Ohio State vs. Michigan, CXVIII: Who Will Win?

Thanks to Michigan and Ohio State both escaping this past weekend, we now get to witness the biggest rivalry in college sports with both teams at 11-0.

This is the first time since 2006 that both teams have entered “The Game” undefeated. That year, Ohio State was ranked #1 and Michigan was #2, and the game was in Columbus, like it is this year. In 2006, Ohio State won the game in a 42-39 thriller.

It may be because I was just a wide-eyed high schooler back in 2006, but I felt like that was the most hyped-up college football game ever. It felt like the biggest game ever. Probably the BCS had a lot to do with it, and there was no Big Ten Championship game back then, so it was the de facto Big Ten Championship game, and the winner would punch their ticket to the National Championship game no questions asked.

More than that, it felt like Ohio State and Michigan were the clear-cut two best teams in the country up to that point. The assumption was that not only was that game the Big Ten Championship, it was the real National Championship as well. Kind of like when Georgia and Alabama square off in the SEC Championship these days.

You have to remember, back in 2006, it was not conventional wisdom that the SEC was the best conference. It was widely assumed that the conferences were relatively equal up at the top–that the best SEC teams were about on par with the best Big Ten teams, the best Pac 12 teams, the best Big 12 teams, the best ACC teams, the best Big East teams (back then, the Big East was still a football conference). Any conference could win the National Championship.

So the belief was that the Ohio State vs. Michigan game that year was the true National Championship. At least that’s how I saw it. It felt like the actual National Championship game would be a formality.

However, the shine on that matchup was diminished quite significantly about a month and a half later, given what both teams went on to do in the postseason. Michigan lost to USC in the Rose Bowl 32-18, and then Ohio State got absolutely skulldrug in the National Championship Game by Florida, 41-14. That was when we learned that SEC teams are on a different level.

That 2006 Ohio State-Michigan game would be a lot more memorable if Ohio State had actually gone on to win the National Championship, and likewise, no matter how thrilling this year’s matchup ends up being (if in fact it is a good game), where it goes down in history is almost entirely reliant on whether or not the winner goes on to win the National Championship.

And so I don’t think we’ll ever see an Ohio State vs. Michigan game with as much hype and excitement as that 2006 game. There’s still so much more football left to be played afterward. And we know that it is by no means guaranteed that the winner of this game will win the Natty. It’s not even close to a foregone conclusion–Georgia is still the favorite, after all.

But, on the flip side, this may be the last time that we see an Ohio State vs. Michigan regular season game have as much at stake as this game does. This game is effectively a playoff game. The loser can certainly still make the playoff if a lot of dominos fall their way, but it will be out of their hands. The winner will have effectively ripped the loser’s heart out by about 4pm Saturday.

This type of dynamic isn’t going to exist in the future. I wholeheartedly support the playoff expanding to 12 teams, but it’s simply a fact that once the playoff expands to 12 teams, this game will lose its status as a de-facto elimination game. Bragging rights will still be there, of course, and these two teams will always hate each other with a fiery passion. But there will still be so much more football left to play after The Game.

What I don’t like is the possibility for there to be a rematch a week later in the Big Ten Championship game once the Big Ten gets rid of divisions. That, I think, will really water down the rivalry. Which is why I support getting rid of conference championship games once the playoff expands to 12 teams. Just give the team with the best conference record an automatic berth and then the second place team can hope for an at-large bid.

Okay, I’m getting off track here, but the point is, the dynamics of this rivalry are going to change in the next few years once USC and UCLA join the Big Ten and once the playoff expands to 12 teams. So savor this one, because it might be the last time we see this game have stakes this high.

So who is going to win? Let’s get to the good stuff here.

Well, you know I have been critical of both Ohio State and Michigan. At various times, I have completely ruled out the possibility of Ohio State being an elite team, but I may have been being too harsh on them. I think Ohio State is really good, but they have some very real flaws as well.

As for Michigan, I think they are overrated. I think they’re a one-dimensional team that can’t throw the ball and has played the most pathetic schedule in America.

I may not be completely sold on Ohio State, but I think they’re a clear tier above Michigan.

Now, it is true that I picked Ohio State to win last year against Michigan and that was spectacularly wrong. I picked 42-24 Ohio State, and it wound up being 42-27 Michigan. I just couldn’t get over the fact that last year, Ohio State beat Michigan State 56-7 while Michigan lost to Michigan State. I thought it showed that Ohio State was just on another level.

But that turned out to be untrue. You can attribute it to the blizzard that was raging in Ann Arbor that day, and argue that it completely ruined Ohio State’s gameplan, but the fact is, Michigan won that game because they could not be stopped running the football. Ohio State played Oregon in September of that year, got gashed like crazy by Oregon’s run game, and lost the game. And that game was played in 75 degree weather. So it wasn’t just the weather last year. Attributing it to just the weather would be to draw the wrong conclusion, from the Ohio State perspective.

While some Ohio State fans drew that erroneous conclusion, though, Ryan Day did not. He realized that his team’s defense was fundamentally broken under Kerry Coombs, and made a big change. He went out and hired Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State, arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country. Ryan Day knew they lost that game to Michigan for more reasons than just the weather. And he made major moves to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Okay, before I get into my analysis of this year’s game, I want to just recap last year’s game and clear some things up about it. Because I think it has been remembered incorrectly by a lot of people.

