Ranking Michigan and Ohio State's Best Players Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2021

Ranking Michigan and Ohio State's Best Players Since 2000

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    Troy Smith
    Troy SmithStephen Dunn/Getty Images

    When you think of The Game, a specific clash between the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes might come to mind. But for many college football fans, the historic rivalry is all about the players.

    Yes, the Buckeyes have dominated the rivalry during the past two decades. Including the vacated 2010 winbecause, well, let's be serious hereOhio State is 17-3 in the series since 2000. Still, the Wolverines have showcased some elite talent along the way.

    Leading into 2021's showdown, let's remember the best of the best.

    The focus is solely on college performance with an emphasis on players who spent multiple seasons at Michigan or Ohio State from 2000 to today. NFL production is not considered.

10. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State (2005-08)

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    Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

    Not only was James Laurinaitis a three-year starter at linebacker, he took full advantage of every season in the lineup.

    As a sophomore in 2006, he posted 115 tackles with four sacks and five interceptions. Laurinaitis followed up that breakout campaign with 121 tackles, five sacks and two interceptions and collected 130 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions in his senior year.

    Laurinaitis, a three-time All-Big Ten honoree and three-time All-American, earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in both 2007 and 2008. He also earned the Nagurski Trophy (national DPOY) in 2006 and Butkus Award (top linebacker) in 2007.

    In four games against Michigan, he posted 28 tackles and celebrated four victories over the Wolverines.

9. Mike Doss, S, Ohio State (1999-2002)

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    Shortly before Laurinaitis arrived, the Buckeyes had another three-time All-American on their defense.

    Mike Doss patrolled the secondary from 1999-2002, starting at free safety in each of the last three seasons. He notched 94 tackles with 14 for loss as a sophomore in 2000, intercepting three passes and returning two fumbles for touchdowns.

    In his junior season, Doss amassed 87 tackles (10 TFL), three interceptions and another fumble recovery for a touchdown.

    Doss' finest year arrived in 2002. On the Buckeyes' path to winning the national titlea game in which he made a key interceptionhe gathered 107 tackles, shared Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors and landed that third straight All-American nod.

8. Mike Hart, RB, Michigan (2004-07)

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    Often remembered for his "little brother" comment about Michigan State, Mike Hart had no problem backing up his talk on the field.

    Hart exploded onto the Big Ten scene in 2004, scampering for 1,455 yards, catching 26 passes for 237 yards and totaling 10 touchdowns. He brought home Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.

    After an injury-shortened 2005 campaign, Hart put together his best season in 2006. He rushed for 1,562 yards and 14 touchdowns, finishing fifth in Heisman Trophy voting. Hart then tallied 1,361 rushing yards and 14 scores as a senior in 2007.

    Hart, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection, ended his career as Michigan's all-time leading rusher with 5,040 yards.

    He returned to Ann Arbor in 2021 as the running backs coach.

7. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State (2013-15)

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Do you prefer four seasons of Hart or two of Ezekiel Elliott?

    It's a reasonable question, and there's probably no perfect answer. While they could just as easily be switched, Elliott lands a slight nod because of his elite production and edge in versatility.

    After holding a small role as a freshman, Elliott excelled in 2014. He rushed for 1,878 yardsthird-most nationallysnagged 28 passes for 220 yards, scored 18 touchdowns and landed Offensive MVP honors in Ohio State's national championship victory.

    The next season, Elliott piled up 1,821 rushing yards, 27 catches for 206 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a second-team AP All-America choice.

    J.K. Dobbins has since surpassed him, but Elliottwho shredded Michigan for 335 yards and four scores in two gamesleft for the NFL as the No. 2 rusher (3,961 yards) in Ohio State history.

6. Denard Robinson, QB, Michigan (2009-12)

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    Denard Robinson had a dream start to his career. Sort of.

    Although he fumbled the snap, "Shoelaces" scooped up the ball and sprinted past Western Michigan's defense for a 43-yard touchdown. That playmaking ability was a constant in his college career and made him the most dynamic player in program history.

    Sure, he never developed into an elite passer. Denard managed 6,250 yards, 49 touchdowns and 39 interceptions until an elbow injury that included nerve damage ended his QB days as a senior.

