COLUMBUS — With the College Football Playoff looming this season, every single game from here on out possesses huge implications.
For the Big Ten, this week's showdown between No. 13 Ohio State (7-1, (4-0 Big Ten) and No. 7 Michigan State (7-1, 4-0) in East Lansing, pairs two teams who give the conference its best chance of inclusion in the first-ever playoff this January.
It also pairs two programs who have become the class of the Big Ten.
With the steady decline in success for Michigan over the past several seasons, has this match-up between the Buckeyes and Spartans — who faced off in last year's Big Ten title game — become the marquee rivalry in the conference?
"We have one rival here (Michigan)," OSU head coach Urban Meyer said, during his weekly media luncheon in Columbus. "What's happened in this situation is you have an excellent team (Michigan State). After watching them on film, they're a great team. And they stand in the way of a Big Ten championship. They stood in the way last year and we failed.
"So does that make them a rival? It makes them in the way of something that we all want. And that's a 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.
"Our guys know that," Meyer continued. "So to say this is a rivalry game, that would diminish the rivalry that's been here for 100 years (vs. Michigan). This is a great game because it's two teams battling for first place."
Whether Meyer wants to admit it or not, Michigan State has been the game circled on the schedule this season, because wins against "rival" Michigan simply don't pack much of a punch on the playoff resume.
"They're the king of the hill right now because they won the championship and you have to dethrone them," Meyer said of Michigan State. "How do you do that? You outwork them Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday."
However, to win on Saturday, the Buckeyes must perform much better against Spartans quarterback, Conner Cook, than they did in the Big Ten Championship last December — where they surrendered more than 300 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
"They jumped out to a quick start (last year)," Meyer said. "We did not play very good pass defense. Gave up a big one that we didn't need to give up."
Offensively, the Buckeyes proved they could move against the stingy Spartans defense, but were unable to cash in when they needed to most.
Execution in critical situations, and the pass defense, must improve tremendously this time around if the Buckeyes want to position themselves for a real playoff run.
"On offense, we had the ball at the end of the game, we didn't execute to win the game," Meyer said. "I thought offensively, watching it, that was two very good teams playing each other last year.
"Very physical, physical game that they made a few more plays than we did. But I thought our pass defense hurt us last year in that game and obviously with the ball in your hand to go win it, we didn't get it done."
The Buckeyes need to be the offense that has scored 50-plus points in five of their last six games, and not the squad who struggled on the road against lowly Penn State.
While I believe the Buckeyes' pass defense is much improved, and the defensive front — led by All-American candidate, Joey Bosa — will provide headaches for Cook and the Spartans offense, I feel the Spartans' defense is just as nasty.
Decision-making under center will be what decides the outcome, and right now, I feel the veteran Cook has the advantage over OSU's young, talented quarterback, J.T. Barrett.
It will be a classic for sure, but in the end, I think the Buckeyes are still a year away from being true playoff contenders.
Lee's Prediction: Michigan State 24-21