The first thing people have wrong about that game is this assumption that it was a total blowout in every facet of the game–that Michigan just completely destroyed Ohio State both offensively and defensively, and the game wasn’t even close.

Michigan’s run game was unstoppable in that game, for sure. That is one thing nobody has any misconceptions about. Michigan amassed 297 rushing yards on 41 attempts, good for 7.2 yards per carry. Wow. And Michigan’s run game was so effective that they were able to score 42 points and rack up 24 first downs while only facing 8 third downs the entire game. That’s an incredible number–it means they were moving the ball so well they were moving the sticks on first and second down.

But what I want to push back on is the idea that the game was an utter beatdown from start to finish and it wasn’t even close.

First of all, Michigan had just a 14-13 lead at halftime. The first half of the game was close.

Why was it close? Well, obviously because Michigan was moving the ball well, but also it was close because they did something you need to do against Ohio State if you’re ever going to beat them: force field goals when they get to the red zone. Michigan did that twice in the first half, and it made a huge difference. Instead of being down 21-14 they were up 14-13.

In the second half, Michigan’s dominance in the run game only increased. But they also hit some timely passes down field in choice spots, or were able to draw DPI flags on Ohio State’s terrible pass defense (and Ohio State’s pass defense was bad last year–it was even worse than their run defense, it’s just that Michigan didn’t really have to throw a whole lot). The dam just completely broke on the Ohio State defense in that second half.

Yet in spite of all that, CJ Stroud was able to drive the Buckeyes down the field and score a TD to make it a 35-27 game with just 4:45 left to play. Ohio State’s receivers–Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba–were making incredible catches all game long. Those dudes balled out, as did Stroud. Treyveon Henderson had a decent game as well; although Ohio State didn’t run much, he had a few nice runs and caught some swing passes out of the backfield in crucial moments, including that last TD Ohio State scored. He had 17 carries for 74 yards, or 4.4 yards per carry, which isn’t great but it’s not bad by any stretch.

Michigan took over, however, and just controlled the clock. They ran the ball with impunity, and Ohio State was simply powerless to stop them as they bulldozed their way down the field and ran in another TD to make it 42-27 with about 2 minutes to play, and that wound up being the final score.

But the fact remains that Ohio State was one defensive stop away from getting the ball back with about 2-3 minutes left in the game only down 8 points. Of course, Ohio State was never going to get that stop because their defense was swiss cheese. But it’s simply a fact that it was a one possession game with under 5 minutes to play.

I personally think Ohio State should’ve gone for two when they scored to make it 35-26. That way, if you get the conversion and it’s 35-28, you just need one stop, and then you put the ball in CJ Stroud’s hands and tell him to lead the team down the field and they can win the game with a TD and two point conversion with very little time remaining. I know #analytics these days say you should always go for two when you’re down two scores on the road in the fourth quarter, but Ryan Day opted not to do that. I have no idea why he didn’t, but it’s a moot point now.

CJ Stroud finished that game 34/49 passing for 394 yards, 2 TDs and 0 INTs. He averaged 8.0 yards per attempt. That’s really good, and if the Ohio State defense had been able to get just one stop in the second half–Michigan scored TDs on every possession they had in the second half–Ohio State actually could’ve won that game.

Stroud’s performance throwing the ball is even more impressive when you consider that he was under pressure to score a touchdown on literally every possession Ohio State had in the second half. Michigan was a guaranteed touchdown every time they had the ball, so Stroud had zero margin for error.

I think that’s a bit of a silver lining for Ohio State: that Stroud was able to have great success through the air in that game in spite of the fact that Michigan had two elite pass rushers coming after him, and in spite of the fact that everyone in the building knew Ohio State had to throw the ball. Hutchinson was able to sack Stroud three times, and Ojabo added one sack of his own, but considering that Ohio State threw the ball 49 times, you really can’t ask for a whole lot more out of your pass protection in a situation like that. Aidan Hutchinson was the #2 overall pick in the draft this year, and probably should’ve been #1 (he’s been a lot better than the guy the Jags took at #1, Trayvon Walker). And Ojabo would’ve been a first round pick had he not sadly blown out his Achilles at his pro day in March. (He still went in the second round anyway).

The takeaway from last year’s game from the Ohio State perspective is that they had great success throwing the ball. Their offense was functional and effective and they were able to move the ball well against that Michigan defense. It’s just that the Ohio State defense was awful.

But Michigan fans have remembered that game wrongly over the past year, and I think that’s to their peril. They must think they won that game 58-3 or something the way they talk about that game. There are a lot of Michigan fans out there who really believe they’re currently miles and miles ahead of Ohio State as a program–and that Ohio State wasn’t anywhere close in last year’s game.

And I also think Ohio State fans misremember that game as well. A lot of them are terrified and despondent and share the same assessment as the delusional Michigan fans who act like Michigan won that game 58-3.

Last year’s game was a lot closer than people think. Ohio State was one stop away from being in position to go down and win that game with a TD and 2-point conversion. Again, I know their defense couldn’t get a stop in that second half, but the takeaway there is that Ohio State’s offense was moving the ball well and was almost good enough to overcome their defense’s total and complete inability to stop the run at all. It was a much closer than people remember.

