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Analysis: Ohio State cannot afford to lose rivalry game to Michigan

Ohio State redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) calls out a play in the Ohio State-Maryland game on Oct. 7. Ohio State won 62-14. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley equates Ohio State’s game against Michigan to laws.

“You don’t break that law,” he said. “You better beat The Team Up North.”

Since Worley arrived on campus for his first season, he has abided by that law. The Buckeyes have defeated the Wolverines the last five seasons, and Ohio State opened as 13-point favorites to extend the streak to six victories.

Having knocked off Michigan State 48-3 two weeks ago and Illinois 52-14 last weekend, No. 9 Ohio State enters Saturday’s game with hefty momentum. No. 24 Michigan, on the other hand, limps into the matchup coming off a 24-10 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin. The Wolverines also lost to the Spartans and Penn State earlier in the season, both teams Ohio State defeated.

The Buckeyes hold many advantages, enough to quell most concerns about the matchup. Yet, due to Ohio State’s turbulent two-loss season, pressure on the Buckeyes to win has not dipped, and might have intensified.

There’s never an optimal time to lose to a rival. Urban Meyer hasn’t lost to Michigan as Ohio State’s head coach, but this would be especially poor timing for his first.

With losses to Oklahoma and Iowa, the Buckeyes already sit in uncharted territory. No two-loss team has made the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2014. Just two weeks ago after a 55-24 loss to Iowa, Ohio State’s playoff hopes seemed dashed. But now it seems increasingly likely that if the Buckeyes defeat Michigan and take down Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship, they will earn a playoff berth.

Much remains on the line for Ohio State beyond just postseason action.

The veteran-laden roster contains 19 seniors, including quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will look to become the first signal-caller to win the matchup in four straight seasons. Last year, the Buckeyes made the playoff in spite of their youth and inexperience, which showed up in the 31-0 loss to Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

This season, Ohio State was supposed to take advantage of seniors such as Barrett, center Billy Price, defensive end Tyquan Lewis and left tackle Jamarco Jones pairing with a talented crop of underclassmen, including running backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, defensive end Nick Bosa, defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and others.

But the Buckeyes have not reached their potential this season.

Ohio State always expects to win every game, but a loss to Oklahoma was far from the end of the world. Meyer’s team overcame a loss to Penn State the prior season and made the playoff. But a loss to Iowa, a clearly inferior group? That sent shockwaves through a fan base that expects nothing less than a playoff appearance.

Imagine the reaction if Ohio State lost to Michigan. Sure, the Wolverines have not taken down the Buckeyes since 2011 and have defeated their rivals just once in the last 13 matchups, but fans live in the present. A three-loss regular season would send Ohio State to the Big Ten championship without playoff hopes and a lesser bowl appearance could bring out the worst in the fan base.

It might not get better for the Buckeyes next season.

A new quarterback combined with an exodus of talent on both the offensive and defensive lines leads to a question-filled 2018 Ohio State season. Michigan, on the other hand, will return a majority of its starters and will pose a much greater threat to next year’s youthful Buckeyes.

Barrett’s legacy also relies on the game. He can either make history with a fourth win, or will lose his third game of the season. Of course, the hate he would get would not be fair. Not a single quarterback on either side has beaten his opponent in the game four times. But Barrett would be viewed as someone who continually can’t win big games.

He knows he will not be welcomed with grace in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but said he embraces the negative reaction.

“I don’t think it’s going to be pleasant, I’m pretty sure they’re going to hate me,” Barrett said. “Got to learn to love the hate. I like being hated sometimes. I don’t mind it. They hate us anyway.”

Meyer said the history of the game has showed both teams play their best against each other. Though Michigan has yet to win a game against a team with a winning record, Meyer expects the Wolverines to offer staunch opposition.

Ohio State seemed to lose its playoff hopes after the loss to Iowa. But reclaiming them only to lose to a lesser Michigan team would be a worst-case scenario for the Buckeyes.

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