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Cameron Johnston will be crucial for Ohio State against Michigan

The talented punter will need to be in top form against the Wolverines.

Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that Jim Harbaugh has lit a fire under the Michigan Wolverines, but few saw a first season this dominant coming. Harbaugh has his team at 9-2, with losses only coming at the hands of fifth-ranked Michigan State and No. 23 Utah. The fluky expired-clock loss to the Spartans has to sting especially hard, knowing that now, all other things being equal, the Wolverines would be in the driver's seat in the Big Ten East had they closed that game. (The rest of us, of course, weep at the looming prospect of being denied a Rudock Bowl in the Big Ten Championship Game.)

Urban Meyer's Buckeyes, however, are trending in the opposite direction. Ohio State will need all kinds of luck to crack the conference championship game, and a veritable set of miracles to have a prayer at the playoff a second year in a row. It's a deflating position to be in for the defending national champs, a team that returned most of the pieces but none of the identity that made it such a dominating force in 2014. After a crushing, ugly loss to the Spartans -- featuring the worst offensive output by an Urban Meyer-led Buckeye team by a wide margin -- Ohio State is probably playing for pride and a late-December bowl game at this point.

But pride is an important factor here, because Ohio State's game against Michigan still means more than any other regular season game possibly could. This is Meyer's fourth season at the helm in Columbus, and he's been perfect against the Wolverines so far, but he'll have to deal with the best incarnation of Michigan football he's faced in his tenure on Saturday. Now that they seem to have all the pieces in place, they're a team hungry to knock off the Buckeyes for the first time since the Fickell era.

One factor that's been instrumental in Michigan's resounding success in 2015? They're one of the best field-position teams in the country. That's one of the things that made the Buckeyes so great during the championship run, and it's an advantage that the Wolverines have over just about everyone this year. The Fightin' Harbaughs rank third in the country in offensive field position. The man who could eliminate that edge for Michigan? Cameron Johnston.

The stats

Year: Junior

Height: 5'11

Weight: 195 lbs.

Current stat line: 54 punts, 43.9 avg, 6 touchbacks, 20 fair catches, 20 inside the 20

Johnston has established himself as one of the country's best punters. His Australian roots certainly play a part, as evidenced by his unique kicking style, and have paid serious dividends for the Buckeyes. Few at his position can place the ball as precisely as Johnston, and he was instrumental in Ohio State's title run, as he helped lead the charge that gave the team the best field position differential in the country.

The junior punter has been predictably excellent this season. Johnston's only notable struggle came against Michigan State last week, when one of his punts came off the foot wrong and traveled a net five yards. That gave the Spartans the ball on Ohio State's 23, and though they missed the ensuing field goal attempt, it was emblematic of the kind of sloppy play that doomed the Buckeyes' perfect season.

The game situation

To Johnston's credit, he also recorded punts of 53, 49, 48, and 41 yards against Michigan State. There's a good chance he'll need that kind of leg against the Wolverines. The Michigan defense is absolutely stifling, ranking No. 2 in the country by S&P+, and against a team that looks as forlorn on offense as the Buckeyes have, they could do some serious damage. Johnston is going to get his reps this weekend.

He'll be punting to Jabrill Peppers, a world-class athlete who was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school. Peppers is a serviceable defensive back with great speed, and though he hasn't taken a punt back to the house on his 17 returns this season, he's not an adversary to be taken lightly.

The good news for Ohio State is that Johnston's surgical boot has helped put the team at No. 2 in the country in defensive field position. The Wolverines are used to starting further up the field than just about everybody -- their average drive begins at the 35-yard line -- but the Buckeyes flip the field with the best of them, and on average, Ohio State's opponents begin drives on their own 25. Whichever team can tip the scales towards the number they're used to stands a good chance of winning this game.

What to watch for

Outside of Ohio State's punting opportunities, there will be plenty to keep an eye out for here. Ezekiel Elliott has been the focal point of the offense all year, and his lack of touches against Michigan State has left many scratching their heads. Elliott's post-game comments notwithstanding, Urban Meyer will almost certainly use him early and often against the Wolverines. Michigan boasts the country's ninth-best run D, but Elliott seems to flourish against elite defenses, and if he'll need to get some momentum going against this one.

The Buckeyes also enter Ann Arbor with an elite defense of their own. That hardly bodes well for Michigan QB Jake Rudock, who has put up good numbers this year but throws interceptions at a much higher clip than, say, Connor Cook. Rudock has also been sacked 15 times this year. Think Joey Bosa might try to add a few to that total in his final game against the Wolverines?

The conclusion

The advanced stats favor Michigan against Ohio State, as the Wolverines have been S&P+ darlings all season despite their losses. This game feels impossible to call. How the Buckeyes open this game will tell us an awful lot about what this week has been like for the team -- whether or not the "Urban has lost the locker room" narrative is completely overblown, whether or not all of the off-field stuff has been as much of a distraction as it's made out to be, etc.

The Buckeyes could take the field on Saturday and completely roll over, putting a fitting end on this weird and ultimately kind of disappointing season. Or they could come out and completely smash the Wolverines, making it clear just how seriously they take all of this. Like most other things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle of these extremes. In the absence of a clear picture, we'll defer to the advanced metrics: Michigan 27, Ohio State 21.