College football’s better when this game means what it means right now.
by Alex Kirshner@alex_kirshner Nov 20, 2016, 9:36am EST
The stage is now neatly set. Ohio State will host Michigan at the Horseshoe next Saturday (noon ET, ABC), and it’ll be the biggest college football game of this regular season. ESPN’s College GameDay has already announced a special, five-hour edition of its weekly road show, beginning at 7 a.m. ET in Columbus.
The No. 2 Buckeyes and No. 3 Wolverines both won on Saturday, struggling for a while but then pulling away from inferior opponents. Now, the outlook’s pretty simple.
If Ohio State wins, a Playoff spot is on the table, even though No. 8 Penn State beating Michigan State would keep the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship.
If Michigan wins, the Wolverines are guaranteed a spot in the B1G Championship, where they’d be favored to win and lock down a Playoff spot of their own.
What happens in Columbus will have far-reaching ramifications.
Penn State will root feverishly for an Ohio State win, because that would position the Nittany Lions to win the Big Ten East by way of a head-to-head tiebreaker on the Buckeyes.
If Ohio State does win, it becomes quite possible that the Big Ten places two teams in the Playoff. The Buckeyes would stay in the top four (at least until conference championship weekend), and either Penn State or No. 7 Wisconsin could get a spot by winning the conference.
If Michigan wins, Ohio State is neither a conference champion nor a one-loss team coming off a marquee victory. The Buckeyes would fall out of the top four by Playoff selections on Dec. 4, and some non-Big Ten team would have an opening: the Pac-12 or Big 12 champ, maybe, or a Florida team that shocks Alabama in the SEC Championship.
J.T. Barrett Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Even if you forget the Playoff, the game is a heavyweight fight.
Ohio State and Michigan are rivals, you have probably heard. They’ve played football against each other 111 times since their series started 1897.
Michigan used to have a firm upper hand, but Ohio State’s won 12 of 15 since the turn of the millennium. Lloyd Carr didn’t solve Ohio State. Neither did Brady Hoke, certainly. And last year, neither did Jim Harbaugh in a debut appearance that went to the scarlet and gray, 42-13.
Blood will boil. But the circumstances are special this year, because the teams are so good at the same time and so much is on the line. When the rivalry intersects with elite football, the result’s usually great. It was like that for their seminal game in 2006, when it was one-versus-two. Ohio State and Michigan don’t need to both be top-five teams for their games to be great, but it doesn’t hurt.
The matchups here are compelling.
Harbaugh and Urban Meyer will duke it out for the foreseeable future atop the East. We’ll get to watch Michigan’s all-world defensive front against Ohio State’s Mike Weber and J.T. Barrett. We’ll see if Michigan’s offense can hum, and whether injured quarterback Wilton Speight is healthy enough to play and do it well. Years of strong recruiting means both teams are talented and deep. They’re worthy adversaries.
Jabrill Peppers Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
I have no clue how it’s going to play out, and that’s fun.
Ohio State is an early touchdown favorite, owing to Speight’s uncertain health, John O’Korn’s struggles in replacing him this week, and the matter of location.
But all of that’s pretty shallow evidence. That’s not because Michigan’s so grit-tastic and hard-working and passionate that it won’t matter, but because both teams have been unpredictable lately. Speight could turn out to be fine – he was warming up at points on Saturday – and even if not, Ohio State’s been iffy in five of its last seven games.
On another hand, maybe Speight isn’t fine, and maybe Ohio State’s going to win again in a stadium where it’s lost just once in the last two seasons.
College football’s a puzzle. This year’s biggest piece is about to fall into place, and we’ll have to build the rest of the picture around it.