansing, and he's led the team to a bowl game in each game. But he's never cracked the BCS. That could all change this season, even with a loss, but a win would make it a certainty on Saturday night. It'd likely send the Spartans to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1988, a 20-17 win over USC.

10. BCS title implications. With Ohio State holding the nation's No. 2 ranking and one of just two unblemished records among automatic-qualifying conference teams, there's a lot of national implications in this game. Should the Buckeyes win, it would figure to secure them a spot in the national championship game. If the Spartans emerge the victors, however, it would open up the door for another team to play for the title, potentially the SEC champion. And let's not even think about what were to happen if No. 1 Florida State also falls in the ACC Championship Game, also taking place Saturday night.