BUCKEYES SEEK BACK-TO-BACK OUTRIGHT BIG TEN TITLES, WOLVERINES SEEK REVENGE, DIGNITY
I realize that by living nearly 2,000 miles away from the border war it might seem as though this year's "big" Ohio State-Michigan game is, well, not-so-big. It also doesn't help that last year the game was on the radar by mid-season, when it appeared both teams had a strong chance to go undefeated into the final week of the year (which they did, and OSU prevailed 42-39 en route to the BCS National Championship Game). The escalation in Columbus just crescendoed and crescendoed until the final whistle. Other "Game" week storylines included Bo Schembechler's death and Troy Smith's likely Heisman. It really was the game of the century.
But this year, a lot of people, particularly Buckeye people, just aren't that excited about it.
Losing to Illinois at home in the previous week will do that to you. Likewise, losing to Appalachian State in Week 1, ruining your national title hopes, and building all year toward this game will do the opposite to you.
I think the Maize and Blue will be ready for OSU in Ann Arbor.
I don't just mean the players and coaches, who themselves are fresh off an embarrassing defeat to Wisconsin. I mean the student body, the alumni, the fans, the vendors, Chad Henne and Mike Hart and definitely Lloyd Carr. If he wants to be the coach at Michigan for another year, he'd better win tomorrow or U of M. will have an assistant leading them into the Alamo Bowl.
The question really becomes who has more to lose tomorrow because the team with more to lose in this series generally loses--Ohio State: ca. 1969, 1993, 1995, 1996; Michigan: ca. 2001, 2004 (Anomaly: 2002--OSU beats Michigan 14-9 in Columbus to get invited to the Fiesta Bowl and win a share of the Big Ten).
Last year, just as in 2003, 2000, and 1997, both teams came into the game with about the same amount to lose. They both were playing for outright Big Ten titles (Michigan, by the way, has won more than any other school) and a trip to the national title game. The who-is-under-more-pressure argument didn't matter because both schools were under equally tremendous pressure. The story is the same in those other recent years I mentioned (coincidentally, Michigan won all three). Looking to tomorrow, Ohio State comes in a bit deflated after all but blowing their national title aspirations last week (Oregon's loss does add a glimmer of hope, though.) They're 10-1, 6-1 in the conference, and hoping to repeat as Big Ten outright champions and earn a de facto Rose Bowl berth. For this year's Buckeye nation and for the team--though Tressel and Co. would never say it--that's kind of like hoping for a scoop of vanilla soft serve when you found out they ran out of tierra misu.
That's not the way it used to be, though. Before all of the BCS hype and Ohio State national title in 2002, a great season in Columbus was beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten and earning a trip to Pasadena (in that order). Many talent-laden teams from Ohio State failed to complete that. You could say much of the same for Ann Arbor. Any year when they beat the Buckeyes, win the conference and go to the Rose Bowl is considered a resounding success. But this year?
That gets back to my original question: Who has more to lose? Who is under more pressure?
If you say Ohio State, you point first to their embarrassment against Florida last year. You point to a recent loss to Illinois and how a loss to Michigan and a trip to the Capital One Bowl would be demoralizing to fans. You argue that every pundit and wizard in the land says Ohio State is over-rated; they're still saying that even though the Bucks have dropped to No. 7.
If you say Michigan, you look no farther than Lloyd Carr. He's 1-5 against Jim Tressel. He hasn't beaten Ohio State since 2003. His undefeated Wolverines went into Columbus last year and lost. His team was dusted by 1-AA Appalachian State and then wiped out by Oregon, both at home. He's coming into the game with three losses, and rumors about his job have swirled all week. His team, even the underclassmen, generally support their captain and would hate to see him go, but another loss to the Scarlet and Gray could spell the end for Carr.
Wow, this really isn't an easy pick, but I'm going to say that Michigan has more to lose. Ohio State has more key players returning next year. Though they have fallen from national graces a little faster (in one week; Michigan has had all year to come to grips with that reality), Michigan has put all of its eggs in the beating Ohio State basket. Though you could say it "makes or breaks" the season for both teams, it really does for Michigan. If they win, they have a lukewarm 9-3 season and head back to the Rose Bowl with another Big Ten title. Carr's job will be secure, unless he steps down, and all will say "he did a lot, considering the injuries." If he loses, well, I've already written what I think will happen. Ohio State loses, and the diehards will head to Florida while the countdown to 2008 begins. Tressel hits the recruiting trail and goes after the stud QB from Pennsylvania.
For the real "football analysis" of this post, consider this:
1.) Ohio State will not be seeing a spread offense or an athletic quarterback this week. That means, the defense will be a lot more comfortable and can return to the form that has it still holding steady as the No. 2 in the country.
2.) The Buckeyes, as a team, received a poignant wake-up call last week. Coming in off a loss, Tressel-coached Buckeye teams are 2-0 against the Wolverines with wins in 2001 and 2004. Even the Cooper-coached teams played better against Michigan when they came in having lost the week before. Todd Boeckman knows that, especially early, he does not have to win this game for Ohio State by throwing precarious deep bombs into double coverage. It cost him three picks against Illinois and, probably, cost Ohio State the game.
3.) Chris "Beanie" Wells is healthier than Hart, though I think both will play. Hart is a warrior, but he's not healthy enough to tote the ball more than 20 times or so. Wells can and will shoulder a lot of the carries for the Buckeyes because statistics show Michigan's defense just isn't that good against the run. I liked what I saw from Maurice Wells last week, and I have a feeling he's going to make one big play in this game. The run should open up the Buckeyes' passing game, but if they learned anything from Illinois, it's that ball control can really chew up the clock.
4.) Turnovers: Usually your quarterback has the most control over whether or not your offense turns the ball over, based on his passing and play-calling. If Henne starts, the Buckeyes need to pressure him. He barely played last week and might be a little gun shy in the game if he gets hit early. Mallet is bound to throw at least one pick because--and Michigan fans will tell you this--his decision-making skills still leave something to be desired. Boeckman is better than the three interceptions he threw last week, so this advantage goes to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have needed a whole lot of Troy Smith to defeat the Wolverines the last three years, and this year Ohio State will have to do it without him. But do the Wolverines have enough heart? (Or Hart?) Will they rise to the occasion and support their hot-seated coach? It seems they just have too much to lose....to win.
Expect a good one tomorrow with the Buckeyes making a big defensive play late in the game. Prediction: OSU 27, Michigan 17.