1. In the grand scheme of things, Ohio State's most recent game against the hated, rival Michigan Wolverines was almost an afterthought. 2014's edition wasn't anything like the pitiful Rich Rod years, in which Jim Tressel ran roughshod through the Wolverines, that hideous "Go Blue We Support You" banner thing, and Rodriguez's anticlimactic concluding days as Michigan's head coach. The Game in 2014 almost felt like just a game.
This is, of course, with no disrespect to Michigan here, it's just that there was much more, and much bigger, and much brighter in the past and possibly in the future. J.T. Barrett had just beaten the ever-loving hell out of Michigan State in East Lansing, a key win that allowed the powers that be to forget about a certain home debacle against Virginia Tech several months before. The running game was coming alive, and the defense was already beginning to clamp down on opponents.
2. Though, with copious amounts of disrespect to the maize and blue, Michigan was pretty terrible last year. I mean, look at this garbage here:
So much red. so many parenthetically-noted rivalry games lost. So many losses to one of Maryland or Rutgers. The Wolverines needed to beat a growing-stronger-and-stronger Buckeye team just to be able to play in the Velveeta Shells and Cheese Bowl, which in this scenario would probably air on ESPNU sometime in Mid-December. It wasn't happening. It didn't happen. Last year, Michigan was crap, and Ohio State was hell bent on going in and beating it to death.
3. And then this happened:
On the first play of the fourth quarter of a Game that was a bit too evenly matched, and with the Buckeyes clinging to a 7-point lead, the guy that became a star on the field for Ohio State wasn't moving. A broken play, like several others to that point in the game, left Barrett with a broken ankle, and the Buckeyes with a breaking heart.
To that point, almost everything that needed to go right for Ohio State to rebound from that early loss to Virginia Tech happened. The Big XII was going to hoist itself on its non-championship petard. The SEC East wasn't going to pose a threat to get into the Playoff. Florida State was the class of the ACC, and Oregon was a cut above the rest of the Pac-12. A fourth spot for the inaugural Playoff was there, waiting for Ohio State to claim it, and beating Michigan at home was the first step to doing just that. But when Barrett crumpled to the turf in The Horseshoe, those plans may as well have done the same thing.
4. But wait. It wasn't like this team (and its beleaguered fanbase) hadn't experienced almost this exact same scenario just months earlier.
5. Point five here is for the previous #5, Braxton Miller, who could have hung up his cleats for good last fall and ended his Buckeye career as one of the most decorated players in the school's long and storied history. He didn't ever (and, honestly, will never) go to New York for a Heisman ceremony, but Miller reigned over the entire Big Ten as the best player in the conference, and one of the best ever for the Buckeyes. He was always a magician with his feet, but his arm was sometimes the difference-maker. And that same arm is what let him down heading into 2014.
So in came Barrett, the backup quarterback replacing one of the most beloved backup quarterbacks in history, and all he did was win 10 games (against only one loss). Miller watched on the sidelines as his heir apparent seemed to sub in with little to no disappointment in the look test or on the stat page. With Barrett down however, who the hell knew what in the world would happen next?
6. We met Cardale Jones semi-officially on October 5th, 2012, a day that will live in Twitter infamy (Twitfamy?), when the third string quarterback for the Ohio State Buckeyes burst onto the scene, and onto the sports rags everywhere. Careless mistake? A young man voicing not-all-together incorrect opinions (nothing wrong with that, imo)? Who knows what was going through Jones's mind when he hit send on that day in October in 2012. The question at hand, and much more important, was what was going through his head when Urban Meyer told him to get a helmet on to spell the injured Barrett, and to do so against Michigan, with the game potentially on the line, and the hopes of the rest of the season resting squarely on his huge, heretofore untested shoulders.
7. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. While the Ohio State punted on Jones' first drive at quarterback, it forced Michigan to do the same, and scored eight plays later, with the first of many Ezekiel Elliott runs through wide-open lanes for long scores. The Buckeyes tacked on a #ScoopandScore on Michigan's next possession, and that was it - a 42-28 blowout on the score sheet that was very simply not that on the field.
The rest after that game is even more history, and damn near lore in recent Buckeye history. First the Buckeyes went 85 YARDS THRU THE HEART OF THE DAIRY with a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. That punched a playoff ticket, and allowed the Buckeyes to run 85 YARDS THROUGH THE HEART OF THE MASON DIXON LINE. And the final act, in the first ever College Football Playoff, 85 YARDS THRU THE HEART OF THE OREGON TRAIL AND/OR NIKE IDK WE HAVEN'T DESIGNED THE SHIRT YET. All of it mostly on the shoulders of Ezekiel Elliott, and the strength of Cardale Jones, the latter of whom wouldn't even be there if not for one play during The Game.
8. We're almost at The Game, 2015; things are very, very different. Ohio State was formerly in control of its own destiny, needing only wins over both Michigan schools and a resurgent and undefeated Iowa team to go to its second Playoff. But that all went to hell after another debacle in Ohio Stadium. There are ways for the Buckeyes to still get to the Playoff, of course, but that will take a number of things, and most of them are either chaos, or rooting for Christian Freaking Hackenberg. This is not preferable.
But! If there was ever a game in which to start out the type of bedlam required, it has to be The Game. And things are new this year, and much more intense. For one, there are man, many questions for the Buckeyes to answer. Is there creativity in the offense, or did it all go with Tom Herman down to Houston? Is it Ezekiel Elliott's time to shine like he probably should have against Michigan State? Can the Buckeye defense stop the Michigan offense just enough?
On the other sideline, there's a new coach, a new intensity, and a new favorite type of pants. Jim Harbaugh took a team that finished 5-7 last year, and has it in prime position to not only beat Ohio State, but do so in a very Cooper-ian way, ruining a season, and relegating the Buckeyes behind the Wolverines in the standings for the first time since 2011. Sure, Harbaugh might not be the best baker in the world. And he might have taken a little too much pleasure walking amongst the dead. But he's revived the program to the point that Michigan is now a betting favorite to beat Ohio State for the first time in a long time.
9. This rivalry finally, once again, means something. And this particular version has been quintuple-circled on calendars ever since the first 15 seconds of the fourth quarter of the last Game played out in Ohio Stadium. That one play, more than any other, made the Cinderella ending for the 2014 Buckeyes that much more important. It was the play that made it all possible. We won't know until the Spartans and Nittany Lions are done later in the afternoon if there was any more riding on The Game than just a pair of gold pants, but in a lot of ways, that's preferable. It will help treat us, and the players on both sides, to a game deserving of capitalization. It will matter more than any other Game because its this year's version. And sometimes, all it takes is one play in one game to make the future possible.
10. Go Bucks. Beat the hell out of Michigan.