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Ohio State vs. Michigan 2016: Game preview, prediction, and 6 things to know

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This year’s edition of The Game is the biggest since 2006.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

In this, the golden era of the #take, there’s a tendency to overrate sports and what they mean. Players get likened to soldiers; games, to battles; rivalries often based on nothing more substantive than geography devolve into the ugliest sort of personal conduct imaginable.

But there’s another side to all this, the side that massively underrates what sports are, or perhaps what sports can be, when circumstances allow. Sports can be beautiful. They can be haunting. Occasionally, oh so occasionally, they can be transcendent.

This hints at the unsolvable contradictions that underlie football, that perfect paragon of American sports: a game that regularly features supernatural feats of grace and strength is also a grist mill that takes years of life away from those who play it at the highest levels. A game of extreme and incalculable violence is also one that tries to legislate out certain types of force but fails wholly to acknowledge others. Fame and glory and suffering and pain—on and off the field—are inextricably wrapped in each other in football, for good and for ill.

It’s fitting, then, that so much of this college football season—hurt and anguish and surprise and utter, transformative joy—will hinge on what will come on the regular season’s final Saturday. You’d be hard-put to script a better drama than what has unfolded in the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2016; for two teams in particular, a year’s hopes and dreams and visions of greatness will come down to three or so hours on the cold ground of Columbus, Ohio.

It had to be this way, didn’t it? These teams, these coaches, this crazy season? For all the drama of the last major iteration of the Ohio State-Michigan coaching rivalry, Tressel v. Carr always felt a bit like a pair of gentlemen playing chess. Let no one accuse them of being dispassionate; on the contrary, I suspect that there is little that either cared about more in those years than beating the other. But through the lens of history—and boy, do we relegate things to the past quicker than ever these days—there’s something that feels...quaint about that series of games. Football today doesn’t look like it did in 2002 or 2006. Hell, it doesn’t even look like it did in 2013.

Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. A former madman, slightly reformed (or at least convincing us of as much) in the interests of his health; across the field, an unquestioned madman burning in the phoenix flame of his program’s rebirth. College football’s biggest regular-season stage paving the way for its biggest post-season stage.

SEC football might “just mean more,” but this game—The Game—means most.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan
This trendy fall look brought to you by 42-13.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State’s advantages

Late-game defensive play. All season, the Buckeyes have opened games sloppy on defense and, for the most part, finished them strong. Look no further than Ohio State’s quarter-by-quarter defensive S&P+ rankings for proof:

1st quarter: 27th

2nd quarter: 7th

3rd quarter: 2nd

4th quarter: 1st

If this game comes down to the wire—and, really, is there any other way for it to go?—there’s a strong body of evidence to suggest that the Buckeyes can slam the door shut on any late drives that the Wolverines might need to put together. This is what happens when your defensive rotation is so deep that your third and fourth corners and defensive ends routinely make big plays: you can keep everyone fresh for the game’s final minutes.

Michigan, meanwhile, is at its offensive worst in the fourth quarter; in that period of play, they rank just 37th nationally in offensive production. With Wilton Speight’s injury still looming large over Jim Harbaugh’s team, this isn’t great news for the Maize and Blue.

Curtis Samuel. College football’s best Swiss army knife suits up in Scarlet and Gray, despite what you may have heard about a certain do-it-all Wolverine (more on him in a minute). Curtis Samuel, aka Brooklyn’s Finest, is the only player to rack up more than 700 receiving and 600 rushing yards in FBS play this season. He’s accounted for 14 total touchdowns in 11 games. At his best, he’s nigh-unguardable.

The problem for the Buckeyes is that they still have to get him the ball against the country’s No. 1 defense. Samuel’s touches have waxed and waned to a huge degree all year; it feels like he’s either got the ball in his hands every play or he’s ignored completely. Ohio State will not win this game without a huge game from Samuel, the kind of game he played against Maryland. If Samuel does eat, the Wolverines might be in Hoke-sized trouble.

