Our friends in the South often label the SEC title game as the real national championship, and for good reason.
The winner of the game has gone on to hoist the crystal football in six of the past seven seasons. In some cases, like last year, the eventual national champion was tested more in Atlanta than at any of the BCS bowl sites. From the teams to the coaches to the media interest to the BCS title implications, the SEC championship carries a distinctly national feel.
The Big Ten championship, at least in its infancy, hasn't had the same ability to reach beyond the region.
The inaugural event in 2011 generated some buzz because that's what inaugural events do. Wisconsin and Michigan State provided great theater that night in Indianapolis, combining for 81 points and several dramatic swings, but both teams entered the game with two losses. The national focus was on championship games in the SEC and Big 12, as it should have been.
Last year's Big Ten championship had even less hype. It featured a 7-5 Wisconsin team that finished third in the Leaders Division but returned to Indy because both Ohio State and Penn State were ineligible for postseason play. Wisconsin and Nebraska played in front of a one-third empty stadium and a press box with plenty of open seats in a game that didn't make a dent outside the Big Ten footprint.
As league commissioner Jim Delany told us before the 2012 title game, "We have to be realistic and sort of honest about what we have here."
Well, let's be realistic and honest about what we have Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium: a Big Ten title game that finally matters beyond league borders.
With all due respect to No. 3 Auburn and No. 5 Missouri, who will meet for the SEC crown, the Big Ten championship between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State has usurped the SEC's in significance and attention. ESPN's "College GameDay" announced Sunday night it will be in Indy for the Big Ten title game after heading to the SEC championship in four of the past five years. Nearly 550 media credentials have been issued, and aside from a few suites, the game is sold out.
What happens in Atlanta likely won't matter in the national championship race if Ohio State beats Michigan State, and No. 1 Florida State doesn't stumble against No. 20 Duke in the ACC title game.
Ohio State's debut in the Big Ten championship and its place in the national title race is the biggest reason for the game's enhanced profile. The Big Ten's signature event has yet to feature the league's preeminent program, and the league's only team that has played for a BCS championship. The Buckeyes are 24-0 under second-year coach Urban Meyer, setting a school record for consecutive victories. Barring a significant shakeup on BCS selection Sunday, if Ohio State wins on Saturday, it will play for a crystal football on Jan. 6.
Michigan State also adds to the prestige of Saturday's game. Like the Buckeyes, the Spartans are undefeated in Big Ten play, and they've actually been more dominant, winning all eight league contests by 11 points or more. The Spartans are the first team to win all of its Big Ten games by double-figure points since Michigan in 1943 (the Wolverines went 6-0 that year).
It's the first time since 2002 (the Big Ten's last national championship) and the second time since 1943 that two teams got through the league schedule unscathed. And unlike those other seasons, the championship game provides definitive proof of the Big Ten's kingpin for 2013.
"On the national scale, you have two top 10 teams that are going to be playing against each other with a lot at stake, everything at stake," Meyer said. "Like any other major conference, you're dealing with two top 10 teams fighting for the ultimate prize."
Saturday marks the first Big Ten championship where both teams are ranked in the top 10 (Wisconsin and Michigan State were Nos. 10 and 17, respectively, entering the 2011 game). It features the nation's top-ranked defense in Michigan State against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State.
"It makes it even more exciting," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. "There's obviously a buzz throughout the Big Ten area and maybe nationally about the game."
There's star power on both sides such as Ohio State's Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby; and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Shilique Calhoun and Denicos Allen. Although Michigan State's offense and Ohio State's defense don't garner nearly as much attention, both units have had players blossom this season such as Spartans running back Jeremy Langford and Buckeyes defensive lineman Michael Bennett.
It's important for them to put on a show Saturday night. Big Ten perception continues to suffer, and many have discredited Ohio State's historic run by pointing to the league's relative weakness. But many national observers stopped watching the league after a poor nonconference performance.
They'll be watching Saturday night, and both teams need to shine.
"It's great for our conference," Meyer said. "The Big Ten should be doing this, and I believe it will from here on out."