This year is one of the strangest years in the long, storied Ohio State/Michigan rivalry. There is a cloud over the Big Ten due to its gross underperformance and aggressive sanctions preventing two of the highest-profiled programs in the nation to not be able to compete for the league or national championship this year.
Despite that fact, the Ohio State Buckeyes, seemingly unranked because of their disqualification from BCS rankings, are surprisingly undefeated at 8-0 this year and ranked No. 9 by AP. They are in danger of going undefeated in a year in which it will count for very little.
While Urban Meyer has righted the ship faster than expected in Columbus, Brady Hoke’s Wolverines were projected to carry the banner for the conference this year after a resurgent 11-2 year last year which ended with a Sugar Bowl win. Instead, the Wolverines have in a sense been a replica of the conference’s fate this fall. Blessed with an opportunity to take on the mighty SEC and it’s flag-bearer Alabama, it failed miserably, and then in a rivalry game against a resurgent Notre Dame team, they lost that contest as well. It seems as if the Big Ten’s hope and respect went down the stretch with Michigan’s struggles this year.
At the end of the day, even though OSU is not eligible to compete for postseason treasures, they still are a team created in The Ohio State University’s image. Michigan, despite it’s early-season struggles, is still a team that could win the conference and post a 10-win season. As a result, I believe that in a few weeks, we will have the best matchup between these classic rivals that we have had since the historic No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in 2006 that earned OSU a BCS championship birth.
Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Both teams are strong and will have impressive records going into this game.
When this game comes up, there is a good chance the Buckeyes could be undefeated at 11-0. Michigan could be 9-2. Those numbers look a lot better than how things looked earlier in the season—or even now.
This game has not seen combined success out of the two teams since 2006, when the two teams were 11-0 and ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls. During the Rich Rodriguez years, Michigan never seemed to get off of the ground, and then in Brady Hoke’s triumphant return to the Big House, he brought Michigan back almost instantly, but Ohio State had a down year due to the turmoil they suffered in Jim Tressel’s exit.
For the first time in years, both teams are back and feeling strong, despite the fact that it seems that both teams are very flawed and far from the national championship conversation.
2. Michigan looks to thwart Ohio State's resurgence and restored pride.
After a disappointing start to the season, nothing would validate this season more than ruining the Buckeyes' only semblance of a postseason-like do-or-die matchup this season. If this does not lead to a Big Ten Championship berth in Indianapolis, that would be disappointing, but ruining Urban Meyer’s triumphant return to Ohio and the Buckeyes' attempt to bounce back from their one-year stay in the world of mediocrity would be an exciting proposition for Michigan faithful.
3. Ohio State is highly motivated by the heavy talk coming from their rivals of late.
Brady Hoke has been talking heavy talk since he took over in Ann Arbor. Ohio State, despite its pretty sad version of a football season last year under Luke Fickell, still competed and gave Michigan a game last year. Michigan was as big and strong as they had been in years, yet they could not demolish the sub-.500 Buckeyes.
What does this mean? Hoke’s taunts and jabs at the state of Ohio and it’s biggest university did not fall on deaf ears in Columbus—or anywhere else in the state, for that matter. He has constantly referred to The Ohio State University as “Ohio,“ clearly disregarding the school’s proper name and the presence of another university known as “Ohio.“
Can Hoke back up this talk? That is a good question. Given that Ohio State has been restored by Urban Meyer’s high-profile return to Ohio State, the Buckeyes are no slouch anymore. While Michigan was supposed to have their Heisman frontrunner Denard Robinson, Ohio State has been able to boast their own Heisman candidate in Braxton Miller, who has outperformed Robinson to this point.
Ohio State has a coach that defines confidence and swagger, and they have adequate talent to back it up. Expect the Buckeyes to be more than motivated to buck the one-game spell that Hoke has cast on the school from “Ohio.”
4. The talent gap has closed much faster than expected.
Michigan was supposed to have the more talented team this year. They returned several starters from last year’s Sugar Bowl-winning team, and Ohio State was recovering from a coaching change and several sanctions that riddled the program. Instead, that gap has closed. Michigan’s defense has been good in league play, but they were walloped by Alabama and gave up 25 points in a close win over the Air Force.
It appears the talent gap that seemed clear going into this season has vanished. It is hard to compare rosters and performance because of the large variance in how each individual team schedules in football, but OSU’s rushing attack is ranked 10th in the nation, and Michigan is 17th despite having Denard Robinson, one of the most dangerous weapons in college football.
OSU is 21st in the nation in points scored, Michigan is 54th. OSU’s defense has struggled with poor tackling and secondary play at times, while Michigan has been steady despite their aforementioned struggles and have the 16th-best defense in the nation.
This is a matchup of two teams that are comparable for the first time in a while, and this was not expected. Much talk was made about Michigan’s amazing recruiting classes, and Urban Meyer is well on his way to fully restocking Columbus’ shelves of top-notch pro talent. But this year, it seems that even before the full change of the guard talent-wise has begun in Columbus, the culture has changed and the leadership has been restored immediately. For once, neither team will limp into the game with major limitations or wounds.
5. Ohio State has nothing to play for and would like nothing more than to ruin Michigan’s season.
It’s hard to imagine that one side would want this game more than the other, but regardless of which team shows up with the better record, it is clear OSU wants this game more than Michigan.
Losing their first game to the bitter rivals to the north since 2004 was not acceptable last year. Beating them had become the norm. In one year, they lost a stranglehold on this rivalry and conceded another official loss to Michigan as a result of Tressel’s ineligible 2010 season.
OSU has no postseason to play for—Michigan does. They may not be able to play for a national championship, but they can still play for the Big Ten Title and play in a notable bowl game. Michigan has a lot to play for. Their best player Robinson will want to end his historical career with a bang, and Hoke will want to continue to build momentum, given Ohio State will only resemble an Urban Meyer-led team more and more with each year.
Everything about this game says that Ohio State has everything to play for in this game. This is their championship, this is their vengeance for last year’s loss (and the phantom loss in 2010). This is their chance to embarrass their neighbors to the north, ruin their hopes for the BCS and re-establish momentum in the rivalry and in the Big Ten as the team to beat for the foreseeable future.
This game will be a must-see between two storied programs, two of the nation’s best quarterbacks and playmakers and two coaches who are trying to establish a legacy in their native lands. This game could set the tone for years to come, as the rivalry is without question back and here to stay after some lopsided games with one school or the other not being up to par. We’ll have to see who wins.