There’s nothing else like it in sports. How can any game possibly stack up to this one?
Each iteration of The Game, each contest played anew, adds another chapter to this long and ugly rivalry. Storied as the past is, it feels as though things have reached a fever pitch in recent years, with an Urban Meyer-Jim Harbaugh showdown series that looks like it might grow to match the days of Woody and Bo.
Perhaps it’s the colossal beatdown the Buckeyes have laid on the Wolverines for the last 13 years, a streak with only one blemish on the record. Or maybe it was the creation of the College Football Playoff that heightened the stakes around this particular game each year.
There’s only one thing we know for sure: we’re in for a wild ride regardless. We’ve seen our fair share of drama in recent seasons, from Curtis Samuel’s overtime scamper to J.T. Barrett’s broken ankle to a certain controversial 4th-down measurement. Ann Arbor—hardly a friendly place to play, even when you’re not the hated rival of the Wolverines—hosts the game this year, and the atmosphere in the Big House is sure to add another layer of breathless excitement to the proceedings.
Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett will take the field against Michigan, a team that has never beaten him, for the final time tomorrow. Greg Schiano will conduct a defense that has shown itself to be one of the hungriest in the country against an offense that has fallen out of sorts and looks ripe for destroying. Ohio State—a preseason playoff favorite now desperately trying to claw back into the picture—has everything to play for in this one.
Only the strong survive this game. Don’t blink—you won’t want to miss a second of the action.
(Now, read the first letter of every sentence above for a very important secret message.)
Ohio State's biggest advantages
QB play. The Buckeyes are head-and-shoulders above the Wolverines when it comes to production at the game's most important position. While Michigan has cycled through three different starting quarterbacks this season, the Buckeyes have been led to a 9-2 record by J.T. Barrett. His performance in the Oklahoma and Iowa losses was abysmal, granted, but he's been close to flawless otherwise, throwing for 32 TDs to just 7 INTs as part of a 2,698-yard effort through the air. Add in what Barrett can do with his legs (680 yards and 8 TDs in 2017 so far) and you have a far superior quarterback than anyone the Wolverines are able to throw at the Buckeyes.
Who that'll be remains something of a mystery. Brandon Peters looked like the competent signal-caller the Wolverines had been missing after the uninspired showings of John O'Korn and Wilton Speight, but he went down with a concussion last week against Wisconsin. Even if Peters can go against the Buckeyes, he likely won't be at 100%; whoever suits up for UM, he'll be playing behind a line that's given up 29 sacks this season.
The rushing attack Hydra. The Wolverines have their own excellent rushing trio in Karan Higdon, Chris Evans, and Ty Isaac; that group has totaled 2,016 rushing yards and 18 TDs this season. But even those numbers can't stack up to what Ohio State has been able to put together on the ground with the combined efforts of J.K. Dobbins, Mike Weber, and J.T. Barrett. The Buckeye trio has put together 2,314 yards on the ground and 23 TDs, numbers which don't account for the impact each has made in the passing game.
In a game featuring a pair of top-tier defenses—more on that in a moment—any edge you can gain on offense might just be the deciding one. The Wolverines are no slouches when it comes to running the ball, but the Buckeyes are in a class by themselves. (The success rate rankings really bear this out—OSU is No. 1 nationally in rushing efficiency, while UM is just No. 69. Still nice.)
Shutting down drives. The contrast in the efficiency numbers listed above gets even more stark when you expand it out to encompass the whole offense. The Wolverines' paltry efforts in the passing game bring their total offensive efficiency down to just 91st nationally. They'll be forced to face off against a Buckeye defense that's 14th in that same category. In other words, Michigan isn't beating teams by marching down the field and moving the chains time after time; Ohio State, for its part, isn't letting teams do that, either.
On the flip side, Michigan has the country's best defense in the efficiency category, while Ohio State's offense is No. 1 by that metric. If it's impossible to guess how that battle might work itself out, we can take some hope in the Buckeyes' explosive play potential—they've got a handful of guys who are a threat to take the ball for six from anywhere on the field, and the Wolverines are just 109th at preventing plays like that despite their overall defensive stoutness.
Michigan's biggest advantages
Thanksgiving stuffing. No, seriously—the Wolverines are outstanding at stuffing the run. Defensive linemen Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich pace the team with 20 and 17 run stuffs, respectively; that pair has also combined for 12 sacks on the season. This is a unit that consistently wins its battles up front, and that's bad news for a Buckeye team that has seen some streaky play from its o-line this year. It'll be hard to get J.K. Dobbins or Mike Weber going if they're getting mobbed in the backfield. Michigan is built to do just that.
Havoc. Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown have created a defense that's second in the country when it comes to the best-named advanced stat, Havoc rate. Havoc rate measures the percentage of plays in which a defense records a tackle for loss (including sacks), an interception, a pass breakup, or a forced fumble. Almost no one does that more frequently than the Wolverines.
Hurst and Winovich are a big part of that ranking. So is Khaleke Hudson, who lines up in the "VIPER" position for the Wolverines—the hybrid LB/DB position where Jabrill Peppers found so much success (though not enough to ever beat the Buckeyes, ayyyy) in his Michigan career. Hudson went absolutely nuts a few weeks ago against Minnesota, recording one of the best single-game performances by a defender in Big Ten history. There are a lot of defenders on this Michigan team who are nothing short of terrifying, y'all.
The revenge factor. Let's face facts: The Buckeyes have absolutely sonned the Wolverines for the last decade and change. Ohio State is your dad now, Michigan. He moved into the house and he turned your playroom into his "music studio" and even though he's, like, old, you can never beat him in one-on-one driveway hoops. That damn sky hook of his absolutely shouldn't work, you know? But it does.
The Buckeyes have won 12 of the last 13 against the Wolverines, and that lone Michigan victory came in the transitional Luke Fickell year in which Joe Bauserman saw the field for an inexplicable number of snaps. But damn, have the Wolverines been close. They came within a point in 2013; they've lost by one score in five of those last 12 defeats. Last year saw the Buckeyes claim a win on the back of a dramatic 4th-quarter showing, a Spot that was absolutely Good, and some white-knuckle double overtime shenanigans.
This is a rivalry game—The rivalry game, really—and as our good friends over at the Solid Verbal are wont to remind us, rivalry games necessitate throwing the record books out. Is this the year that Michigan finally stops drawing shoddy renderings of Calvin peeing on the Ohio State logo and tells its mom to kick us out of the house? It just might be!
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 32, Michigan 21
Win Probability: Ohio State 72%
The Wolverine defense is good enough that the Buckeyes might struggle to get things going early, and like just about every iteration of this game, it will likely be close much longer than anyone is comfortable with. But Ohio State is rock-solid in just about every dimension of the game, and the Michigan passing game isn't a world-beater even if Brandon Peters can suit up. There's too much on the line for the Buckeyes to blow this one when they're clearly the better team.
How to watch, stream, listen to Ohio State vs. Michigan:
Game time: Saturday November 25th, 12 PM ET
Streaming: FOX Sports Go
Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM