It hardly seems possible that the 2019 regular season is almost over. After all, it seems like only yesterday when pundits questioned Ryan Day, Justin Fields and the Ohio State defense when the Buckeyes didn’t beat the spread against Florida Atlantic. Oh, how the tables have turned. Now, the Ohio State Buckeyes enter their final game of the season -- The Game, in fact -- ranked first nationally in the College Football Playoff rankings and second in the AP Poll.
The Ohio State Buckeyes enter the game with a pristine, 11-0 record, including an 8-0 mark in conference play. Michigan, meanwhile, is sitting at 9-2 on the season, with losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. However, the Wolverines, who enter the week ranked 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings, are riding a four-game win streak that started with a dominant win against Notre Dame in primetime in the Big House. It was also an impressive win, given it came in unequivocally horrid weather. Most recently, Michigan overcame Indiana 39-14 in Bloomington.
But the Buckeyes are not without an impressive win of their own. Most recently, after a two-week stretch that featured Ohio State outscoring Maryland and Rutgers by a combined 129-35, the Buckeyes overcame then-No. 8 Penn State in Columbus on Senior Day 28-17. While the 11-point differential was the narrowest margin of victory for the Buckeyes this season, the game never seemed out of hand. Ohio State was certainly tested, but Ryan Day’s team proved it could handle the challenge and remain cool under pressure as the defense emerged with a commanding performance in the fourth quarter.
Ohio State did impress last week. And the Buckeyes moved ahead of LSU to top this week’s playoff rankings. But this is Michigan week, when records get thrown out the window and will to win feels like more of a factor than size, strength or speed on the field. It’s the greatest rivalry in sports. Anything can happen.
First, a bit of history…
Going way, way back to the start of the Ohio State/Michigan series, things were a little lopsided, but the Buckeyes have come close to leveling the score, holding a 50-58-6 record against the Wolverines. The early years of the series very much favored Michigan (Ohio State had a couple ties, but did not beat Michigan until 1919, which was more than two decades after the series began), though the rivalry had not been officially established yet. Things started to heat up when, after spending a decade as an independent, Michigan rejoined the Western Conference -- the precursor for the Big Ten -- and began playing Ohio State annually.
However, the rivalry truly came to fruition with the “Ten Year War” between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, held between 1969-1978. For the briefest of backgrounds, because both coaches deserve much, much longer descriptors, Hayes coached Schembechler while the former was a coach at Miami (OH). Schembechler joined Hayes’ staff as a graduate assistant and later offensive line coach at Ohio State. Hayes’ protege went on to coach Miami (OH) himself before taking the top job at Michigan ahead of the 1969 season. Then, for 10 seasons, Ohio State and Michigan clashed at the conclusion of every regular season for what seemed to be all the marbles: Big Ten titles, Rose Bowl bids and national championships.
Beyond the story of Woody and Bo, what’s impressive about the programs is just how big of giants both Ohio State and Michigan really are. With a combined 19 national championships, 79 conference championships and 168 consensus all-Americans, few other programs in college football can compare in terms of scope and scale of success. Then there’s the fact that Michigan and Ohio State sit at Nos. 1 and 2 (unfortunately, in that order) in all-time wins with 966 and 922.
And then, a bit more recent history…
For anyone who has watched the rivalry play out in recent years, it is obvious who has been the dominant player for the last decade and a half. Ohio State has taken 14 of the last 15 matchups, including seven-straight from 2012, Urban Meyer’s first season as head coach in Columbus, to present. Of those seven, three were decided by one score, including 2013’s thriller which featured a narrow, one-point win for Ohio State after a failed two-point conversion attempt by Michigan in the fourth quarter. Most recently, the Buckeyes came away with a commanding, 62-39 wallop of the Wolverines in Columbus in 2018. In that matchup, No. 10 Ohio State shocked fourth-ranked Michigan, spoiling the Wolverines’ chances for a Big Ten title and a trip to the College Football Playoff.
And finally, Jim Harbaugh’s history…
A former Michigan player himself, Harbaugh returned to his alma mater following a pair of culturally insufficient hires (Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke) who followed in the wake of Lloyd Carr after Carr’s retirement in 2007. The hiring of Harbaugh certainly seemed an exciting prospect, as a Super Bowl-contending coach made the decision to return to the collegiate ranks in an attempt to revive his former program.