    But with the ball in his hands, Robinson was electric.

    He scampered for 1,702 yards and 14 scores to earn Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and All-American honors as a sophomore. Denard's final two years included a pair of 1,000-yard rushing outputs, 23 more touchdowns and a second All-Big Ten selection.

5. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State (2002-05)

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    After contributing on the 2002 championship team, A.J. Hawk shifted into a starting role and excelled for three seasons.

    Hawk gathered a team-best 106 tackles with 13 for loss in 2003. That productive year set a high bar, yet he absolutely smashed it during both the 2004 and 2005 campaigns anyway.

    As a junior in 2004, Hawk posted 141 tackles and eight for loss, intercepting two passes and recovering a fumble. He earned the first of two successive All-American selections. The awards followed in 2005 when he landed the Lombardi Award, Lambert Trophy and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Hawk had 121 tackles with 16.5 for loss and 9.5 sacks in his senior year.

    Following that brilliant career, the Green Bay Packers picked him fifth in the 2006 NFL draft.

4. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State (2013-15)

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Joey Bosa was a nightmare off the edge.

    As a freshman, he notched 13.5 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. In 2014, Bosa amassed 21.5 TFL, 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles to secure Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and All-American recognition while OSU won a national title.

    Although his production dipped to 16 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2015, that can be attributed to the number of double- and triple-teams offenses sent his way. Every opponent's game plan revolved around how to limit Bosa, who still deservedly landed a second consecutive All-American nod.

    Bosa ended his Ohio State career holding top-five marks in both tackles for loss (51) and sacks (26). He tallied 4.5 and 3.5, respectively, of those against Michigan.

3. Jake Long (2003-07)

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    Before he embarked on a successful pro career, Jake Long locked down one side of Michigan's offensive line.

    Long, who redshirted in 2003, initially contributed at right tackle in 2004. He impressed enough that the coaches voted him a second-team All-Big Ten lineman. Ankle and foot injuries limited Long to five appearances on the right side in 2005.

    The next season, he flipped to left tackle and developed into a coveted NFL prospect. Long secured Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and All-America recognition in both his junior and senior years.

    And in the 2008 draft, the Miami Dolphins grabbed Long with the No. 1 pick.

2. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan (2001-04)

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    In 1998 and 1999, David Terrell became the first Michigan wideout to register back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Braylon Edwards soon surpassed that accomplishment.

    A future No. 3 pick of the Cleveland Browns in the 2005 NFL draft, Edwards compiled three straight 1,000-yard campaigns. He made 67 receptions for 1,035 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2002, then reeled in 85 passes for 1,138 yards and 14 scores as a junior. Edwards received first-team All-Big Ten honors in the latter season.

    Edwards headlined the Big Ten-winning 2004 team, setting program records in both receptions (97) and yards (1,330). Along with securing All-American honors, he won both the Biletnikoff Award and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

    For good measure, Edwards averaged 10 catches and 127 yards in three matchups with Ohio State. He remains Michigan's all-time leader in receptions (252), yards (3,541) and touchdowns (39).

1. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State (2002-06)

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    JULIE JACOBSON/Associated Press

    Craig Krenzel guided Ohio State to the 2002 national title and returned in 2003. Troy Smith's moment arrived in 2004 after an injury to Justin Zwick, and the dual-threat QB capitalized on his chance.

    Smith made a good impression, propelling the Buckeyes to a 4-1 record down the stretch with an upset of No. 7 Michigan. Zwick and Smith competed into the early portion of the 2005 season, but Smith soon took control of the starting job.

    While helping the Buckeyes to a 10-2 record, Smith threw for 2,282 yards and 16 touchdowns to four interceptions. He also rushed for 611 yards and 11 touchdowns.

    But there's no question that 2006 is his iconic year.

    Ohio State put together a 12-0 regular seasonwhich included the "Game of the Century" victory over Michiganbefore falling to Florida in the national title game. Smith finished with 2,542 passing yards, 204 rushing yards, 31 total scores and a jam-packed trophy case. The unanimous All-American won the Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp Award, O'Brien Award and Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.