Old School: Big Ten back to Big Two this year

Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State have trotted out throwback uniforms in recent years to celebrate some aspect of their football history.

Ohio State and Michigan are offering their own unique twist this season, hearkening back to a bygone era of the Big Ten, without tweaking their appearance much at all.

By running off six dominant victories apiece, the Buckeyes and the Wolverines have returned the conference to the Big Two and Little Eight days, although it's the Little Nine now thanks to Penn State's addition since the Woody and Bo Era.

If Michigan can weather a Saturday trip to Penn State, without injured wide receiver Mario Manningham, all signs point toward a Nov. 18 matchup in Columbus between two unbeatens.

Ohio State's remaining schedule until Michigan is a punch line. After Michigan State this week come home dates with Indiana and Minnesota, then trips to Illinois and Northwestern.

Michigan gets Iowa at the Big House, then coasts toward OSU with games against Northwestern, Ball State and Indiana.

Manningham should be back by mid-November following the arthroscopic procedure he underwent Tuesday morning to repair torn cartilage in his knee.

He leads the Big Ten in receiving yards (87.8 yards per game), total receiving yards (527) and leads the nation with nine receiving touchdowns.

Manningham is just one of the playmakers who would be on display in what looms as the first Ohio State-Michigan matchup of unbeatens since 1975, when the Wolverines entered 8-0-2 and the Buckeyes were 10-0.

Michigan's Mike Hart is second in the league and No. 8 nationally in rushing with an average of 132 yards per game. OSU's Antonio Pittman is 15th in the country at 104 yards per game.

OSU quarterback Troy Smith leads most Heisman Trophy projections, and justifiably so given his 68 percent completion rate and 15 touchdown passes, against only two interceptions.

Michigan's Chad Henne is second behind Smith in the league's passing efficiency department (13 TD, 4 INT).

Michigan's Steve Breaston has the conference's top punt return average (11.3), probably because few teams bother kicking to OSU's Ted Ginn Jr., who has taken five returns back for touchdowns in his career.

Defensively, Michigan is the best in the country against the run (40.3 ypg), while OSU is first in scoring defense (9.3 ppg).

Ohio State and Michigan haven't reached the season finale unbeaten and untied since 1973, the second of 10 consecutive years (1972-81) that the winner of the matchup earned the Big Ten's automatic berth in the Rose Bowl.

While it's rare these days for Michigan and OSU to dominate in the same season, it once was routine.

In 1968 and 1970, and from 1972-75, the Michigan-Ohio State game not only decided which team would travel to Pasadena, each of those six seasons featured at least one unbeaten team and the other with no more than one blemish on its record.

But while the impending matchup echoes of nostalgia, the stakes also testify to how much college football has changed since the two storied programs ruled the standings every year.

Assuming both OSU and Michigan are unbeaten on Nov. 18, the loser -- not the winner -- would likely land in the Rose Bowl.

That's because the winner would almost certainly lead the Bowl Championship Series standings and therefore head to the BCS title game Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

The Rose Bowl would therefore have an inside lane to selecting the Ohio State-Michigan loser as its replacement team for losing the Big Ten Conference champion to the BCS title game.

Biggest Surprise
It's no surprise that Michigan State has tanked, but it is a surprise that the Spartans have mailed it in this early. Consecutive losses to Notre Dame, Illinois and Michigan -- with No. 1 Ohio State coming to East Lansing this week -- have all but sealed head coach John L. Smith's firing at season's end. Typically, MSU waits until the second half of the season to hit cruise control and drive off a cliff. This year, Sparty decided to get a jump on the Christmas season and hibernate early.

Midseason MVP
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith leads most Heisman Trophy projections, so it's impossible not to select him as the first-half MVP. Smith's status could change as the season unwinds, however, even though the Buckeyes' schedule until a Nov. 18 regular-season wrap-up with Michigan is laughably soft. The subpar competition should have Smith on the sidelines by the middle of the third quarter, giving Wisconsin's P.J. Hill or Michigan's Mike Hart a chance to hoist the trophy by season's end.

Midseason Coach of the Year
OSU's Jim Tressel boasted the nation's consensus No. 1 team in the preseason and has prodded the Buckeyes to performances worthy of that designation despite a September schedule of three Top-15 opponents, including Texas and Iowa on the road. Still, the winner is Michigan's Lloyd Carr, because he's done something more difficult than getting an already great team to play great. Carr had to sell the Wolverines on being better than their 7-5 record of 2005, while integrating new coordinators on offense and defense. The enormity of that task hasn't fazed him at all.

Bowl Bound
Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue.

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for 18 years and hosts a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.