Unfortunately for Harbaugh (and for Michigan), ICYMI from the recent history above, Michigan hasn’t beaten its conference rival since 2011. That means that Harbaugh has started 0-4 against the Buckeyes, making him the first Michigan coach to hold that status. These losses to Ohio State, among others, have meant that Harbaugh has not only been snubbed of a conference title, but also hasn’t managed to take home the Big Ten East crown.
Big game blues
In all, Harbaugh is 47-16 at Michigan, including 32-11 in conference play. While this record is very good, there are notable exceptions which have surely haunted Harbaugh. Beyond his woes with Ohio State, Harbaugh’s struggles with other marquee matchups have been well-documented. Currently, Harbaugh holds a 2-10 record against top 10 opponents, including a win and loss against Notre Dame and Penn State, respectively, this season. Also this season, while Wisconsin was ranked 13th at the time, the Wolverines were utterly dismantled in what was supposed to be a premiere early-conference play matchup by Jonathan Taylor and company.
However, with the exception of Ohio State, his record against rivals has balanced out. For example, Harbaugh holds a 3-2 record against Michigan State and a 1-1 mark against Notre Dame.
A revitalized offense... of sorts
A former quarterback himself, Jim Harbaugh’s arrival at Michigan was expected to usher in a new era of quarterback development for the Wolverines. Unfortunately for Michigan, that hope didn’t really pan out.
The past couple seasons brought sweeping coaching changes to attempt to mitigate the situation. That’s why, when Josh Gattis came to Michigan from Alabama to take over offensive coordinator duties this past offseason, Michigan fans expected a break from the stagnation that’s been so characteristic of the Wolverine offense for the past several seasons. In particular, pundits expected an invigorated passing game to take advantage of players like wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who came to Michigan as a five-star recruit but has never truly broken out given the Wolverines’ struggles in the passing game.
That expected break didn’t really come to fruition until Michigan played Michigan State just a few short weeks ago, when senior quarterback Shea Patterson went 24-of-33 for 384 yards and four touchdowns.
About that other transfer quarterback
In some ways, Michigan’s Patterson set the trend of transferring when he came to Michigan from Ole Miss after the NCAA imposed sanctions on the Rebels. While the NCAA had allowed seniors from Ole Miss to transfer and play immediately, Patterson’s case set a new precedent when he was allowed to suit up for the Wolverines without sitting out the requisite season. So, thanks might be in order to Patterson for setting the stage for Justin Fields to play for the Buckeyes this season.
Through two seasons with the Wolverines, Patterson has amassed a 19-5 record which includes two wins over Michigan State, a 1-1 mark against Penn State and another even split with Notre Dame. This season, Patterson has thrown for 2,523 yards, 21 touchdowns and five picks.
Home field advantage
Through almost two full seasons in Ann Arbor, Patterson has never lost at home. This season, the Wolverines are 6-0 in the Big House, including the aforementioned victory over Notre Dame in torrential wind and rain. However, that home field advantage has obviously broken down in recent seasons against Ohio State, as the Buckeyes have taken their last three matchups in Ann Arbor. That being said, Ohio State’s two most recent losses to Michigan, in 2011 and 2003, have come on the road.
A new Day
Harbaugh might be looking forward to having a new coach at the helm in Columbus. At least it means he doesn’t have to face Urban Meyer anymore, after all. However, Ryan Day isn’t trailing far behind his predecessor in terms of on-field success. In fact, with the Buckeyes’ win last week against Penn State, Day became just the second head coach in program history to start 14-0. Meyer, who went undefeated in his opening season with the Buckeyes in 2012 and during the entire regular season in 2013, was the first.
Pushing down the stretch
Prior to last week’s game against the Nittany Lions, the Buckeyes had been able to “rest” for a few weeks. With a bye week leading into games against Rutgers and Maryland, Ohio State was able to work through defensive end Chase Young’s suspension while resting starters through most of the second half of each matchup. All that changed against Penn State, and competition likely won’t lighten up against the Wolverines.
Though the game was never truly out of hand for the Buckeyes, a grinder against Penn State was the first time this season the offense was not able to move seemingly at will and when, even against a backup quarterback, the defense couldn’t simply halt a drive in its tracks. Expect Michigan to take some lessons from the Nittany Lions this week.
However, there were definitely some positives to come out of the Penn State matchup. With his performance against the Nittany Lions, Young’s Heisman odds went way, way up, and Young is currently sitting in second place behind LSU (and former Ohio State) quarterback Joe Burrow according to ESPN’s Heisman watch. Young finished the game with three sacks, bringing his season total to 16.5 and setting a new single-season sack record for Ohio State. By comparison, the next closest contender in the NCAA has 14. And again, Young has played two fewer games.
