It's not every day that the No. 19 team in the nation can set off to play its unranked rival and still be the four-and-a-half-point underdog.
Then again, it's not every day that an undefeated Big Ten team finds itself left out of the rankings.
Saturday's matchup between storied rivals Ohio State and Michigan is going to be interesting. For one, it's basically Ohio State's conference championship game and bowl game all rolled into one, considering sanctions are keeping the Buckeyes out of the postseason festivities this year. On top of that, with a win, they will finish the season undefeated—and there's no better way to cap off an unbeaten season than with a home victory over their most hated rivals.
The Wolverines' work will be cut out for them. The 2012 season started off with major disappointment, and they must now ensure it doesn't end the same way, or else they risk missing the Big Ten championship game. With a win, Michigan still has a chance, but it also needs Nebraska to lose to 4-7 Iowa. With a loss, it's all over.
Here's a look at the keys to a Michigan victory over Ohio State.
Senior year hasn't gone quite as planned for Denard Robinson, who was supposed to be quarterbacking this team. Nerve damage in his right elbow got in the way, and as a result, he missed two weeks (at Minnesota and against Northwestern) before reemerging last week as a running back.
In a 42-17 win over Iowa, Robinson got 13 carries for 98 yards—not bad at all. With that being said, moving the ball effectively is going to get a lot harder against the Buckeyes, who boast the 34th-ranked defense in the NCAA. Still, Ohio State allowed 200-plus yards to Wisconsin's backfield last week, so putting up some decent yardage is certainly possible.
Nobody's expecting Robinson to be Adrian Peterson, but if there was ever a time to have a moment, this would be it. This is his last shot at glory, so he has to make it count. This is about more than skill where Robinson is concerned; it's about him being a spark and a leader on this team. It needs him.
In relief of Robinson, Gardner has been pretty stellar over the last few games. In last week's win over Iowa, he hit a crescendo, completing 18 of 23 passes for 314 yards with three touchdowns in the air, three on the ground and just one interception. In the two games prior, he threw for four total TDs and rushed for another three. We know he can score, and picks haven't been much of a problem.
However, it's important to remember that two of the Wolverines' last three games came against 6-5 Minnesota and 4-7 Iowa. Ohio State is on another planet compared to those teams.
There have been a lot of positives where Gardner is concerned over the last few weeks. For one, he hasn't lost. For another, he led Michigan to an upset win in overtime over No. 24 Northwestern a couple of weeks ago, engineering the game-tying drive with time running out in the fourth quarter and running in the game-winning touchdown himself in the extra frame.
He has what it takes to keep this team afloat and lead it to salvation. He just can't be intimidated by what will be his biggest challenge yet.
Ignore the Hype and the History
There is far more pressure on the Wolverines than there is on the Buckeyes in this one. The Buckeyes, at this point, have nothing to lose. The outcome of this game has no bearing on their outlook from here on out, considering they don't even have an outlook.
Michigan, on the other hand, has plenty to lose, and a game against Ohio State is always filled with distractions and emotions and pressure. There's also the fact that the Wolverines don't control their own fate, so even if they do manage to take down undefeated Ohio State, they still have to rely on Nebraska to suffer a huge upset.
The worst thing these players can do is worry about that. Their focus needs to be 100 percent dedicated to this game, not to what could happen a couple of weeks from now.
They also need to ignore the history behind this game. Though the Wolverines won it last year, the Buckeyes won the seven previous matchups. The odds are kind of stacked against the Wolverines—they're on the road, they're playing one of the toughest teams in the nation and that team has a rich history of success against them—but it will be all about focusing on the game plan instead of those factors.