So I think a lot of these overly pessimistic Ohio State fans–and delusionally optimistic Michigan fans–need to step off the ledge and stop acting like Michigan is going to win every game in the rivalry for the next 20 years in blowout fashion.

I mean, there’s a lot of Michigan fans out there who act like they just permanently vanquished Ohio State for good. And the way their players and coaches talked shit after that game, it seems that feeling isn’t isolated to just random Michigan fans on Twitter.

But I can promise you, Michigan fans: if losing 8 in a row to Ohio State didn’t permanently bury your football program, then Ohio State losing one game to you won’t break their spirits.

If anything, the manner in which Michigan won that game last year–and the way they shot their mouths off afterward–only made it more difficult for them to win this year’s game. More on this later, though.

Let’s start things off with my main reasons Ohio State can win this game:

  1. Michigan is not as good as they were last year, especially defensively. No ifs, ands, or buts about it: you don’t lose Aidan Hutchinson, David Ojabo and Dax Hill and get better. Those are three first-round talents. Don’t be silly, Michigan’s defense was better last year than it is this year.
  2. The game is at Ohio State. I can’t overstate enough just how big a deal homefield advantage is in college football. It is massive. When I calculate my spreads for games, I give the home team 7 points just for being at home. I think it’s worth that much, at a minimum. In some situations, it’s worth even more. Last year for Michigan it was probably worth even more than 7 points. I mean, you talk about a night game in a stadium like LSU’s Death Valley, or Penn State with a whiteout–that’s worth even more than 7 points. It might be worth 10, honestly.
    • Home field advantage is massively important and I can’t overstate it enough. To really drive the point home, I want to go over some of the biggest matchups this year and show you just how many were won by the home team.
      1. #5 Notre Dame at #2 Ohio State. Ohio State won 21-10
      2. #11 Oregon vs. #3 Georgia. Georgia won 49-3. (I know this game was technically at a neutral site, but it was in Atlanta, which is like an hour away from Georgia’s campus and like a 4.5 hour flight for Oregon. This was a virtual home game for Georgia, don’t get it twisted here).
      3. #23 Cincinnati at #19 Arkansas. Arkansas won 31-24
      4. #20 Kentucky at #12 Florida. Kentucky won 26-16
      5. #24 Tennessee at #17 Pitt. Tennessee won 34-27 (OT)
      6. #12 BYU at #25 Oregon. Oregon won 41-20
      7. #13 Miami at #24 Texas A&M. Texas A&M won 17-10
      8. #20 Florida at #11 Tennessee. Tennessee won 38-33
      9. #5 Clemson at #21 Wake Forest. Clemson won 51-45 (OT)
      10. #2 Alabama at #20 Arkansas. Alabama won 49-26
      11. #7 Kentucky at #14 Ole Miss. Ole Miss won 22-19
      12. #8 Tennessee at #25 LSU. Tennessee won 40-13
      13. #10 NC State at #5 Clemson. Clemson won 30-20
      14. #3 Alabama at #6 Tennessee. Tennessee won 52-49
      15. #9 Oklahoma State at #16 Baylor. Oklahoma State won 36-25
      16. #10 Penn State at #5 Michigan. Michigan won 41-17
      17. #11 Utah at #18 UCLA. UCLA won 42-32
      18. #7 USC at #20 Utah. Utah won 43-42
      19. #8 Oklahoma State at #13 TCU. TCU won 43-40 (OT)
      20. #15 NC State at #18 Syracuse. Syracuse won 24-9
      21. #16 Mississippi State at #22 Kentucky. Kentucky won 27-17
      22. #24 Mississippi State at #6 Alabama. Alabama won 30-6
      23. #2 Ohio State at #13 Penn State. Ohio State won 44-31
      24. #19 Kentucky at #3 Tennessee. Tennessee won 44-6
      25. #9 UCLA at #10 Oregon. Oregon won 45-30
      26. #14 Syracuse at #5 Clemson. Clemson won 27-21
      27. #17 Kansas State at #8 TCU. TCU won 38-28
      28. #1 Tennessee at #3 Georgia. Georgia won 27-13
      29. #20 Texas at #11 Oklahoma State. Oklahoma State won 41-34
      30. #6 Alabama at #10 LSU. LSU won 32-31 (OT)
      31. #9 Oklahoma State at #22 Kansas State. K-State won 48-0
      32. #9 Alabama at #11 Ole Miss. Alabama won 30-24
      33. #25 Washington at #6 Oregon. Washington won 37-34
      34. #4 TCU at #20 Texas. TCU won 17-10
      35. #7 USC at #16 UCLA. USC won 48-45 (technically a road win for USC, but they play in the same city.)
      36. #10 Utah at #12 Oregon. Oregon won 20-17
    • Okay, maybe I went a little overboard here listing off 36 games (I could’ve done more) but I think you get the picture. In these ranked vs. ranked matchups, the home team is 27-9. That is overwhelming. And one of those “road wins” was USC beating UCLA. It’s like a 25 minute drive up the road.
    • Ohio State has a major advantage in having this game at home. I just wanted to make that abundantly clear here. Having home field advantage is a huge deal, just as it was last year.
    • The record in this series since 2001, when Jim Tressel took over Ohio State, is 17-3 in favor of Ohio State. Michigan has won in 2003, 2011 and 2021. It’s like a once-a-decade thing for Michigan to win. Doesn’t mean they can’t win this time, or go on a big win streak from here on out, but Ohio State has dominated over the past 20 years.
    • And most importantly, Michigan has not won at Ohio State since 2000. All three of Michigan’s wins in the series over the past 20 years have been in Ann Arbor. So it’s a big deal that Ohio State gets this game at home.
  3. Corum and Edwards are hurt: Michigan doesn’t have much of a passing game. They average 26.6 passing attempts per game and 44.3 rushing attempts per game. They rely heavily on their running game, Blake Corum in particular. But he’s at risk of missing the game, and even if he does play, he won’t be 100%. Donovan Edwards is also at risk of missing the game, too. If those guys are not 100%, Michigan doesn’t stand much of a chance.
