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Ranking every Big Ten Championship Game

Where will Michigan-Iowa (version two) fall on the list?

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of tonight’s conference championship game between the Michigan Wolverines and Iowa Hawkeyes, let’s go ahead and rank every edition of the Big Ten title game that’s been played in Indianapolis. Because this is the final season of the East-West divisional format, for the purposes of this ranking, we will only be counting the nine games played since this format was introduced. Although the Big Ten Championship began in 2011, this means that Michigan State-Wisconsin (2011), Nebraska-Wisconsin (2012) and Michigan State-Ohio State (2013) will be excluded from this ranking. Let’s dive right in.

9. Michigan 42, Iowa 3 (2021)

Placing at the bottom of the rankings is the 2021 edition of the conference championship, Michigan’s first-ever appearance in Indianapolis. After beating Ohio State for the first time in a decade, it seemed like a formality that the No. 2 team in the nation would capture their first conference title since 2004.

Michigan did just that, jumping out to a quick score in the first quarter and never surrendering the lead. Iowa’s only points of the game came on a first-quarter field goal. Unsurprisingly, the stats are lopsided in this one, with Michigan out-gaining Iowa 461-279. The highlight of this one was a first quarter screen pass to running back Donovan Edwards, who subsequently looked down field and hurled the ball to Roman Wilson for a 75-yard trick play touchdown. The MVP of the game was future Detroit Lion Aidan Hutchinson, who is the only defensive player to receive the award in the game’s history. Although this game was exhilarating if you’re a Michigan fan, it was a snoozer for everyone else.

8. Michigan 43, Purdue 22 (2022)

This game features the only time in Big Ten Championship history where one of the teams was unranked headed into Indianapolis. Against Michigan, who was once again ranked No. 2 in the nation, prognosticators did not give the Boilermakers much of a chance. Respect to Purdue, who kept it close through two quarters, heading into the locker room trailing 14-13; however, things got out of hand in the second half as the Wolverines kept their undefeated record intact, cruising to their second consecutive conference championship and another trip to the College Football Playoffs.

Donovan Edwards ran all over Purdue’s defense in Blake Corum’s absence, piling on 185 yards and a touchdown, eventually earning MVP honors. This game could have been more competitive if not for a few poorly-timed Purdue interceptions and a handful of cowardly field goals. For an 8-4 team going against a well-oiled Michigan machine, Purdue put forth an admirable effort, but throughout this one, it always felt like the better team would come out on top.

7. Ohio State 59, Wisconsin 0 (2014)

In the first season of the College Football Playoffs and the Big Ten’s new division format, the No. 5 Buckeyes and No. 13 Badgers faced off in one of the most stunning games in recent conference memory. After Ohio State’s starting quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a season-ending ankle injury the prior week against Michigan, the third-string, redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones was thrust into the first start of his college career. Despite Ohio State’s 11-1 record, this uncertainty at the quarterback position made Wisconsin a 4.5-point favorite.

Ohio State immediately set the tone of this one, marking the only shutout in Big Ten Conference Championship history. The Buckeyes gained 558 yards to the Badgers' 258, holding the Badgers’ ground attack, led by the record-breaking Melvin Gordon, to only 71 yards on the day. This game was loaded with NFL talent: including Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and Taylor Decker, but it was the first-time starter in Jones who took home MVP honors, throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns. OSU coach Urban Meyer later admitted to running up the score to ensure his team would secure a spot in the four-team playoff.

So if this game was such a blowout, why isn’t it last on the ranking? It’s actually pretty simple: this game was the start of one of the greatest underdog runs in college football history. Ranked No. 4 going into the playoffs, Jones kept up his great play and helped the Buckeyes upset No. 1 Alabama 42-35. In the inaugural CFP national championship, Ohio State defeated Oregon 42-20 to win the program’s eighth national title.

6. Ohio State 45, Northwestern 24 (2018)

Northwestern’s first-ever trip to the Big Ten Championship resulted in a surprisingly entertaining game against the No. 6 ranked Buckeyes. This game featured a ton of offense, as Ohio State set the Big Ten Championship record for passing yards (499) and first downs (31) on the back of Dwayne Haskins’ MVP-deserving day.

Despite the dynamite offense from the East champs, the plucky 8-4 Wildcats were able to keep up with the Buckeyes for a large part of the game, even kicking a field goal to make the game 24-31 early in the fourth quarter. Ohio State pulled away in the fourth to cover the 16.5-point spread, but it was a high-scoring and entertaining game, with over 1,000 total yards on offense, that is far from the worst product the Big Ten had ever showcased in its title game.

5. Ohio State 22, Northwestern 10 (2020)

Are you tired of reading about the Buckeyes in Big Ten title games? I’ve got bad news for you. After a tumultuous season of pandemic cancellations and wonky results, the No. 4 Buckeyes (5-0) took on the No. 14 Wildcats (6-1) in the second meeting of these two teams in three years of championship games. Once again, the Buckeyes were 16.5-point favorites and once again, Northwestern kept it competitive, this time even taking a 10-6 lead into the half.

There’s no way to describe this game that does not start with Trey Sermon. Even on a down day for Justin Fields, the Buckeyes running back went on a frenzy, collecting a Big Ten Championship Game record 331 rushing yards (and the MVP award) in one of the most dominant displays of offensive line play I can remember. In a mostly empty Lucas Oil Stadium, it wasn’t the prettiest contest — both quarterbacks threw two interceptions, including a jaw-dropping end-zone snag by Brandon Joseph — but it was a competitive game that deserves a middle-tier spot in the rankings.

