Urban Meyer did not dance around what is on the line Saturday night when his Ohio State Buckeyes travel to Michigan State.
Yes, there is the obvious: a win against a conference opponent ranked in the top 10 and the chance to take control of the race in the Big Ten East. There’s the opportunity to avenge a loss in the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game, too, but a win Saturday night will not change that particular trophy’s address.
There is something Ohio State can take back, though, and the Buckeyes’ coach made clear he is going to tell his players more is at stake than simply taking another step toward the team’s ultimate goals, the ones that are the same every season.
Before the Buckeyes can claim to be the best team in their conference — or even their division — they need to get back something they lost.
"This is a game to get the respect that Ohio State deserves and has had in the past," Meyer said. "You have to go compete and win this game and it’s going to be a task. But that’s real."
For the better part of the last decade, the Buckeyes ruled the Big Ten. After winning the conference and the national championship in 2002, they won or shared the Big Ten title six consecutive seasons from 2005-10. There were always challengers for the throne, and not every season was perfect, but they all ended with Ohio State beating Michigan and getting a new trophy to add to the 30-some they already had.
The Buckeyes are still beating the Wolverines regularly, but their historic rival hasn’t had much say in the Big Ten race in recent seasons.
Instead it’s Michigan State, a program steadily on the rise since former Ohio State assistant coach Mark Dantonio because the head coach there in 2007. The Spartans won a share of Ohio State’s last Big Ten championship (along with Wisconsin) in 2010 then claimed a division title in 2011 when they played in the conference’s first championship game and lost to the Badgers. MSU beat the Buckeyes in Columbus in 2011, but that was an Ohio State squad hobbled by sanctions from the NCAA that also included vacating their share of the 2010 crown.
With the Buckeyes banned from the postseason in 2012, they could not play for the Big Ten title, but they beat Michigan State as the Spartans took a step back from the previous two seasons and finished 7-6.
MSU’s success did not come without a certain feeling it was at least partly related to the Buckeyes’ fall from grace, but the programs got a chance to settle it on the field at the end of last season when they met in the conference title game with identical 8-0 conference records.
Despite the dominance of their division, the Spartans arrived in Indianapolis for what many felt was a coronation of an Ohio State team that had won 24 straight games. Dantonio’s squad had other plans, though, getting the drop on the Buckeyes with a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. Ohio State battled back to take a 24-20 lead in the third quarter, but the upstarts didn’t fold. They pounded out a 14-0 final stanza to claim the crown and leave Ohio State players and fans in disbelief that their dreams were dashed.
In the 11 months that have passed, both teams have had their ups and downs, but there is no doubt which team is on top heading into this rematch. Michigan State went on to upset Stanford in the Rose Bowl while Ohio State lost to Clemson in the Orange.
The sixth-ranked Spartans have been ranked higher than the 11th-ranked Buckeyes in both major polls since the second week of the season, and they opened up above them in the first College Football Playoff rankings, too.
But Ohio State knows it can change the course of history again this weekend even if the Buckeyes’ head coach is not ready to declare the Spartans a new rival just yet.
"We have one rival here," he said, referring to Michigan. "What’s happened in this situation is you have an excellent team (in Michigan State). After watching them on film, they’re a great team. And they stand in the way of Big Ten championship. They stood in the way last year and we failed.
"And so does that make them a rival? It makes them in the way of something that we all want. And that’s Big Ten championship. I think it happened a little bit with Wisconsin. I remember our first year it was big because they went to three straight Rose Bowls. I think this is a credit to their university, their coaching staff and most importantly their players. And our guys know that. So to say this is a rivalry game, that would diminish the rivalry that’s been here for 100 years. This is a great game because it’s two teams battling for first place."
Rivalry or not, it’s a game that will define the season, and the Buckeyes hope it puts them back where they feel they belong in the conference hierarchy.