Wisconsin and Ohio State meet in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Conference Championship Game, the first featuring the new "East" and "West' divisions of the conference (previously Wisconsin and Ohio State had been in the same division - one of them participated in all three previous title games). To answer the most interesting question first, the Predictalator played the game with Ohio State starting freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett 100% healthy and still had Wisconsin as the favorite, 50.2% of the time in 50,000 simulations and by an average score of essentially 29-28 Badgers. Sportsbooks have attributed the downgrade from Barrett to Jones to be around seven points, suggesting that Ohio State would have been around a field goal favorite on a neutral field. We agree with the size of the shift in points, though we have a decent opinion on the Badgers to cover the spread either way.
Regarding the game as it will be played on Saturday, Ohio State has dropped all the way to #17 in our College Football Power Rankings that evaluate how many teams would be favored on a neutral field over the Buckeyes as presently constructed (Florida State is just two spots ahead of OSU). The Buckeyes are 11-1 straight-up and 7-5 against-the-spread versus just the 60th ranked schedule in FBS this year. Ohio State has only played ONE team all season that ranks within the Top 40 of our rankings. While the schedule is already troubling, putting numbers into context shows some of the Buckeyes' issues even before the Barrett injury. Ohio State ranks as having just the 55th ranked run defense in the country. The team has allowed more than five yards-per-carry to its opponents on the season despite only playing two games against Top 25 rushing teams. Wisconsin is the nation's best rushing team.
As for the difference between new starting quarterback Cardale Jones and Barrett, there seems to be a reason that Barrett was named the starter to begin the season after Braxton Miller's injury, despite the fact that he is just a redshirt freshman and was coming off a significant injury of his own. Jones is not remotely close to the runner that Barrett is and his accuracy appears to be an issue in the passing game. Barrett just set the all-time Big Ten touchdown record for a single season. Jones is now leading a passing offense that we rank just 40th in the nation.
Wisconsin is really good too and it's not all Melvin Gordon and the top-ranked running game. The Badgers are 10-2 straight-up and 6-5 ATS against the 61st ranked schedule. Given that their schedules have been similar, it's easy to compare teams. Wisconsin has the notably better run defense, allowing less than four yards-per-carry. The pass defenses are almost identical and the Badgers' pass offense has seen recent steady improvement as last year's starter, Joel Stave, has gotten healthier and is able to start and finish games (both losses came before Stave was fully inserted into the lineup - since then, Wisconsin is averaging exactly 40 points-per-game offensively, winning by almost three touchdowns on average).
With everything else essentially even, the massive advantage the Badgers have on the ground is the reason to expect Wisconsin to win and cover the spread. The total is of interest as well as it has been plummeting as of late and currently sits at 52.5. Both teams have gone OVER the total more often than not this season, combining for a 15-6 record on over/unders. Expect Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes to continue playing at a fast tempo and for some of Jones inevitable mistakes to help lead to easy Badgers' points, all favoring the over.
According to 50,000 games played by the Predictalator at PredictionMachine.com, Wisconsin wins over Ohio State 60.5% of the time and by an average score of 32.8-25.5. As four point favorites winning by a touchdown, the Badgers cover the spread 54.9% of the time, which would justify a $26 play from a normal $50 better. The total goes OVER 52.5 58.0% of the time, which warrants a wager of $59 from a normal $50 player. There are two stronger totals and three stronger against-the-spread plays on Saturday according to our Week 15 analysis.