  4. Michigan has played a joke of a schedule. It doesn’t mean they’re bad but it does open up the possibility that they’ve been overrated all season long. The only impressive win Michigan has this season is 41-17 over Penn State at home. Truthfully, it was not even as close as the final score. Penn State had two fluky touchdowns; they couldn’t stop Michigan’s running attack at all (Michigan ran for 418 on them), and they could not move the ball on Michigan at all. It was a terrible game for Penn State, and I don’t think they’re as bad as they were on that day, but the results are the results.
    • Outside of the Penn State game, though, there is not much to latch on to for Michigan. They should have lost to Illinois at home last weekend. Their non-conference schedule consisted of Colorado State, UConn and Hawaii–they didn’t play one game in their non-conference slate as good as the second-best non-conference team Ohio State played, which is Toledo.
    • The main thing here is that Michigan’s defense has simply not been tested at all this season other than the Penn State game. More than half of Michigan’s opponents thus far have ranked 100th or worse in offensive yards per play.
    • And it’s not as if Michigan has been super dominant against this schedule, either. They beat Maryland 34-27 at home, they were locked in a four-quarter game against Iowa when their offense was at rock bottom, they were tied 10-10 with Indiana at halftime, they were only up 13-7 at halftime on Michigan State at home, they were losing 17-14 to Rutgers at halftime. It hasn’t been exactly pretty this year, despite them winning all their games.
  5. Ohio State has a much-improved defense: After last season, with the embarrassments against not only Michigan but Oregon and also Utah, Ohio State cleaned house on their defensive coaching staff. Ryan Day went out and hired Jim Knowles, giving him $1.9 million a year, which I believe makes him the highest paid assistant coach in the country. They hired Jim Knowles specifically to make sure that what happened last year in Ann Arbor never happens again.
    • In a way, Michigan did Ohio State a favor last year, because the Ohio State defense had been in a bad place dating back to the 2020 season. From allowing Indiana to score at will in the Covid season, to giving up 52 to Bama in the National Championship game, and then getting steamrolled by Oregon and Tulsa in 2021, the Ohio State defense had been suspect ever since defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley left to become the head coach of Boston College after the 2019 season.
    • Last year’s Michigan game was the straw that broke the camel’s back: it was such a disaster for Ohio State that it forced Ryan Day to basically clean house with his defensive coaching staff. And now Ohio State is in a much better place defensively because of what happened in that game in Ann Arbor a year ago.
    • Long story short, if Ohio State hadn’t let up 297 rush yards in the Big House last year, they probably would never have overhauled their defense. They wouldn’t have Jim Knowles right now. If Ohio State had gone into Ann Arbor and let up, say, 170 rush yards, and lost at the very end with a score of like 31-28 or something–or if Ohio State had won narrowly despite letting up 260-270 rush yards–then perhaps Ryan Day never parts ways with Kerry Coombs and brings in Jim Knowles. Maybe their defense would still be hanging by a thread and at constant risk of having its doors completely blown off, and serving as a glass ceiling continually preventing them from winning a Natty once again.
    • So while I’m sure last year’s game was extremely painful for Ohio State fans, without that game going the way it did, you would never have gotten Jim Knowles. (Plus, that game also showed that even if Ohio State had somehow found a way to beat Michigan despite not having a run defense, they would’ve gotten stomped by Georgia in the playoff, I think. Georgia is like Michigan on steroids, and they can throw the ball a lot better, too. Ohio State wasn’t winning a Natty either way last year.)
  6. Ohio State can neutralize the Michigan run game with their offense. Even if Michigan’s running backs are healthy, their ability to use them will be almost entirely dependent on whether or not the Michigan defense can contain Ohio State’s offense. Because Blake Corum is not this explosive home run hitter back. He’s a 30 carries for 160 yards type of back. He’s going to just keep chipping away at your defense and slowly accumulate yards over four quarters. He’s not going to be busting off 15, 20, 30, 40 and 50 yard runs left and right. He’s a heavy volume runner–carry after carry after carry until he and the Michigan offensive line finally wear you down.
    • But this is only possible in a game script where Michigan is either ahead or the game is close. If Michigan is trailing by a fair amount, or they realize early on that Ohio State’s offense is locked in and on track to score 40+ points, you can’t give Blake Corum 30 carries.
  7. Michigan lost both their coordinators after last season because they thought Harbaugh was going to the NFL. Josh Gattis, the former offensive coordinator, is now at Miami. Mike MacDonald, the former defensive coordinator, is now back with the Baltimore Ravens. These guys were heavily credited for Michigan’s turnaround last season, and they are both gone. No one is really talking about this, but it’s a big deal. They were certain Harbaugh was going to the Vikings, so they lined up jobs elsewhere. And then the Vikings declined to offer Harbaugh the job, he went back to Michigan, and lost both of his coordinators from last year. Coordinator turnover is a huge deal in college football, as I always say, and it explains a lot of why teams fluctuate so much from year to year. Don’t underestimate the impact of Michigan’s turnover in this area.

