<
>

Schedule quirk thwarts Big Ten showdown

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- On a day when Ohio State re-established itself as a national title contender, Michigan State further validated itself as a team that will challenge for the Big Ten crown.

The Buckeyes made quick work of Indiana as quarterback Terrelle Pryor passed for a career-high 334 yards and an opportunistic defense recorded three interceptions. Meanwhile, a disciple of Buckeyes boss Jim Tressel (Mark Dantonio) returned to the coaching booth at Michigan and watched his Spartans team deliver a very Ohio State-like beating to the maize and blue.

Both Ohio State and Michigan State took a big step toward their ultimate goal.

"We are Big Ten contenders," Michigan State running back Edwin Baker said.

It looks like the case, but here's the bad news: There will be no collision course between the Buckeyes and Spartans. Because of the Big Ten's unbalanced schedule, Ohio State and Michigan State don't meet this season. Consequently, both teams could finish tied atop the league standings on Nov. 27 and share the Little League-ish label of co-champs, which the Big Ten mercifully will eliminate in 2011 when it launches a title game.

Both Ohio State and Michigan State went 4-0 in nonconference play, so the Big Ten's automatic representative to the BCS bowls would be the higher-ranked team in the final BCS standings. Given Ohio State's loftier preseason and current ranking, it would be hard to imagine the Buckeyes not getting the nod. Michigan State entered the season unranked.

There's a long way to go for both teams. Ohio State faces the first of two major road tests this week at Wisconsin. Both the Buckeyes and Michigan State must visit Iowa City, home of a Hawkeyes team that looks every bit like a league title contender.

But if Ohio State and Michigan State are tied atop the Big Ten in late November, it'll be a shame of sorts.

Imagine Dantonio taking a program covered with his fingerprints to face his mentor and the Buckeyes. It's tantalizing. And it won't come to pass. Big Ten fans might have to take solace in that old sporting maxim: Wait 'til next year.