AP Sports Writer
MADISON, Wis. — There are stakes beyond The Game for No. 8 Ohio State.
Keeping Paul Bunyan’s Axe is just a side note this year for No. 5 Wisconsin.
The final-week rivalry games will impact bragging rights and the College Football Playoff race, but the Big Ten championship matchup is all set. It will be the Buckeyes against the Badgers in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.
Not that there was much drama going into the second-to-last week of the season, especially in the West. The undefeated Badgers (11-0, 8-0, No. 5 CFP), who are off to the best start in school history, wrapped up the trip two weeks ago after overpowering Iowa.
The combination of the Ohio State win over Illinois last Saturday and Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin clinched the championship game berth out of the East for the Buckeyes (9-2, 7-1, No. 9 CFP).
Don’t think for a moment though that the Buckeyes are looking past The Game. “…The greatest rivalry in all of sport,” senior center Billy Price said.
Similarly, coach Paul Chryst has Wisconsin playing with week-to-week blinders. They’re not looking past Minnesota in the annual grudge match for Paul Bunyan’s Axe this weekend.
Both teams are still alive for a College Football Playoff spot, especially the Badgers. Win out and Wisconsin stands a good shot of getting into the final four.
The defense is championship-caliber. Big Ten-leading rusher Jonathan Taylor has turned into a star in his freshman season. The team thrives under adversity.
After beating ranked teams Iowa and Michigan in back-to-back weeks, getting a win over Ohio State would give Wisconsin’s postseason resume another boost.
The Badgers will be quick to remind anyone who asks that they have to beat the Gophers first to stay unbeaten, regardless of Minnesota’s struggles. The Gophers have lost three of four, with all three defeats coming on the road. The lone victory in that stretch came against struggling Nebraska in Minneapolis.
The Axe has been in Wisconsin hands for 13 straight years.
“We always talk about focusing on the now,” Badgers receiver Kendric Pryor said. “Each week we just try to focus on who our opponent is and what we need to do that week to beat them.”
Ohio State faces a decidedly tougher assignment for its road trip to the Big House. A win for the Wolverines would make their season after falling short in the East.
Michigan’s offense has problems, especially if quarterback Brandon Peters can’t play after getting knocked out of the Wisconsin game. But the Wolverines’ athletic defense will test Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, especially in Ann Arbor.
With two losses, the Buckeyes are barely hanging on to playoff hopes.