So those are the biggest tangible reasons I see for why Ohio State should win.

Let’s look at the flip side; reasons why Michigan could win:

  1. Ohio State’s offense isn’t as good as it was last year. Just like Michigan’s defense regressed after losing Hutchinson, Ojabo and Dax Hill, Ohio State’s offense has regressed after losing Garett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. I know there’s a small chance JSN could suit up for this game, but he has missed the vast majority of the season and I doubt we see him on the field this weekend. I just haven’t heard anything about him playing so I’ll assume he’s a no-go. Marvin Harrison is a spectacular talent, and he’ll probably be drafted top-10 in 2024 when he’s eligible, but last year Ohio State had three insanely talented receivers, this year they only have one. This is the good news for Michigan: your defense has regressed whether you like to admit it or not, but so has Ohio State’s offense.
  2. If it turns out Ohio State still can’t stop the run. I don’t think this will be the case, but there have been times when the Ohio State run defense seemed a little shaky, like it was about to break. The Penn State game stands out in particular if I recall correctly. Michigan is going to make Ohio State prove they can stop the run. Michigan’s offense is like ~80% running the ball, and for that reason, they are going to be running the ball a lot. Couple that with the fact that it’s just a smart game plan to run the ball and keep Stroud and the Ohio State offense on the sideline, and you can expect Michigan to be running a ton, until Ohio State prove they can stop the run consistently. There’s no two ways about it. Ohio State’s run defense is going to be tested like never before. Michigan won the game last year by using the run game as a battering ram, just pushing that Ohio State defense backward, and backward and backward until they finally bulldozed their way into the endzone.
  3. If Michigan finds a way to exploit Ohio State’s weakness at cornerback with deep, sideline shots down the field. This is something I also see as unlikely, but after the Maryland game, the book is now out on Ohio State’s cornerbacks: they are liable to get absolutely barbecued on downfield passes. I don’t think Michigan has the capacity to do what Maryland did, as Taulia Tagovailoa is a much better passer than JJ McCarthy, and I think Maryland has better receivers than Michigan does.
  4. Ohio State’s offense is prone to breaking down and getting stuck in the mud if things aren’t just right. Ohio State is pretty reliant on big, explosive plays, but if they aren’t hitting those, it takes them a while to figure out how to move the ball incrementally.
  5. Ohio State has a history of slow starts at times, which could allow Michigan to punch them in the nose, jump out to a lead and then play ball control with their run game, bleeding the clock and amassing points on long, methodical drives. That’s what happened last year. Ohio State had three red zone trips in the first half of last year’s game and came away with 2 field goals and 1 touchdown. That qualifies as a slow start for Ohio State. Michigan needs to make that happen again.
  6. Michigan is better-suited to playing a low-scoring, grinder of a game. They are comfortable going 3 yards, 6 yards, 5 yards, 2 yards, 5 yards, 4 yards, etc. all the way down the field. Ohio State really isn’t. They’d rather just hit you with one 68 yard bomb and start the avalanche. But if they can’t, things get interesting. Now, in every game where Ohio State started slowly, they eventually turned on the jets and pulled away. The Notre Dame game, the Iowa game, the Penn State game and the Maryland game all come to mind. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that those were the four best teams Ohio State has played this year. I actually am expecting a slow start out of Ohio State this time, which will give Michigan time to establish the run, which spells trouble for Ohio State. It’s exactly how last year’s game went down.
  7. If Ohio State doesn’t land the haymaker, can they beat you with jabs? Colin Cowherd always says this about the Buffalo Bills this season: if they don’t knock you out with the haymaker early, they don’t have much of a jab to go the distance with you. Cowherd compares the Bills to Mike Tyson in his prime: Mike would knock you out in the first round, that was his strategy. And it worked a lot; he absolutely clobbered guys early on in fights. It was legendary. But eventually fighters realized that if they could withstand the early flurry of blows and avoid getting knocked out early, Mike didn’t really have the stamina or the arsenal to go 12 rounds, and that’s how he could be beaten. This is what people mean when they talk about dragging somebody out into deep water–taking them out of their element, making them play your game as opposed to the other way around. Ohio State is a team that is built to finish you off early, and basically wrap the game up in the second quarter. They have the firepower to be up 35-7 on you at halftime, and that’s game over. But if you can hold them to field goals, if you can make it a close game, they might not have the ability to play a four quarter game against a worthy opponent like Michigan.

So there we have it.

