The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry added perhaps its most thrilling chapter yet last season as it took double-overtime, a close fourth-down review and a walk-off touchdown scored by H-back Curtis Samuel to seal the Buckeyes’ 30-27 victory and send thousands of Ohio State fans onto the field to celebrate the win.
Much ado was made after the game as coach Jim Harbaugh created a spectacle, displaying with his hands the distance by which he thought quarterback J.T. Barrett had fallen short of a first down on his fourth-down carry that saved Ohio State’s season and set up Samuel’s run.
This season, however, “The Game” will not be held in Ohio Stadium. Instead, the Buckeyes will travel up to The Big House to play their arch-rivals in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a five-year win streak on the line, and possibly College Football Playoff hopes hanging in the balance.
So following the heartbreaking loss for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, will the third-year head coach lead the Wolverines to their second win against the Buckeyes this decade? Or will Ohio State hold off Michigan for the sixth straight season and pull out another win?
One of the major narratives from last season was that the youth of Ohio State, which had returned only six starters from the previous year, was going to be forced to deal with one of the more veteran teams in the country as Michigan returned 14 starters.
There also were playoff implications on the line as both teams had already suffered a loss.
Everything about last season’s matchup seems to have flipped for this year.
Ohio State has already lost a game and likely needs to win out to have any hopes of a national championship. This means the Buckeyes will play teams like Penn State, Iowa and Nebraska knowing that a single loss essentially ends its season.
The experience scale also has swapped for both teams. Ohio State has 15 returning starters and Michigan has just five, the fewest among FBS teams.
Despite the inexperience, Michigan is off to a hot start to its new season. The Wolverines got off to slow starts against both then-No. 17 Florida and Cincinnati the following week, but each time dominated the second halves en route to 33-17 and 36-14 victories, respectively.
The defense of Michigan, which has one returning starter, has been by far the most dominant unit for the team. It ranks 34th among FBS teams with an average of just 156.5 passing yards per game and has limited opponents to only 39.5 rushing yards per game, third-lowest in the nation.
Ohio State, with all its returning starters, has not looked nearly as hot. The team ranks last in passing yards allowed (403) and has looked just as sluggish on the other side of the football, averaging just 243.5 passing yards per game. And while both the rushing defense and rushing offense have looked strong to kick off the season, a slow start against Indiana and a 31-16 loss to Oklahoma have the team looking less like the preseason No. 2 team and more like a team with a real shot to finish third in its own division.
If early trends play out, the Wolverines would appear to have the edge on paper. They have statistically been the better team, host the matchup and have looked more impressive in the early going this season.
But anything can happen in rivalry games. Players always talk about the history ingrained in “The Game” and about how that matchup just means more.
So will this finally be Michigan’s year, or will Ohio State come out on top and keep its winning streak alive?
Only time will tell.