The annual Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game is always a must-see matchup, but the stakes and intensity will be even higher in 2016, as both teams are squarely in the mix for a spot in the College Football Playoff. In addition to the playoff implications, this game will play a huge role in determining the winner of the Big Ten’s East Division. If the Wolverines knock off the Buckeyes, coach Jim Harbaugh’s team will book a trip to Indianapolis next Saturday. However, if Ohio State wins, coach Urban Meyer’s team needs a loss by Penn State to claim the East. If the Buckeyes win and Penn State defeats Michigan State, then the Nittany Lions win the division.
RELATED: Ohio State Schedule
Even though Ohio State returned only six starters this season, Meyer’s team was one of the preseason favorites to reach the CFB Playoff. And as expected, a quick reload was in order for the Buckeyes. Quarterback J.T. Barrett headlines an offense that averages 43.8 points per game, while the defense limits opponents to just 13 points per contest. A road loss (24-21) at Penn State is the only blemish on the resume, but Ohio State has picked up quality wins against Oklahoma (45-24), Wisconsin (30-23) and Nebraska (62-3).
Similar to Ohio State, Michigan was picked as one of the preseason favorites to reach the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines entered the season with a loaded defense but had question marks about the offense. So far, not much as changed for Harbaugh. Michigan ranks second nationally by holding opponents to 4.1 yards per play, while the offense remains the unit with the most uncertainty. The Wolverines dropped a road game at Iowa on Nov. 12 but remained No. 3 in the latest playoff rankings. Michigan has victories over three top-10 teams – Colorado, Penn State and Wisconsin – and only three of its 10 victories came by 10 points or less.
Michigan holds a 58-48-6 series edge over Ohio State. However, the recent trends in this series favor the Buckeyes. Ohio State has won four in a row over the Wolverines, including a 42-13 victory in Ann Arbor last year. Michigan has not won in Columbus since 2000.
Michigan vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Two of the Nation’s Best Defenses
Michigan and Ohio State rank as the top two teams in the Big Ten in three out of the four major statistical categories for defense – total, scoring, rush and pass efficiency defense. Additionally, these two teams are the best in the conference in red zone defense. The Wolverines also lead the Big Ten in sacks (36) and third-down defense. The Buckeyes are just a bit behind in sacks (24), but Greg Schiano’s defense has allowed fewer plays of 40 yards or more (four compared to Michigan’s eight).
Simply, these are two of the nation’s best defenses. Yards and points will be tough to come by on Saturday.
The success of both defenses starts in the trenches. First-year coordinator Don Brown has a deep rotation of players to utilize up front, starting with Taco Charlton (6.5 sacks) and Chris Wormley (4.5) coming off the edges. Tackles Ryan Glasgow and Maurice Hurst are underrated cogs, and five-star freshman Rashan Gary is already making a big impact in his first year on campus. Linebacker/safety Jabrill Peppers is a difference maker and his versatility is essential to defending spread attacks. The ability of Michigan’s defense to tackle in space and prevent big plays will be under the microscope on Saturday. And when Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett throws, he’s going against a secondary that features arguably the top cornerback in the nation – Jourdan Lewis.
Schiano’s defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 30 points in a game this season and have surrendered only six points over their last two contests. Ends Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Jaylon Holmes will be a handful for Michigan’s offensive line, while Raekwon McMillan (71 stops) is essential in preventing the inside runs from turning into big plays. Ohio State’s secondary is anchored by safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Gareon Conley – two of the best in the nation at their position.
2. The Quarterbacks
Mystery surrounds Michigan’s quarterback situation for Saturday’s game in Columbus. Wilton Speight started the first 10 games for the Wolverines, throwing for 2,156 yards and 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions. The sophomore was in his first year as the starter and seemed to improve over the course of the season. However, Speight suffered a shoulder injury in Michigan’s 14-13 road loss at Iowa and did not play against Indiana last Saturday. And as expected, coach Jim Harbaugh is keeping Ohio State (and everyone else) guessing about whether or not Speight will start or if John O’Korn will get the nod once again. O’Korn struggled in less-than-ideal weather conditions last week, completing only 7 of 16 passes for 59 yards against Indiana. Speight’s availability is likely to be a game-time decision. Regardless of whether Speight or O’Korn takes the first snap, there’s another option for Harbaugh to utilize. Linebacker Jabrill Peppers has recorded 23 rushing attempts this season and is another option to take snaps under center. Peppers hasn’t attempted a pass attempt this year but that could change on Saturday.
Not much separates Michigan and Ohio State, but while the Wolverines are dealing with uncertainty under center, the Buckeyes have one of the nation’s top quarterbacks guiding their attack. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has passed for 2,304 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushed for 722 yards and eight scores. With a young group of receivers in place, Ohio State’s passing game has struggled at times this year. If the passing attack bogs down against Michigan’s defense, Meyer and play-caller Ed Warinner will turn to Barrett’s legs as a way to get the offense on track. With the division title and a playoff spot on the line, the coaching staff won’t limit the junior’s usage on carries. When Barrett drops back to throw, testing the Michigan secondary will be his toughest assignment of the year. Can the junior extend his streak of games without an interception to six and keep the Wolverines from stacking the box?
3. The Skill Talent/X-Factors
Most of the focus in this game is going to revolve around the two quarterbacks and the standout defenses. However, don’t overlook the skill talent in this game. Michigan running back De’Veon Smith may get overlooked on the national stage, but the senior is a tough runner (5.2 ypc) and was instrumental in last week’s win. The Wolverines also have three standout options in the receiving corps, as Amara Darboh (17.2 ypc), Jehu Chesson (15.8 ypc) and tight end Jake Butt (38 catches) will challenge an Ohio State secondary that has allowed only eight touchdowns all year. And of course, we can’t forget the Peppers factor. How many plays will the talented sophomore see on offense?
Ohio State’s offense is essentially a three-headed attack between Barrett, running back Mike Weber and receiver Curtis Samuel. Weber averages 6.3 yards per carry and has rushed for 1,046 yards this season. Samuel is a hybrid receiver/running back and is a key playmaker in Ohio State’s jet sweep or plays attacking the edge. Samuel averages 13 touches per game, but Meyer and Warinner need to increase that total to 20-25 on Saturday. If Lewis matches up against Lewis in the passing game, who will step up as the Buckeyes’ No. 2 target? Could it be Noah Brown? Or Dontre Wilson? Tight end Marcus Baugh could be an x-factor to watch.
With everything at stake, both coaches are going to empty the playbook and throw some new wrinkles at the other sideline. Considering the defensive talent in place, a low-scoring game is anticipated. One or two plays could decide this game, so small things like special teams or turnovers could play a huge role in the outcome. Michigan’s defense should stack the box on Barrett and force the Buckeyes to win this one through the air. A similar gameplan should be in place for Ohio State’s defense, as there’s plenty of mystery about the Wolverines’ quarterback situation and passing attack. Under Meyer’s watch, the Buckeyes are 4-0 against Michigan. Make it 5-0.