Okay, now we’ll break down the unit advantages in this game:

  • Michigan run offense vs. Ohio State run defense. Advantage: Michigan
    • I don’t know this for sure, and obviously a lot hinges on the health of Michigan’s running backs, but until Ohio State’s run defense proves it can stop the run against Michigan, it’s advantage Michigan. If there’s no Corum, though–or even if he’s just playing at 70% or 80%, then I think it’s advantage Ohio State in that case.
  • Michigan pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense. Advantage: Ohio State
    • Michigan can’t throw the ball, and Ohio State’s cornerbacks can’t cover anybody. However, Ohio State’s pass rush is solid and should get pressure, so advantage Ohio State there.
  • Ohio State run offense vs. Michigan run defense. Advantage: Michigan
    • Ohio State’s run game has been terrible for most of the year. It was really good to start off, but now it’s been bogged down in the mud for most of the second half of the season. A big part of this is all the injuries to Miyan Williams and Treyveon Henderson, but Henderson has an issue even when he’s healthy, and it’s that he doesn’t hit the hole with conviction. I think Ohio State’s offensive line is good, but Henderson doesn’t hit the holes properly. Now, if Miyan Williams can play, that’s a different story. He’s an absolute stud, and so is the freshman Dallan Hayden. I think Henderson will probably be out for this game with his foot injury, but if he plays, he should be primarily in there as a change-of-pace back catching swing passes out of the backfield. That’s what he’s best at–being in space. I think Ohio State can run the ball well if they have a healthy Williams and Hayden, but there’s a lot of “ifs,” so I’m giving the advantage to Michigan.
  • Ohio State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense. Advantage: Ohio State
    • This is not the same Ohio State offense as last year. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are playing in the NFL and JSN is likely to miss the game with a hamstring injury that has kept him out most of the year. But Ohio State still has studs at wide receiver in Marvin Harrison, Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming. Harrison is obviously the best of the bunch, but Egbuka can’t be ignored, and Fleming can get open deep. But what really puts Ohio State over the top in my view is their tight end, Cade Stover. He’s the secret weapon for them. I think he’ll have a big day because Michigan will try to bracket Harrison. There’s just too many weapons for Michigan to cover, and Michigan hasn’t played an offense anywhere even remotely close to Ohio State’s this year. Finally, I think CJ Stroud is even better than he was last year, even if he hasn’t put up the same numbers as last year.

From this perspective, it feels like Michigan has a great chance to win the game. You could even argue that they might have a slight edge with their pass offense against Ohio State’s pass defense, which would give Michigan a 3-1 advantage in these four categories. But there’s way more to this game than just the on-paper matchups.

For one thing, Ohio State has the superior talent level to dominate every facet of the game, they just haven’t been able to play a complete game and play totally up to their potential since like the Wisconsin game.

But what really matters, in my view, is the emotional and intangible aspects of the game. And that’s where I think it’ll be decided.

I just think Ohio State can’t lose this game. They just can’t. There’s too much on the line.

If they win this game and CJ Stroud plays well, he locks up the Heisman.

By the way, CJ Stroud is the Heisman front-runner. He has to be. People have talked about how Ohio State’s offensive line is soft, their run game sucks, and they have no good receivers outside of Marvin Harrison Jr. Okay, if that’s all true, then how does Ohio State still have the #1 ranked scoring offense and rank #1 in the nation in offensive yards per play? How are they the best offense in the country?

Stroud has to get some credit there, no? I mean, if every other part of their offense outside of Marvin Harrison Jr. has been the subject of criticism from both the talking head media and even within the Ohio State fanbase, then how are they so good? How is the team 12-0? Stroud really hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves from the media. He’s played almost this entire season without Jaxon Smith-Njigba; Miyan Williams and Treyveon Henderson have been banged up all season long, to the point where Ohio State had to lean on a true freshman running back last week at Maryland. They’ve dealt with injuries on the offensive line, too. And they’re still statistically the best offense in the country.

So the Heisman is on the line. If Stroud has a good game and Ohio State wins, it’s his. He cannot lose this game.

Ryan Day cannot lose this game. He won’t be fired if they lose, but there will be a segment of the Ohio State fanbase that turns on him and starts demanding Luke Fickell. I can already see it starting on Twitter–the nervous speculation, the grumblings of fans assuming the worst. Ohio State fans on Twitter are kind of insane; they’re simultaneously extremely pessimistic and think everything is the end of the world, yet have the highest of high expectations. It’s kind of bizarre.

The bottom line is that Ryan Day simply cannot lose this game. He just can’t. Over the past 20 years, beating Michigan is a requirement for Ohio State coaches. Tressel went 9-1 against Michigan and Urban went a perfect 7-0.

It will be okay that Day lost the game last year as long as he follows it up with like 6-7 straight wins in the series. No pressure or anything. But that’s the expectation, and Day knows it full well.

Beyond all that, though, Ohio State needs to regain their edge as a program, and that happens by playing Michigan and playing them tough. For as much as those two programs and fanbases hate each other, the reality is that iron sharpens iron: they’re as great as they are–they became as great as they are–because of the high standard they hold each other to. This constant, unceasing need to be Better Than Them has pushed these two programs to the highest heights of the sport.

Ohio State was the standard for years and years, and now Michigan is the standard, because they won. The name of the game is toughness and physicality now, and if Ohio State wants to win, they have to match or exceed Michigan’s toughness and physicality. Ohio State and Michigan have a way of exposing each others’ flaws, and what they exposed last year is that Ohio State had kind of gone soft.

But I think there’s more to it than just that, though.

I said this after last year’s game and it was (kind of) finally confirmed by the players today: Ohio State had been so dominant against Michigan they started to take beating them for granted. They thought it was a given every year. They stopped being obsessed with beating Michigan. They thought they could just pull up and beat up on Michigan year in and year out.

