One team has already booked a ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game, and the other is a loss away from missing postseason play completely.
But when Ohio State and Michigan go head-to-head, records are irrelevant.
“It’s gonna be a war, no matter what the records are,” senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said Monday.
The Buckeyes (10-1, 7-0) and Michigan (5-6, 3-4) are scheduled to play for the 111th time on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said there’s simply more significance when Michigan comes calling than other teams.
“This is not another game,” Meyer said Monday. “This is The Game.”
Meyer was long-winded when explaining the importance of the rivalry, and stressed how much it means to both sides.
“I know I’m kind of going on and on, but it’s a huge deal here,” he said. “And it’s something that was — it’s always been a huge deal. As long as I can remember, this game is The Game.”
While the Wolverines aren’t always the Buckeyes’ only rival, Heuerman explained that Michigan is OSU’s only constant rival, making the game even bigger.
“I remember back (at Big Ten) media days, everyone was asking about the Michigan State game, and I think what makes the Michigan State game such a big rivalry is when both teams are really good,” Heuerman said. “But the team up north game, regardless of records and all that, it’s a big game.”
As the two teams prepare for Saturday’s matchup, they have different goals in mind.
OSU — ranked No. 6 in the College Football Playoff top 25 — likely needs to win in order to keep its hopes of making the playoff alive, while the Wolverines must win in order to earn an invitation to a bowl game. Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said the added motivation simply puts even more emphasis on an already important matchup.
“The stakes are raised for both sides,” Bennett said Monday. “If we want to go where we want to go, we have to beat them. If they want to make it to a bowl, they have to beat us. And then it’s just the classic rivalry.”
Bennett added that there is even more motivation knowing that Michigan has a chance to derail the Buckeyes’ dreams.
“It almost increases our aggression toward them because we understand that they want so badly to ruin our season and we just can’t allow that to happen,” he said. “We already want to beat them really badly, but now it just raises the stakes.”
The rivalry — which has spanned every season since 1918 after the two teams originally played in 1897 — has historically been led by Michigan. The Wolverines have a 58-45-6 all-time record against OSU, but the Buckeyes have won 10 of the last 12 meetings, excluding the 2010 matchup that was vacated after the “Tattoo-Gate” scandal.
OSU has won each of the past two seasons as the favorites heading into the game, but the Wolverines nearly pulled the upset a year ago before falling, 42-41. Senior wide receiver Evan Spencer said no matter what the records are, the Buckeyes can expect the highest intensity from Michigan when The Game rolls around.
“We know every time we go into this game we are gonna get their absolute best,” Spencer said Monday. “Whatever we watch on film, we’re gonna see 10-times better effort.”
Spencer added that the Michigan game will be one of the “most physical” games the Buckeyes will play.
“Just because of the rivalry,” he said. “Because of the animosity for each other.”
That animosity spilled over last season, leading to a fight between the two teams that saw two Buckeyes and one Wolverine ejected. Bennett said Meyer had a simple rule for OSU when it comes to picking fights with Michigan: “He said, don’t do it again.”
Brawling aside, Meyer agreed that the Wolverines step up their game against OSU, and stressed that they showed that higher intensity last season.
“Their personnel will play their very best against us and that happened, that was as obvious as you can be last year,” he said.
The Buckeyes escaped that matchup when then-redshirt-freshman safety Tyvis Powell intercepted Michigan’s then-redshirt-junior quarterback Devin Gardner on a two-point try at the end of the game.
Bennett said the Buckeyes have to be ready to go to avoid a similarly close game.
“You can’t mess around with them like we did last year,” he said. “You have to go out there and prove your point.”
Gardner threw for 451 yards and four touchdowns in the game and rushed for another score, prompting Bennett to say it was the best he’d seen the Michigan signal caller play.
But a season later, Gardner has struggled to the tune of 14 interceptions and just eight touchdown passes. In the Wolverines’ first four road games of the season — three of which were losses — Gardner hasn’t thrown a touchdown. But he has accumulated eight of his interceptions away from home.
Regardless of how Gardner or his teammates have played this season, Bennett said he’s seen signs that Michigan is much better than it has played so far.
“They got a big O-line , just some big guys that’ll play hard,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of talent across the board at their skill positions.”
Bennett added that the Wolverines have all the tools to be a top program this season, but they’ve still struggled, and he couldn’t pinpoint the reason.
“I don’t know what has made them lose, I don’t know if their defense is something different because I don’t get to watch film on them,” he said. “But they have all of the makings of a great team, but for some reason they’ve lost a lot.
“And when you see that kind of stuff, it takes you back to years like last year … where they don’t have the best record, but they have all the talent to be a great team when they choose to be,” Bennett added. “And they always choose to be a great team when they play us.”
If the Wolverines do find a way to beat OSU, it’ll snap a 23-game Big Ten regular season winning streak, which is a conference record. But for Bennett, the regular season is already over, and when the Buckeyes and Michigan kick off at noon on Saturday, the slate will be clean.
“At least for me, our regular season ended after Indiana,” he said. “This is a huge game for us every year, it makes or breaks our season, regardless of what you’ve done before it.”