The Big Ten has been nothing short of wacky so far this season.

All 10 of the conference’s teams are separated by no more than three games, with four teams sitting atop the standings at 7-5, including Northwestern, who is under .500 for the whole season.

But the favorites for the conference crown remain the same as they did when the season began — the familiar tandem of Michigan and Ohio State. And the rivals will square off this weekend in a series that will go a long way to determining the regular season champion.

The Wolverines (7-5 Big Ten, 25-14 overall) won their first three series of the Big Ten season before suffering a setback last weekend against Iowa, who came into the series in last place.

That disappointment, though, hasn’t done anything to stymie the team’s focus.

“Either way, we’re going to be up,” senior catcher Chris Berset said. “You can’t explain (our excitement). We’ve circled this on our calendar for years. These guys will be ready to play … we’re ready for (the series).”

They face a tall order in Ohio State (7-5, 23-13), especially with the Buckeyes’ Friday night pitcher Alex Wimmers, who no-hit Michigan last season for the first time since 1982.

The junior is the defending co-Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and was recently ranked as the No. 11 college prospect for the upcoming MLB Draft by’s Keith Law. He has backed up his lofty accolades with performance this year, coming into the series with a spotless 9-0 record and 1.61 ERA, with 78 strikeouts in 67 innings pitched.

And his counterpart, Michigan ace Alan Oaks (4-5, 4.05), has dropped off as of late. The senior began the season as one of the top performers in the conference, but since Big Ten play, has struggled in three of his four starts. The Wolverines will need him to return to early season form if they plan on handing Wimmers his first loss of the year.

“If you can’t get up for that, you can’t get up at all,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “That’ll be a tough challenge. What a great opportunity, that’s how I look at it. What a wonderful opportunity — in front of our home crowd — to have a chance (at beating Wimmers).”

The Buckeyes are strong batting-wise, too. The defending Big Ten Player of the Year, catcher Dan Burkhart, is seventh on the team in batting average and sixth in RBI, which speaks to the team’s depth.

Ohio State’s top power threats are outfielders Michael Stephens (.376-8-33) and Brian DeLucia (.361-6-38), and leadoff hitter Zach Hurley is no slouch either (.406-6-31).

As a team, the Buckeyes are batting .335, good for best in the conference.

“Pitching-wise, I think that we will be alright,” junior right-hander Tyler Burgoon said. “We go out and we are consistent each week. This is a big one, (and) it’s even bigger after (the Iowa result) … we just want to go out and give ourselves a chance.”

But Michigan is no slouch in the Big Ten, batting at a third-best .321 clip. Because of Wimmers’ presence, the team will most likely have to do its damage on the Buckeyes’ other two starters, righties Drew Rucinski (3-2, 4.34) and Dean Wolosiansky (3-5, 5.95)

Wolosiansky has given up seven runs in each of his last two starts, and while Rucinski has been mostly solid this year, Penn State lit him up in his last start to the tune of 10 runs in just two innings.

The Wolverines hope his struggles will continue, and Berset, sophomore designated hitter Coley Crank and the rest of the team’s sluggers will look to take advantage. Junior outfielder Ryan LaMarre comes in especially hot, having recorded 10 hits in each of the last two weeks, raising his average to an even .500.

The implications are clear — whichever squad wins will be in strong position for the rest of the season in the conference race.

So for a Michigan team that has been driven the whole year by the central goal of winning a Big Ten Championship, the rival Buckeyes present what promises to be a season-defining series.

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