Ohio State. Michigan. The greatest rivalry in college football, give or take the Army-Navy game or the Iron Bowl. Need I remind anyone that Michigan is winless in their last seven and have dropped 14 of 15 in the series. Last year seemed like the year they would finally get it done. After an opening season loss to Notre Dame, Michigan’s ten game win streak, which included Big Blue outscoring Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State 101-27 had them squarely in the college football playoff race. All they had to do was beat their rival who less than two weeks prior needed to stop a two-point conversion attempt to escape 5-5 Maryland after getting slaughtered by 29 to Purdue just two weeks before that. It was Michigan’s year, at least according to many pundits around the country including the College Gameday Crew.
But it didn’t happen. In fact, quite the opposite. With their playoff chances still on life support regardless of the outcome, Ohio State ruined Michigan’s season dominating the Wolverines 62-39 clinching the Big 10 East in the process. Michigan needed to beat Ohio State and win the Big 10 and they would have been in the playoffs and by midway through the third quarter of the Buckeye game, it ceased to be competitive. It was the worst loss of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
Fast forward a year and the stakes are completely changed. No Big Ten East title on the line, Ohio State clinched that last Saturday. The Buckeyes have a 78% chance to make the playoffs, according to 538 and a loss this week and they only fall to 62%. Michigan, meanwhile, will be watching the playoffs from home and are on the outside looking in for even a New Year’s Six Bowl. The Outback or Gator Bowl seem to await them.
The Wolverines have failed to reach the expectations set for them at the beginning of the season. They were bludgeoned by Wisconsin in September and kissed their Big 10 championship dreams goodbye thanks to a 28-21 loss to Penn State about a month later. But since halftime of that game in Happy Valley, the Wolverines have played like the team that people expected they would be. They controlled the second half of that game and would have sent it to overtime had it not been for a dropped touchdown pass on Michigan’s final drive.
In the 18 quarters since Michigan went into the locker room trailing the Nittany Lions 21-7, they’re outscoring opponents 180-52 and this includes two wins over rivals Michigan State and Notre Dame. The defense hasn’t surrendered more than 14 points in any game during that stretch which includes this past Saturday when they held Indiana to that number on the road despite the Hoosiers averaging more than 31 for the season.
Offensively, the Wolverines have shown drastic improvement. When the sky was falling, the issues were through the air. Those issues have seemed to resolve themselves. Shea Patterson finally looks to be living up to the hype having thrown for 12 touchdowns to just one interception since the Penn State loss. Their receiving core is looking as dangerous as most thought it would be heading into the season led by Nico Collins who’s recorded four of his seven touchdowns in November including three against Indiana.
The Wolverines have looked like a complete football team, at least over their last four games.
The Buckeyes have never entered the Michigan week in this spot they’re in now. They’re 11-0 and alongside maybe LSU, have been the most consistent team in the country all year. Even if Ohio State loses one of its last two games, especially the Michigan game, it’s hard to imagine they don’t get in. A Georgia win over LSU in the SEC championship could complicate things but even if the Tigers and Bulldogs get in along with Clemson, Ohio State has a really strong argument for being the fourth team in the tournament with a potential record of 12-1. They’re first in scoring offense and first in scoring defense. That’s anything if not consistent. Alabama’s defensive and scheduling woes become a lot harder to ignore now that Tua is done for the season. Oklahoma or Baylor have both had a few games they’ve needed to squeak out against teams they should’ve beaten comfortably. Utah’s non-conference schedule is bad, and their program’s lack of prestige may outweigh a potential victory over Oregon.
Plus, let’s not kid ourselves, the playoff committee wants as interesting matchups as possible and Ohio State is a brand. They’re easy to market and even easier when there’s three Heisman candidates dawning the scarlet and grey. Would they really put a one-loss Baylor team or Utah in over a one-loss Ohio State team? What’s going to get higher ratings, Clemson against Ohio State or Clemson against Utah? Alabama is the wildcard, of course, but if both the Tide and Buckeyes have one loss and the committee choices Bama, the calls of SEC bias would be loud and hard to dismiss.
Its hard to imagine the Buckeye are able to ignore that they are on the fast track they’re on for the playoffs making the stakes for their game against Michigan the lowest they’ve been since at least 2011, The Wolverine’s last win, when the Bucks entered the game 6-5.
The problem with saying that this is “definitely the year” Michigan beats Ohio State is that I’ve seen Ohio State play Michigan this century. It hasn’t been close. And the Buckeyes have been destroying everyone in their path all season. But if there was ever a year Big Blue would get it done, could it be this one? I can’t imagine OSU isn’t ready to go, but it might be hard for them not to get complacent.
With a conference championship game and a playoff appearance awaiting them, Saturday is their 3rd or 4th biggest game left in their season. It’s the Wolverines super bowl. The Wolverines are thinking about 63-39 like the other 100,000 people at the Big House. The Buckeyes may be thinking about what comes next. Michigan is playing for Harbaugh’s job and a win makes a lot of people forget about the Wisconsin disappointment and the failure to win the Big 10.
If they lose, its just another season that follows the recent trends of Michigan football. Harbaugh could get fired but aside from that, nothing really changes since no one expects them to win. But if they do win, everything changes. It’s the perfect opportunity for them. We’ll see if they can take advantage.
Featured Photo Credit: wolverineswire.usatoday.com
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