12:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Ohio State -7, Over/Under: 45
What better way to cap off a Thanksgiving Weekend, than with the most significant College Football Game of the Season, featuring what is widely acclaimed as the greatest rivalry in the sport? And what if I told you that both teams were ranked in the Top-Four, with the outcome likely deciding the participants in the College Football Playoff? That’s right, folks, the third-ranked Michigan Wolverines will travel to Ohio Stadium in Columbus, to meet second-ranked Ohio State for their annual brawl in a titanic matchup ripe with postseason implications. In the case of Michigan (10-1, 7-1 in Big Ten), their path to the Playoff is simple: win, and they’ll represent the East Division in the Conference Championship Game (in which they’ll be favored) against sixth-ranked Wisconsin, with an potential Big Ten Title punching their ticket to the National Semifinal. It’s been quite a while since the Wolverines knocked on this particular door; they haven’t competed in the Big Ten Championship since 2011, and haven’t won since 2004. It’s only fitting that the Buckeyes are standing in their way, for they’ve struggled greatly against their eternal rival of late, losing eleven of their past twelve encounters, including each of the last four in Columbus. So as you can imagine, there are indeed quite a few demons to be exorcised in this clash, with a late wrinkle threatening to complicate matters. Jim Harbaugh has yet to announce who in fact will be starting under Center, with John O’Korn available to start in place of Wilton Speight, who missed last week’s affair with Indiana after suffering a Collarbone injury the previous week at Iowa. Listed simply as Day to Day, Speight has served as the Wolverines’ guiding hand on offense for the bulk of the campaign, completing 62.3% of his passes for 2,156 yards (8.4 y/a), fifteen touchdowns and just four interceptions, with efficiency being the name of the game, piloting an offense that has committed only eight turnovers thus far. The Junior would no doubt like to get another shot at Ohio State, after last year’s disappointing 42-13 defeat in Ann Arbor, in which he managed to connect on a mere 6-of-14 attempts for forty-four yards and an interception. In the event that he can’t start, O’Korn should be capable of managing the game in his absence; the Transfer from Houston was far from flashy in last weekend’s 20-10 win over the Hoosiers, completing 7-of-16 passes for just fifty-nine yards, as Harbaugh seemed content bludgeoning the visiting side on the ground, racking up 225 rushing yards and a pair of scores on a whopping fifty-two carries. Tailback De’Veon Smith accounted for both touchdowns and 158 yards of that total, while the Defense, which has been stout all season long, relegated a solid Indiana Offense to 255 Total Yards. And let’s take a moment to talk about the defense… Michigan has allowed an FBS-Low 10.9 points per game on 245.6 Total Yards (fewest in the Big Ten), including 137.0 through the air and another 108.6 on the ground. In just his second season at his Alma Matta, Harbaugh has done a masterful job of cultivating this unit, stocking it with a number of future Pros, none more prominent than the versatile Jabrill Peppers, who literally plays EVERYWHERE. Invoking memories of a certain Heisman-winning Wolverine from the late 90’s, Peppers (who primarily plays on defense) takes plenty of reps in the Backfield as a Tailback and Wild Cat Quarterback, as well as a Returner on Special Teams. The Junior has carried the ball twenty-three times for 163 yards and three touchdowns, reeled in two passes for three yards, returned twenty Punts for 305 yards and a score, and returned nine Kickoffs for 216 more yards. Defensively, he’s lined up everyone from Cornerback to Safety to Linebacker, racking up fifty-nine tackles (thirteen for loss), three sacks and a deflected pass, attracting the attention of a wealth of NFL Scouts in the process. Pressure is a big component of this group’s success, as Michigan has amassed a staggering thirty-nine sacks, with eight different players registering at least three Quarterback takedowns.
Meanwhile, the path to the College Football Playoff is far more murky for Ohio State (10-1, 7-1 in Big Ten), who need not only a win over Michigan, but a little help from the team that they defeated last weekend, Michigan State. You see, the Spartans face off against seventh-ranked Penn State this weekend, the same Nittany Lions who handed the Buckeyes their lone defeat of the season, a disappointing 24-21 loss in Happy Valley back on October 22nd. On that day, Urban Meyer’s charges amassed a comfortable 21-7 lead heading into the Fourth Quarter, only to see the hosts miraculously run off seventeen unanswered points to cap off the upset. A month later, and that particular result looms LARGE, for even if the Buckeyes once again take care of business against their bitter foe, Penn State will be the team representing the East Division at Lucas Oil Stadium with a victory over Michigan State. While it remains entirely possible that the Selection Committee would still pick Ohio State to compete in the College Football Playoff even WITHOUT a Conference Championship on their ledger, it’s far from a sure thing as nothing can be taken for granted in this game. But first things first, which is beating Michigan. As we’ve mentioned already, this is something that the denizens of Columbus have had little trouble doing over the past decade, with their only defeat (back in 2011) in the last twelve years, coming when then-Head Coach Jim Tressel resigned in the midst of scandal, with Assistant Coach Luke Fickel serving in the Interim. That of course led to the hiring of Meyer, who has dealt with the Wolverines with cold-blooded ruthlessness; since arriving in Columbus back in 2012, Meyer has won all four meetings, by an ever-growing margin to boot, winning said tilts 26-21, 42-41, 42-28, and most recently 42-13. Today’s meeting marks the highest that each team has been ranked in this game since they met ranked No. One and No. Two in the old BCS Rankings back in 2006. The Ohio Native clearly understands the gravity of this rivalry under NORMAL circumstances, but with such heavy Playoff implications, you can imagine he’d pull out all the stops. This would in all likelihood mean that Quarterback J.T. Barrett will play a key role in their success, for the Junior has some extra incentive to remove the Wolverines from the Playoff Picture. You see, back in 2014, Barrett led the Buckeyes to a 10-1 record in lieu of their annual date with the Wolverines, but suffered a nasty knee injury in the 42-41 victory. That was a huge moment for not only the player but the team as well, as Barrett could do little but provide moral support form the sideline as his Backup, Cardale Jones, picked up the pieces and helped lead Ohio State to victories of Wisconsin, Alabama, and Oregon en route to their first National Championship since 2002. After splitting reps with Jones in 2015, the job has been solely his in 2016, leading the most explosive offense in the Big Ten to 43.8 points per game (4th in FBS) on a very balanced 493.1 Total Yards, including 230.0 through the air and another 263.1 on the ground. For his efforts Barrett has completed 63.4% of his attempts for 2,304 yards (7.3 y/a), twenty-four touchdowns and four interceptions, while rushing for another 722 yards and eight scores. But don’t write these guys off as simply an offensive team, for Meyer’s Defense ranks second in the conference only to Michigan in Points Allowed (13.0) and Total Defense (283.8). A year after sending a number of players to the NFL, this unit is chock full of pro-caliber talent once again, led by Linebacker Raekwon McMillan (71 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 1 SK, 5 PD, 2 FF), Safety Malik Hooker (60 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 5 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD), and Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (33 TKL, 4 INT, 9 PD, 1 TD) and Gareon Conley (19 TKL, 3 INT, 7 PD). Ohio State has feasted on turnovers this season, forcing twenty-two thus far, which will be key since Michigan has been very cautious with the ball in their possession this season.
Predicted Outcome: Ohio State 23, Michigan 20