Act like you’ve been there before. No player on the Ohio State roster has ever lost to Michigan. The Buckeyes have won four straight against the Wolverines under Urban Meyer’s tutelage, with more than a fighting chance to rack up a fifth straight victory in the sport’s biggest rivalry game.

This team’s seniors have sweated out a close one before—who could forget the 42-41 thriller in 2013, saved by a Tyvis Powell interception on a two-point conversion?—but the last two seasons’ contests haven’t been particularly close. This crop of Buckeye players, and the coach that will lead them onto the field in Columbus, know what it means to beat Michigan. There are no demons to conquer here, only a mantle of greatness to take up.

Michigan’s advantages

Pass defense. The Buckeyes have struggled to stay consistent through the air this season, and that’s worrisome, given the defensive backs they’ll be lining up against on Saturday. By S&P+, Michigan has the nation’s best pass defense; they’ve hovered at or near the top all year. Teams have not been able to solve the puzzle of the Wolverine secondary yet in 2016, and the way J.T. Barrett is playing, the odds of Ohio State being the first team to shred them through the air seem slim.

The Wolverines have allowed so few receptions this season that you have to go 12 names down the list of the team’s top tacklers to find a true cornerback. They boast a punishing safety tandem in Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill, a pair who are both capable of stout run support and help over the top on pass plays. Noah Brown, Curtis Samuel, Terry McLaurin, and the rest of the Buckeye pass-catchers are going to have their hands full trying to get separation against anyone in the Wolverine secondary.

Jabrill Peppers. Peppers’ actual statistics this season aren’t eye-popping—his Heisman campaign seems based more on his novelty than his production—but the sheer amount of different things he can do on the football field is insane. The closest Buckeye analogue in recent memory was WR/PR/KR/DB Chris Gamble, and even he falls a few positions short of the categories on Peppers’ résumé this season.

The Ohio State-Michigan game is one of the most reliable kingmakers in college football. Peppers’ talents are ridiculous, and this just feels like the kind of game that he could single-handedly break wide open. A backbreaking return TD? A wildcat scramble for six? An interception that goes to the house? There are so many ways that a machine like Peppers can hurt a team.

Run defense. If you were hoping for a balm to ease the sting of reading about Michigan’s No. 1 pass defense, you’re in the wrong section. The Wolverines’ run-stopping is just as scary. Ohio State’s No. 2 rushing offense will be tasked with finding holes in Michigan’s No. 2 rushing defense, and those haven’t been easy to come by for anyone this season.

Even if Mike Weber, J.T. Barrett, and Curtis Samuel make it past the stout Michigan front four, they’ll be hard-pressed to gain ground in the second level. Linebackers Ben Gedeon, Jabrill Peppers, and Mike McCray haven’t let a whole lot past them in 2016. That could change on Saturday, given the combined 2,513 yards and 23 TDs those three Buckeye rushers have fought for through 11 games, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

F/+ prediction

Score: Ohio State 22.6, Michigan 25.1

Win probability: Michigan 56%

The advanced stats like the Wolverines by 2.5 points on Saturday. Vegas disagrees, predicting the Buckeyes to win by a touchdown. These are hardly wide margins to play with, but as our friends over at the Solid Verbal are fond of reminding us, you have to throw out the records in any rivalry game. This one’s no exception.

Ohio State has worn many hats in 2016. The Buckeyes have been, in turns, cheeky upstarts, plodding bores, underachievers, offensive juggernauts, a circus act. It’s impossible to know which version of the Scarlet and Gray will take the field in Columbus this weekend with so much to play for. All that is promised is a hell of a game, another insane chapter in this storied rivalry.

Go Bucks. Beat Michigan.

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Ohio State [Not so Sloppy Joe: swiss cheese, ground beef, barbecue sauce, worcestershire sauce, mayo, pumpernickel bread]