More from Xavier Johnson:

“I think there was a bit of a lax that kind of happened, and I think that lax came back to bite us. And it was kind of like we had to re-bite on everything, whether that was our offseason workouts, whether that was the scheme, the players – we had to look ourselves in the mirror and we had to really understand that this is a matchup game.

“They’re an excellent team, they have excellent infrastructure up there. And so when we’re playing against them, we’re playing against someone who is very – the playing fields are level. So we have to bring our A-game, and that really starts from first workout in the winter and it carries all the way through this season. So all 11 games and into the 12th. And so I think that the way it kind of changed was re-biting on that and just understanding that if we don’t work this game every day, if we’re not getting better every day, then we’re susceptible to what happened last year.”

Ohio State, I think as a result of their continued success over Michigan for so many years, stopped really hating Michigan and started looking at them as more of a joke. Started taking the game for granted.

They got a reality check last year.

I was watching this Ohio State podcast/talk show with Ohio State legend Bobby Carpenter, and Jeremy Birmingham, an Ohio State reporter who is really plugged in to the program and the recruiting game, was talking about last year’s game, being up there in Ann Arbor on the sideline, and he said he knew Ohio State was going to lose by the way they were acting during warmups. He said they were super loose, joking around, laughing, and it didn’t seem like they were taking it that seriously–like they just kind of assumed they were going to win.

They didn’t respect Michigan.

But Michigan had this pent-up rage, all these grievances against Ohio State–real or perceived–and they had a completely different edge about them in that game last year. They were serious as shit, they were focused–and they were mad as hell, too. They were sick and tired of losing to Ohio State.

Michigan wanted to win that game so much more than Ohio State did. You could just tell by watching it. They were giving everything they had on every single down, screaming their heads off after every play they made–they were so determined.

Ohio State, I think, got to a point where they stopped viewing Michigan as a rival and started viewing them like every other Big Ten team–no different from like Purdue or Illinois or Iowa. Just suit up, go out there and whoop them like we do every year.

I honestly think there was a growing sense that they would never lose to Michigan again. Like, “We just own them, permanently. They can’t play with us. They’re not on our level.”

But you can’t have that mentality. You just can’t. Not when the other team hates you and wants to destroy you and has a deep-seated grudge against you. Ohio State is always the more talented team. They are a better football program than Michigan, and that’s undeniable. It’s not even a debate. Ohio State is objectively on a different level than Michigan. Ohio State has beaten Alabama, they’ve beaten Clemson, and won a National Championship in 2014. It’s easy to see why they stopped taking Michigan seriously. They know they’re the superior football program.

But that’s only true for 364 days of the year. It’s only true on game day if they go out and play like it.

On a day like, say, March 10, you compare Ohio State and Michigan, Ohio State is the better program. They have the better recruits, they have the better players, and they have the better coaches.

But on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, that shit doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how many more blue chip recruits Ohio State has on their roster. It doesn’t matter if Ohio State is the better program.

It doesn’t mean Ohio State will automatically beat Michigan every year. They have to go out there and actually win the game.

Michigan took that shit seriously last year.

Ohio State didn’t. They didn’t think they had to. They thought it was guaranteed.

They stopped viewing Michigan as a true rival, I think.

The Covid year had a lot to do with it. For one thing, everybody in that Ohio State program thought and still thinks to this day that Michigan ducked them in 2020–used Covid as an excuse to not play. Ohio State was favored by 30 in that game; Michigan was really bad, Ohio State was really good–it would’ve been a beatdown and everybody knows it.

And I think that’s what really caused people in that Ohio State program to stop taking Michigan seriously.

The mentality of not taking Michigan seriously had obviously built up from 2012-2019, when Ohio State won every game, but it really became cemented when, from Ohio State’s perspective, Michigan ran from the game–hid behind Covid as an excuse to not play Ohio State.

In Ohio State’s defense, how can you take someone seriously at that point, if that’s what you believe they did? I would think the same thing: they’re clowns, they’re frauds, they’re pussies, they’re a complete joke of a program.

Probably part of the reason Michigan played last year’s game so angry was because they heard all that stuff. They know that Ohio State thinks they ran from the 2020 game.

And so while Ohio State was laughing about it, Michigan was brooding over it. Seething over it. “We’ll show them.”

Michigan legitimately hates Ohio State. And to hate someone first requires respect–maybe not respect in the sense of tipping the cap, or shaking their hand, looking them square in the eye, admiring, etc.

But in the sense of, recognizing that they are very good at what they do, and that’s why they get the best of you. You can hate them with all your heart for beating your ass year in and year out, but you respect their ability–at least you recognize it. You recognize them as a threat to you.

Ohio State stopped hating Michigan because they stopped respecting Michigan.

You can’t hate someone that you don’t respect or take seriously. It’s just not possible.

Hate is a much stronger emotion than indifference, or condescension.

Football is a violent sport, so hatred and anger make you play better. You don’t win on arrogance.

So much of college football is about emotion and motivation and mentality–it’s about having that edge. This is what I have always been the most in awe of when it comes to Nick Saban: his ability to keep his teams highly motivated, focused and above all, vicious, year in and year out. That’s hard to do when you have a team full of 5-star recruits who know most of the teams they play don’t even belong on the field with them.

