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Michigan vs. Ohio State

It’s often said that anything can happen in rivalry games. That axiom will be put to the test this weekend in Ann Arbor, as Michigan limps (literally and figuratively) into this year’s clash as a nearly-two-touchdown underdog.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

There’s no getting around it, it’s been a rough season for Michigan.

It’s not that there haven’t been highlights and high points, but for a team with aspirations of competing for conference championships, coming into the season finale against Ohio State as an unranked, nearly-two-touchdown, home underdog is not where Jim Harbaugh and his team expected to be. But has Michigan’s season really been surprise?

It’s been well noted that Michigan had to replace 17 starters from last season’s team. In the space of one season, Michigan has gone from to one of the nation’s most experienced teams its least experienced. Couple that with losing its starting quarterback (or two starting quarterbacks, if you’re keeping score), and is it any wonder that the Wolverines have struggled?

For that matter, is Michigan’s 8-3 record really a surprise? Of Michigan’s three losses, one was to a fired up, revenge-seeking Nittany Lion team playing on an emotional high in front of a frenzied “white out” night game crowd and one was to an undefeated Badger team in Madison, a place where it’s never fun to play. Not a lot of people can say they had those two games penciled in as victories before the season started. Sure, the loss to Michigan State was unexpected, and painful, but that’s one game.

So why all the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in Ann Arbor, then? Even in victories, the negatives often seemed to outweigh the positives. Gripes about quarterback play, coaching and playcalling - the trademark cries of a disgruntled fan base - have been the story of the season for the Wolverines. Factor in losing two quarterbacks to injury, and the mood in Ann Arbor only worsens.

It’s not like there haven’t been highlights. The defense has exceeded expectations, still ranked among the nation’s best despite losing ten starters, including seven that found homes in the NFL. Sophomore linebacker Devin Bush has emerged as a star, a whirling dervish of a player who’s in constant motion and seemingly involved in every play. Senior Maurice Hurst has also excelled in his swan song season at Michigan. Hurst is not only popping up on early All-American teams, but is also being pegged by some as one of the top defensive players in the country. Rashaan Gary came into the season with all the accolades, and has not disappointed, but it’s Hurst who has established himself as the Wolverines’ top player. And even with four new starters in the defensive backfield, Michigan’s pass defense has acquitted itself quite well, a significant concern coming into the season.

On offense, however, it’s been another story. Hampered by a still-inconsistent offensive line, Michigan has struggled against top teams. Against teams with a pulse, as the saying goes, Michigan has had difficulty creating room for its running backs and protecting its quarterback alike. Michigan averaged a paltry 2.0 yards per carry in games against Penn State and Wisconsin compared to 5.2 against everyone else. And as far as protecting its quarterback, well, Michigan hasn’t. Offensive line play continues to be Michigan’s Achilles heel.

So here we all. The game, or “The Game” if you prefer, is at hand. For Michigan to compete with a Buckeye team that still believes it can play its way into the college football playoffs, it will need a stellar game from its defense and an error-free game on offense. But will even that be enough against a team that features one of the most accomplished offensive players in Big Ten history and a top-ten defense.

Win or lose, Michigan will likely end up in Florida playing in a second-tier bowl game. But it’s not like the Wolverines don’t have anything to play for. It’s often said that “anything can happen” in rivalry games and that axiom will surely be put to the test this weekend as the Buckeyes look to extend their dominance over the Wolverines.