TRUST IN TROY, TRESSEL: Why OSU will triumph Saturday against UM.
Last year, I took some heat for picking a 24-17 Michigan win in "The Game." It was deserved, heat, too. I remember sizing up the two teams before the game--how Ted Ginn Jr. was suffering from fumbleitis at the time (and he did fumble two punts during the game), how Ohio State was seemingly -1,000 in turnover ratio and how the Buckeyes had only beaten the Wolverines once in Ann Arbor (2001) in my existence as a Buckeye fan. I looked at the trends and my gut, and I called it a victory for the Maize and Blue, giving OSU a trip to (insert secondary bowl name here) in Florida. I was hoping that I would be wrong, but I knew at least if they lost, I'd have the consolation of saying "told you so" to all of the blindly following Buckeye disciples who read this blog. Of course, I was wrong--at least about the final outcome--and I reveled in the abuse.
But no hedging the bet this year. I'm taking the Buckeyes to win, and here's why:
1.) Troy Smith: Let's look at the stats for a moment. Against Michigan in 2004, he racked up 386 total yards. Last year, he threw for 300 and orchestrated an against-all-odds march down the field in the fourth quarter. When asked what Smith's defining moment as a Buckeye is, I choose that daring toss down the field to Anthony Gonzalez last year, hands down. That's a choice with a lot of highlight-reel competition, too. But I'm not just focused on what Smith has done against the Wolverines. The Cleveland Glenville grad has become a big-game performer all around. Last year in the highly hyped Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, he threw for 342 and two touchdowns. He may not have posted huge numbers, but he led the charge this year in Austin as the Buckeyes won their first 1 vs. 2 matchup 24-7 over the Longhorns.
I've picked against Smith before, but I've seen him come through enough to know that a coach would choose no other college football quarterback to have in a big game than he.
2.) Jim Tressel: He's 4-1 against Michigan. He's unbeaten in bowl games. The only really big games he's lost were at Michigan in 2003, at home against Texas last year and perhaps at Penn State last year. Those were different teams, though, in different times. Unlike his predecessor, Jim Tressel does not try to downplay the rivalry with "that school up north." On the side, the Scarlet and Grey prepare for Michigan all year, though no one would admit that. With this year's standout group, Tressel gets it done. I can't and wouldn't pick against him,
3.) Ohio Stadium: Have the Buckeyes lost to Michigan at home before? Sure, I don't think I need to say the name Tai Streets to remind everyone of that. John Cooper's teams could have lost to Michigan even if they made the Wolverines play without pads and helmets. But those days are long gone, and the homefield advantage is back. The atmosphere will be, without a doubt, the best in that stadium since, well, probably 2002 when OSU was playing Michigan for a shot at the national title. It will make Texas games feel like more like Toledo.
4.) The big-play bag of tricks: I'm sure we'll see this from both teams, but I'm more inclined to believe it will work for Ohio State. If you're expecting Antonio Pittman to break out and run for 200+ yards against the Wolverines, it isn't going to happen. Michigan's run defense will shut down Ohio State, but I don't think the Buckeyes' "D" is going to surrender much to Mike Hart, either. Both teams are going to have to get creative with their playcalling, and I like the Tressel playbook over what Lloyd Carr has in his cupboard. That's no slight to Steve Breaston and Mario Mannigham, the phenomenal tandem that they are, but against Ginn, Gonzalez, Brian Robiskie and Smith, I give the edge to Ohio State. Don't be shocked to see the shot-Ginn reappear.
What could throw this prediction off: My biggest reservation is the kicking game. The outcome is going to be close, no one denies that, and I'm even going to go out on a limb and say no more than two combined turnovers for the whole game. Usually, the team with the stronger kicking game pulls it out. Though the tandem of Aaron Pettrey and Ryan Pretorius have been steady for the Buckeyes, it's not quite the same as Mike Nugent or even Josh Huston or Dan Stultz. If the Buckeyes need a 55-yard kick from the left hash to win it, they'll be in trouble.
But I don't think they'll be in that position. They'll break off at least one big play for a score and probably a couple more that set up scores. Don't expect too many long, sustained drives from either team. Michigan will break off one big play itself, but other than that, I think the Ohio State defense, whose maturity is the reason they are still No. 1, will keep the Maize and Blue relatively in check. Like 2002, I think the Wolverines will have the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win it, but they won't.
Prediction: OSU 20, UM 14
Enjoy the game, and if you witness it and decide to celebrate a bit afterward, be kind to the cars and couches.