Big Ten Conference foes are setting sights on powerful Ohio State
CHICAGO — The Big Ten has a defending champion in Michigan State, a recent three-year run of Rose Bowl appearances by Wisconsin and an all-time conference title leader in Michigan.
But if perception means anything, it has only one Evil Empire: Ohio State.
The Buckeyes seemingly are the Big Ten's perpetual favorites, a behemoth in terms of budget and prestige with a two-time national championship coach who came from the SEC. All of which makes Ohio State the school that the rest of the conference loves to hate.
“Everyone knows that coming to Ohio State, so you embrace it,” Buckeyes right end Jeff Heuerman said at Big Ten media days. “It gives you a little extra motivation, too, knowing that people don't like you and people want to beat you.”
The Big Ten does no formal preseason media or coaches poll, but Cleveland.com surveyed beat writers from across the conference. Ohio State was picked as champion on 19 of 29 ballots.
The Buckeyes have won 24 consecutive regular-season games (they were banned from postseason play in 2012 and lost both the Big Ten championship game and the Orange Bowl last season). Ohio State has been a consensus pick of national publications to win the Big Ten's East Division in 2014.
“You play at Ohio State, you're the hunted because you're at Ohio State,” said coach Urban Meyer, who previously coached at Florida.
The Buckeyes won at least a share of the Big Ten title every year from 2005-10. They also won the conference's most recent national championship and made the Big Ten's past three BCS title-game appearances.
That reputation earned in the recent past earns Ohio State respect going forward. Case in point: It enters 2014 as the favorite despite a 34-24 loss to Michigan State in last season's Big Ten championship game. And the Spartans have 13 starters returning.
Spartans coach Mark Dantonio seems to prefer it that way, emphasizing he believes his team is just “one of the hunted. I think that's important to recognize — not the hunted.
“We're not looking for any entitlement or anybody to put us up there.”
Long the Big Ten's standard-bearer — the Wolverines have a conference-best 42 Big Ten titles — Michigan ceded “marquee program” status to Ohio State over the past decade: Michigan has lost to the Buckeyes during eight of the past nine and 10 of the past 12 seasons and had a losing conference record in four of the past six years.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke disputes the notion that his program has fallen off and said the Wolverines are the Big Ten's “standard bearer.”
“I always have,” Hoke said. “We're the second-most watched team in the country.”
But with Michigan not doing its part in recent years to be Ohio State's primary foil, who will? Of traditional powerhouse candidates Penn State (dogged by sanctions), Nebraska (no conference titles this century), Wisconsin (losers in six of its past seven vs. Ohio State) and Iowa (one sub-four loss season since 2004), none has shown it can consistently scale the Buckeye mountain.
“I don't think anyone sits back and says Wisconsin is not an elite program in the Big Ten and, quite frankly, in the county,” Badgers coach Gary Andersen said. “We'll match ourselves up with any program.”