Much has changed in the rivalry in one year, yet when it comes to the two combatants, much is still the same.
Ohio State entered The Game a year ago reeling, while Michigan looked to be on its way to the College Football Playoff and its first Big Ten conference title since 2004.
The Buckeyes throttled the Wolverines that day, piling up 62 points, and they haven’t lost since, arriving in Ann Arbor undefeated and battling for the No. 1 spot in the playoff despite a new coach (Ryan Day) and new quarterback (Justin Fields). Michigan, since that embarrassing afternoon in Columbus, has lost four times and has no chance in Saturday’s game (noon, Fox) to claim the Big Ten East because Ohio State already has clinched.
Jim Harbaugh’s No. 13 Wolverines, however, can show this late-season rebirth is no fluke, salvage a season that seemed to be headed sideways after losses to Wisconsin and Penn State, beat No. 1 Ohio State for the first time in eight years and maybe even creep into the mix for the final CFP spot.
Since falling at Penn State by a touchdown on Oct. 19, Michigan has won four games in a row, including a 45-14 whipping of Notre Dame. Over their past eight games, the Wolverines are averaging 36.3 points per game while allowing just 12.6.
“I think it’s an improving team, an ascending team,” Harbaugh said this week.
They will need to be at their best against Ohio State, a 9-point road favorite and the team most experts believe is the best outfit in the country. The Buckeyes have been pushed just once all season, last Saturday by Penn State, in a 28-17 victory. They have the No. 1 scoring offense (49.4) and No. 1 scoring defense (10.5) in the country. They may have two Heisman Trophy finalists in Fields and potential No. 1 NFL draft pick Chase Young, a monster at defensive end who has produced 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles in nine games.
Ohio State probably can reach the playoff with a loss on Saturday, as long as it wins the Big Ten title game the following week. But that doesn’t mean the showdown holds any less significance for the Buckeyes.
“I know that this game means everything to us. Nothing matters if we don’t win this game,” Day said, continuing a tradition of Ohio State coaches refusing to name the opponent in the rivalry, calling Michigan “the team up north.”
Below are other games to watch on the final Saturday of the regular season
No. 3 Clemson at South Carolina, noon
How bad is the ACC? The SEC’s South Carolina (4-7) represents a step up in competition for Clemson. The Gamecocks have lost four of their last five games, but they do own a win over No. 4 Georgia and they nearly upset No. 11 Florida.
No. 5 Alabama at No. 15 Auburn, 3:30 p.m.
Here is your audition, Mac Jones. It’s time to impress. Tua Tagovailoa’s replacement at quarterback has put up quality numbers for Alabama, completing 71.4 percent of his passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns, but he has yet to face a legit opponent. Auburn certainly qualifies. An impressive showing could be enough to get the Crimson Tide into the playoff. A loss would eliminate them.
No. 12 Wisconsin at No. 8 Minnesota, 3:30 p.m.
The atmosphere will be electric, as Minnesota looks to book its first trip to the Big Ten title game, against bitter rival Wisconsin, no less. This time, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, given to the winner in the annual rivalry since 1948, isn’t the most significant thing at stake.
Texas A&M at No. 2 LSU, 7 p.m.
It will be tough to top last year’s seven-overtime thriller, won by the Aggies. But LSU and quarterback Joe Burrow, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, could have their hands full against Texas A&M’s 21st-ranked passing defense. Jimbo Fisher’s team nearly upset Georgia last Saturday after winning its previous four games.
Colorado at No. 6 Utah, 7:30 p.m.
The entire Pac-12 will be rooting for the Utes, the conference’s only chance at a spot in the playoff. Utah, led by the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring defense (10.9 points allowed), shouldn’t have to sweat against five-win Colorado. Facing Oregon in the conference title game is another story.
No. 7 Oklahoma at No. 21 Oklahoma State, 8 p.m.
Oklahoma State can’t reach the Big 12 title game with a win, but it could ruin Bedlam rival Oklahoma’s chase for a third straight playoff berth with an upset. The Cowboys, winners of four in a row, also can snap their four-game losing streak to the Sooners. Expect a heavy dose of Chuba Hubbard (1,832 yards, 20 touchdowns), the nation’s leading rusher, as the Cowboys try to keep Jalen Hurts and company off the field.
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