If you start slipping in terms of your mentality–if you lose that edge, that nastiness, that ferocity, that fire, that dawg–it doesn’t matter how talented you are. You’re eventually going to lose to a team with heart and grit and edge.

Michigan went through this themselves in their rivalry with Michigan State. In 2007, Michigan running back Mike Hart made his infamous remark where he referred to Michigan State as “little brother.” Michigan had won 6 games in a row against Sparty, and had a record of 30-8 against Sparty going all the way back to 1970.

Michigan didn’t respect Michigan State and it showed. Mike Hart let the whole world know exactly what the Michigan program thought about Michigan State when he made that “little brother” comment.

After he said those word, Michigan State won the next four games in a row. Michigan State hadn’t taken four straight against Michigan since 1959-1962. Michigan won in 2012, but then Sparty won the next three. They went 7-1 against Michigan in the 8 years following “little brother.”

Mike Hart calling them “little brother” was the moment Sparty snapped. They are 10-5 in the rivalry since. Once they heard what Mike Hart said about them, they said “Fuck this.” They came into those games against Michigan with a different kind of edge–a chip on their shoulder, an anger at being disrespected like that.

Now, of course, it helped that Michigan football went down the shitter following the 2007 season. From 2008-2014, Michigan was a sorry program outside of the 2011 season. Basically from the time Lloyd Carr retired in 2007 until Harbaugh took over and righted the ship in 2015, Michigan was a mediocre program.

But it’s also true that the “little brother” diss lit a fire under Michigan State. It was like that scene in “A Christmas Story” where little Ralphie finally snaps on his bully Scott Farkas and just beats the living hell out of him.

I think the same thing happened with Michigan towards Ohio State after the Covid season.

Now I have to give Michigan credit because they had a good team last year. Obviously Hutch went #2 overall in the draft and he probably should’ve been #1 overall. Hassan Haskins is playing in the NFL. They had legit dudes. You can’t just win a game against Ohio State based on hatred alone, you actually have to have some legit talent to go toe-to-toe with them.

Last year, Michigan had good enough players to do it. They were motivated as hell. And Ohio State had stopped taking Michigan seriously, which meant they lost their edge.

Ohio State has to get back to hating Michigan if they’re going to win and retake control of this rivalry.

Urban Meyer was a master motivator–he had his teams brainwashed to hate Michigan every single year. No matter how many games in a row they won over Michigan, Urban had them ready to go. He found a way to make sure his team never lost that hatred for Michigan.

I’m sure Ryan Day knows all of Urban’s tricks because he worked under Urban.

Fortunately for Ohio State, Michigan makes it very easy to hate them.

They won that game last year and immediately started running their mouths, held nothing back–they talked so much shit. They just let loose, let Ohio State know exactly how they felt about them.

Chief smug Michigan douchebag Desmond Howard could not hold back at the Heisman ceremony, making this wisecrack directed at CJ Stroud on national television:

It was such a dickhead remark in what was supposed to be a special moment for all the kids on that stage, that even Aidan Hutchinson seemed like he was uncomfortable with it. He just kind of went, “Ohhh…” and laughed uneasily.

Desmond is a true douchebag. The personification of that intractable Michigan arrogance and smugness. It never really goes away, even after a decade of getting their asses kicked by Ohio State. It just goes dormant for a while until they finally beat Ohio State, and then the proud Michigan Men immediately puff out their chests and walk around like they’re 2019 LSU or 2020 Bama.

Jim Harbaugh after the game, falsely assuming he would be the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in a few weeks and thus never going to face him again, said that “some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple,” in reference to Ryan Day.

As if Jim Harbaugh himself didn’t get to where he is because his dad was on Bo Schembechler’s staff at Michigan in the 1970s. Just an unbelievable lack of awareness.

Former Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis (now OC at Miami–he left Michigan because he figured Harbaugh was out of there) after last year’s game said Ohio State is a “finesse team” and straight up said Ohio State is “not a tough team.”

I’m sure there’s more slights and wisecracks and disses uttered by triumphant Michigan Men after last year’s game that I’m forgetting about, but you get the idea here.

Michigan does not know how to handle success. They think they own Ohio State now, they think they own the Big Ten–they won one game against Ohio State in a decade and their heads got as big as blimps. The arrogance, smugness and doucheiness skyrocketed off the charts. They walk around thinking they’re Alabama now.

You can even see it in random Michigan fans on Twitter. They think they’re never going to lose to Ohio State again. They win one game and completely forget that Ohio State had them bent over a barrel for basically two straight decades.

Ohio State heard all of it. Message received.

I think it’s a rivalry again. I think the hate is back.

The past year has reminded Ohio State of just why this is such a bitter rivalry in the first place. They remember now that Michigan hates them and wants to destroy them, and it helped them rediscover why they hate Michigan in turn.

And so with Ohio State taking this game as seriously as they ever have, and with the game at home, and with so much at stake, I just don’t think they can lose. It’s not an option for them.

I am taking Ohio State to win 37-20 here.

I think it could get out of hand if Michigan can’t run the ball, which I expect to be the case.

I also fully expect Ryan Day to run the score up here just because of all the trash Michigan was talking all year. It would not be shocked if we Ohio State win 49-20 or something like that.

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