The 2015 Big Ten Championship Game features a little bit of parity, but also two well-coached, blue collar teams — the combination of which will never cease to grab attention.
Michigan State‘s presence in Indianapolis isn’t shocking, though the majority of folks probably would’ve predicted a repeat appearance from Ohio State following a dominating postseason run last year, which, as we all know, ended in a national championship. The Spartans stumbled only once with a controversial 39-38 heartbreaker at Nebraska in early November that seemingly ended their championship hopes, though their one saving grace was that they would still have the opportunity to face Ohio State. Their chances again seemed bleak when quarterback Connor Cook was declared inactive prior to the game. Luckily for the Spartans, their defense put together their most inspired performance all season, completely shutting down the Buckeyes’ stars. Michigan State pulled off the 17-14 upset with a walk-off field goal by Michael Geiger. They would control their own destiny heading into the final weekend and won in dominant fashion with a 55-16 laugher over Penn State.
Iowa‘s season wasn’t as much of a roller coaster ride as the Hawkeyes capped a perfect regular season last week. Kirk Ferentz‘s group was expected to improve upon a 7-6 season in 2014, but I for one expected a third or fourth place finish in the west. The Hawkeyes have had great seasons under Ferentz, but never had he led this or any other program to an unbeaten regular season until now.
The Hawkeyes parted ways with former starting quarterback Jake Rudock in the offseason, opting to move forward with junior C.J. Beathard. Rudock transferred to Michigan and led the Wolverines to a 9-3 season. It’s safe to say, though, that Iowa isn’t disappointed with their quarterback situation. Beathard certainly isn’t a flashy player, but he’s smart and makes plays in many ways. He epitomized the Hawkeyes’ entire football team. He finds ways to get it done. In fact, a win Saturday will make him just the fifth quarterback since 2000 to win the first 14 starts of his career. The others were Brandon Doman, Greg McElroy, Cam Newton and Jameis Winston. Not bad.
There are a few interesting matchups coming up Saturday night. Let’s start in the passing game, where Cook will have to contend with the nation’s co-interception leader, Desmond King. Cook isn’t the type to completely shy away from competition, but he’ll have to be cautious and avoid costly turnovers.
The Hawkeyes will also have their hands full offensively and will try to break through a defense that hasn’t given up much in the past few weeks. The Spartans’ defense ranks just 73rd overall, but they’re known for making big plays with 14 interceptions and 32 sacks. I’ll give Iowa the advantage here, because they take care of the ball and have a quarterback who plays well outside of the pocket.
Lastly, I’m very interested in the X’s and O’s matchup between two of the Big Ten’s three longest tenured coaches. Ferentz saved his job by bouncing back from a couple of average seasons with a perfect one, while Mark Dantonio has turned the Spartans into one of the winningest and most respected programs in the country. Great coaching is a privilege to watch and it’ll certainly be on display this weekend in Indianapolis.
My gut is telling me that because Michigan State will bring the more talented team, they should probably come out on top in a hard-fought game. But there’s something about the Hawkeyes that I really like. They have it. I can’t really tell you what it is, but they have it. Ferentz has found a way to motivate his team through every tough situation, and I think they still have a lot to prove. I like Iowa to squeak through this game and into the final four for a chance at a national title. Ball protection and an a timely turnover from the defense will be the difference in a 26-24 final.
Needless to say, the winner will most certainly advance to the College Football Playoff, which makes this — in my mind — the most intriguing matchup of championship weekend.
Jason Shawley is a Featured Writer for RantSports.com covering Big Ten Football. Follow him on Twitter @jshawls.