Ohio State football: Everybody can exhale, Ohio State/Michigan is ready at last
Saturday was a stressful day for the Big Ten’s two most successful programs. With massive Playoff implications on the line, both Michigan and Ohio State stumbled, bumbled, and fumbled their way to surprisingly difficult victories. But win they did, and now — at last– it’s officially time for Ohio State/Michigan.
And it means everything we thought it would … in at least 5 ways.
First, it governs the momentum of the rivalry. A year ago, Ohio State — Playoff future in hand — faced Michigan with a chance to tie the longest winning streak in the series. That streak was 9 in a row, set by Michigan in the days of President Teddy Roosevelt. Ohio State had 8 in a row, and if the wins weren’t quite as demonstrative as the 86-0 beatdown delivered by Michigan in 1902, well, when the last pair of games had been 62-39 and 56-27, there wasn’t any question about who was holding the upper hand in the rivalry. Then Jim Harbaugh, Blake Corum, and the Wolverines changed that narrative with a 42-27 upset that knocked the Buckeyes out of the Playoff and ultimately sent the Wolverines to the CFP’s Orange Bowl. If Ohio State can take control of the series again, it’s much easier to claim that 2021 was a fluke, instead of a shift of trends.
Second, there is the Playoff. Everybody struggled on Saturday. Georgia scored just 16 points on Kentucky. TCU eked out a win with a final-play FG. And Michigan and Ohio State each played competitive games down to the final minutes … or even final SECONDS in the case of the Wolverines. Meanwhile, Tennessee shot itself in the foot, reloaded and repeated a couple more times. Basically, it means in a season when all of those teams have generally whipped their opposition, nobody picked up any bonus points from the CFP selection committee. Obviously, whoever wins on Saturday is all but certainly in the CFP. Even an ugly (and basically inexplicable) loss in the B1G title game would probably matter only in terms of shifting the 1-4 rankings of the Playoff teams. The story Saturday might be how the losing team loses. Because all things considered, even the loser between OSU and Michigan — in the aftermath of Tennessee’s 63-38 loss to South Carolina — has a very, very good chance at working its way into the Playoff.
Third, there is a chance to have a defining moment. Say for one Coleridge Bernard Stroud IV. Given Ohio State’s season trajectory, and the play of Stroud over the last 2 seasons, the OSU passer feels like the apparent favorite for the Heisman Trophy. What could be missing? Maybe the definitive moment. Ask Troy Smith. Or Charles Woodson, if the name doesn’t bring instant pain. Sure, a crazy play against Rutgers is great. But legends are cemented in Ohio State/Michigan games.
Fourth, it’s a moment of truth for Jim Knowles. He was brought in to fix a broken defense — and Exhibit A for that brokenness might have been last season vs. Michigan, when OSU gave up 297 rushing yards and 487 total yards in the 42-27 loss. Knowles’s group has yet to allow over 206 rushing yards (Northwestern), 482 total yards (Penn State) or 31 points (Penn State again). But they also have yet to play Michigan, which boasts the 4th best rushing total in the FBS this season (251.4 yards per game) and gains 5.62 yards per carry (7th best in the nation). For a defense that has done a superb job in most facets, Michigan is the biggest test yet.
FIfth, with credit/apologies to the late Woody Hayes, Ohio State wants to beat Michigan once just because they can’t beat them twice on Saturday. It’s game week. Enjoy it.