4. Ohio State 34, Wisconsin 21 (2019)

On the fun scale, this game grades out very well. No. 1 Ohio State and No. 8 Wisconsin met at the end of the 2019 season with high stakes on the line. The underdog Badgers jumped out to a 21-7 lead by halftime, with the Buckeyes first points coming with just 0:42 remaining in the first half.

It didn’t take long for the Buckeyes to fire up a comeback, claiming a 24-21 lead late in the third quarter and extending it to two scores early in the fourth. Chase Young and Ohio State’s defense was marvelous in the second half, but it was Justin Fields who won MVP with 299 yards and three scores. Although OSU would get knocked down to No. 2 in the rankings in favor of Joe Burrow and LSU, this game had everything a football fan could ask for: comebacks, one-handed catches, fake punts and Wisconsin’s punter literally dropping the ball.

3. Ohio State 27, Wisconsin 21 (2017)

Despite Wisconsin’s undefeated regular season and No. 4 ranking, it was the No. 8 Buckeyes who were favored in yet another matchup between Ohio State and Wisconsin. Future NFL stars Denzel Ward and Terry McLauirn set the tone early with a stellar interception and subsequent long touchdown catch to put the scarlet and gray up seven. Yet, Wisconsin responded with a pick-six on an errant decision from J.T. Barrett. When Ohio State’s offense wasn’t shooting itself in the foot with turnovers, the Buckeyes, led by MVP J.K. Dobbins, clearly looked like the better team. But Ohio State kept putting the ball in harm’s way, allowing Wisconsin to keep up with the Buckeyes and make the game 24-21 Ohio State early in the fourth.

After a ten-minute delay to fix the end zone turf (viewers of Iowa-Northwestern at Wrigley Field in 2023 will be glad to know the Big Ten has been having grass-related delays for years!), Ohio State began to run the clock. Just six days after having surgery on his knee, Barrett led a gutsy drive highlighted by a fourth-and-one conversion where the quarterback looked dead to rights but escaped. The Buckeyes kicked a field goal to extend the lead to six and an Alex Hornibrook interception ended Wisconsin’s perfect season. The next day, somewhat surprisingly, the Badgers found out they had been booted from the CFP for Alabama, who would go on to win it all.

2. Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31 (2016)

10-2 Badgers. 10-2 Nittany Lions. College GameDay in the house. And boy, did this game live up to the hype. Wisconsin’s first two drives each went the length of the field as the Badgers raced out to a 14-0 start, later getting a scoop-and-score defensive score and another rushing touchdown to claim a 28-7 lead with five minutes remaining in the second quarter.

But you all read the heading for this section, you know what happens next. Penn State rattled off 21 unanswered points to tie the game before the third quarter had even expired. Big plays came from guys you would expect (Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki) and ones you probably wouldn’t (Saeed Blacknall). Wisconsin tacked on a field goal to take a three-point lead into the final frame. Wisconsin’s defense could not stop Trace McSorley’s downfield shots as PSU claimed its first lead of the game on a Barkley receiving touchdown. On the decisive drive of the game, Wisconsin worked into Nittany Lion territory and had a fourth-and-one from the 24, needing a touchdown to send the game to OT. Corey Clement was stuffed short of the line to gain and with just one minute left, that all but sealed Penn State’s first Big Ten title.

1. Michigan State 16, Iowa 13 (2015)

No. 5 Michigan State sitting at 11-1 against 12-0 Iowa ranked No. 4. The winner gets a trip to the CFP and a Big Ten championship. The loser gets nothing (except a New Year’s Six Bowl). This game was a defensive slugfest early on — certainly not as visually appealing as Penn State-Wisconsin, but this Michigan State team (fresh off a walk-off field goal win over No. 2 Ohio State and the same season as the infamous “Trouble With the Snap” game against Michigan) had a knack for playing in close games.

Connor Cook (MSU) and C.J. Beathard (Iowa) had been arguably the two best quarterbacks in the conference in 2015, but the defenses took center stage, with Iowa taking a 6-3 halftime lead with only field goals on the board. The kicking continued in the third quarter with the Spartans adding another two boots to take a 9-6 lead. Early in the fourth, the impossible happened — Beathard found Tevaun Smith deep down the field for an 85-yard score, the game’s first touchdown, giving the Hawkeyes a four-point lead that would require Michigan State to stop settling for field goals. After trading punts, Michigan State went on the most iconic drive in Big Ten Championship Game history.

22 plays. 82 yards. Nine minutes and four seconds off the game clock, and six first downs gained. The drive is just as stress-inducing to watch now as it was eight years ago. It’s classic, ground-and-pound, control-the-clock Big Ten football. With just 27 ticks on the clock, LJ Scott punched it in for a two-yard score, ending Iowa’s undefeated season and sending Sparty to the playoffs, where MSU was thrashed 38-0 by an Alabama team that would become national champions.

Before we go, a brief shoutout to Gus Johnson, who has called each and every one of these conference championships. There’s nobody more electric to call the final few minutes of a game. Our guy Gus will be back on the call for Michigan-Iowa, where the Wolverines are favored by 22.5 points, the most for any Big Ten title ever.