For Michigan, much like for Ohio State, it was always about this weekend. It was always about this game. And now, after 11 weeks of preliminaries, the main event is finally here. And as was the case last season, everything on the line.
With each team coming off playoff appearances last year and beginning this season ranked in the top five, it’s not surprising that Michigan and Ohio State meet with not only a berth in the conference championship game at stake, but one in the college football playoffs, as well. It’s not surprising either that each team comes into the game undefeated for the second straight season. What is surprising, however, is the path that Michigan traveled to get here.
Michigan started the season hot. Behind an uber-efficient offense and an overwhelming defense, the Wolverines raced to a 7-0 start. It wasn’t just Michigan’s undefeated record, however, that was impressive. Through seven games, the Wolverines were averaging more than 40 points while holding their opponents to less than a touchdown per game. So dominant was Michigan, that most national pundits hailed the Wolverines as one of the best teams in the country, one of the few teams capable of unseating two-time defending national champion Georgia.
For Michigan, the season seemed to have a singular focus. Repeating as conference champions and improving on last season’s performance in the college football playoffs. To accomplish those tasks, of course, the Wolverines would have to first survive Ohio State.
The week of the Michigan/Michigan State game a new focus emerged. Allegations of a sign-stealing campaign surfaced – allegations that have intensified in the weeks since. For the past month, Michigan and its players have been in the news and under the microscope, with the Big Ten ultimately suspending head coach Jim Harbaugh for the final three games of the regular season.
When the allegations first surfaced, Michigan seemed nonplussed and defeated Michigan State 49-0, handing the Spartans their worst loss ever in Spartan Stadium. Since then, however, the Wolverines have struggled a bit. Those struggles piqued last week when Michigan escaped College Park with a narrow, come-from-behind 31-24 victory.
A Michigan team that was led by a quarterback who’s been among the most efficient in the country all season, completed just 52% of its passes for a paltry 141 yards. A defense that was second in the nation in points allowed, ceding just over a touchdown a game, surrendered 24 points to the Terps – including a pair of third quarter touchdowns – the first points the Wolverines have given up in the third quarter all season.
It wasn’t Michigan’s best showing to be sure, but is it a reason for concern? Have the distractions finally gotten to the Wolverines? Is playing without its head coach affecting Michigan’s play on the field? Or are the past few weeks – and the Maryland game in particular – just part of the ups and downs of a long season? After all, Michigan barely escaped last year’s penultimate conference game against Illinois, and bounced back quite nicely, defeating Ohio State by three touchdowns in Columbus.
South of the border, Ohio State is suffering no such lull. The Buckeyes are rolling over their opponents. Talk about peaking at the right time – Ohio State won its last two games (against Michigan State and Minnesota) by a combined score of 75-6. But it’s more than just lopsided final scores. A lot is going right in Columbus.
Quarterback Kyle McCord looks much more comfortable running the Buckeye offense than he did earlier in the season (not unusual for a young quarterback). All-world receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. has spent the season proving that all of his pre-season accolades were justified. And the Buckeye ground game has gotten healthier – and more productive. For a team desperate to end its two-game losing streak against its biggest rival, things couldn’t be trending much better for Ohio State.
Despite recent trends, Michigan is a 3.5-point favorite Saturday, down from being a 5.5-point favorite prior to the announcement of Harbaugh’s suspension. But while Vegas still likes Michigan’s chances, much of the public doesn’t. This is particularly true of national pundits and prognosticators, many of whom are favoring the Buckeyes in this clash of unbeatens.
The Wolverines have taken somewhat of an “us against the world” mentality this season. Quite literally, in fact, with many players donning “Michigan vs. Everybody” tee shirts and sweatshirts. Might the recent “disrespect” fuel the Wolverines? Or will the distractions (and the lack of their head coach on the sidelines) finally get to them?
More pertinently, will Michigan’s offensive and defensive line be able to do what they did the past two years, dominate in the trenches? Behind a suddenly unsettled offensive line, will McCarthy have a clean enough pocket in which to operate? On the other side of the ball, will the Wolverines defense be able to control arguably the best player in college football in Harrison Jr.?
What about Ohio State? Recent success aside, how will McCord handle the pressure of playing in his first Michigan/Ohio State game? On the road, no less. Will the Buckeyes resurgent running game, led by a finally-healthy TreVeyon Henderson, continue its late season success? Will Harrison Jr. repeat his performance against Penn State, when he virtually single-handedly delivered victory over the Nittany Lions?
All sub-plots in what’s one of the most eagerly anticipated games of this season. Subplots or questions to which we’ll know the answers soon.