Justin Fields isn’t far behind Young when it comes to the Heisman race. Though Fields’ performance against Penn State was far from his best of the season -- he did have two fumbles on the day -- he was able to lead his offense against a stout defense, throwing for two touchdowns.
Running all over Michigan
Junior running back J.K. Dobbins has emerged as one of the top backs in the NCAA -- though he’s been somewhat overshadowed by fellow Big Ten back Jonathan Taylor. Dobbins is fourth in the NCAA in rushing yards, totaling 1,446 on the season. With his 146-yard performance against Penn State, Dobbins has busted his previous career high for single-season rushing yards. While he certainly has a long way to go, Dobbins is theoretically on pace to break Eddie George’s single-season rushing yard record of 1,927, though he’d likely need 15 total games to do so. More impressive is the fact Dobbins has gotten to this cadence while barely seeing the fourth quarter.
That kind of rest has certainly helped the Buckeyes from a health perspective, but from a stamina perspective, these starters will likely need to see all four quarters not only this week, but in the Big Ten Championship and the Playoff.
Dobbins’ two previous games against Michigan have certainly not been career-best performances. In his freshman campaign in 2017, Dobbins had 15 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. Last year, while splitting time with Mike Weber, Dobbins had 12 rushes for a mere 46 yards.
We’re No. 1! (Defensive edition)
The Buckeyes are the top team in the NCAA in total defense, allowing 217.4 yards per game, and in scoring defense, giving up a mere 10.5 points per game. Statistically, the numbers look to favor Ohio State in this matchup. Offensively, Michigan is 69th nationally with 402.6 yards per game, and 35th in scoring offense with 33.5 points per game.
We’re No. 1! (Offensive edition)
The Buckeyes have the No. 6 total offense nationally and top in the Big Ten with 530.4 yards per game. In fact, just one Big 12 team, Oklahoma, is ahead of Ohio State in yards per game. But the Buckeyes have demonstrated the ability to convert those yards into points more than anyone else. Ohio State is No. 1 in the country in terms of scoring offense, punching in 49.4 points per game. This matchup appears to be the more balanced one against the Wolverines. Michigan is No. 4 nationally in total defense, giving up 267 yards per game, and are not far behind in terms of scoring, allowing 16.2 points per game.
Big Ten East champs
No one will ever say the Ohio State/Michigan matchup is irrelevant. For the Buckeyes, it’s about beating a rival for a record eighth time in a row. For Michigan, it’s about finally landing a blow in a rivalry that’s been so unbalanced in the last 15 years.
Still, when it comes down to rankings, playoff projections and actual post-season implications of this matchup, the game actually is somewhat irrelevant. The Buckeyes have secured their spot in the Big Ten Championship game, scheduled for Dec. 7 in Indianapolis, against the winner of No. 8 Minnesota and No. 12 Wisconsin. Further, even a loss to Michigan would likely not eliminate the Buckeyes from playoff contention, assuming Ohio State comes away with a win in the Big Ten Championship. Michigan probably works their way into a New Year’s Six Bowl conversation with a win, though the Rose Bowl is out of reach given losses to Penn State and Wisconsin.
Regardless of the actual implications, there’s little that can diminish Ohio State’s rivalry matchup for the level of excitement it brings. Plus it would totally suck to break the almost 3,000-day streak since Michigan last beat Ohio State.
The Buckeyes are nine-point favorites over TTUN. Given the game is on the road against a rival that hasn’t beaten Ohio State since 2011, expect Michigan to come out fighting. Plus, given Ohio State couldn’t quite meet the 19-point spread against Penn State last week, and Michigan has one of the top (though not THE top) scoring defenses in the country, nine points seems about right. It’s certainly the Buckeyes toughest test on the road in their 2019 campaign.
Last week’s test versus the Nittany Lions is certainly a barometer on how Ohio State responds to close (closer?) games and high-pressure environments. Fortunately for Ohio State, the Buckeyes passed that test with flying colors. Regardless, Ohio State will certainly need to clean up some of the mistakes that plagued the squad last week -- namely, three turnovers.
Still, Chase Young is back, Justin Fields is the better statistical transfer quarterback and J.K. Dobbins is waiting for a breakout game against his rival. Ryan Day is 14-0 and his team is firing on all cylinders. Expect a slug fest, but also expect the Buckeyes to play a clean game worthy of the top-ranked team in the nation.