Of all the rivalry games in college football this weekend, the most meaningful is the one between the no. 4 Michigan Wolverines and the no. 10 Ohio State Buckeyes. The winner of this game will win the Big Ten East division and play Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game next week. In a rare occurrence, the Buckeyes are underdogs at home with Michigan being favored by 4.5 points with an over/under of 56 points.
Michigan has held steady in the top-4 of the College Football Playoff rankings, and that’s not likely to change as long as they keep winning. The Wolverines know that if they can beat Ohio State on Saturday and take care of business against Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship game that almost nothing can keep them out of the four-team playoff.
Ohio State’s situation is a little more complicated. The Buckeyes will no doubt help their chances with a win over Michigan and by beating Northwestern next week. However, their loss to Purdue and some lackluster wins over mediocre teams has hurt. The Buckeyes will need to win these last two games and some outside help in order to climb into the top-4.
Scratching and Clawing
Even if the numbers don’t back it up, Michigan may have the best defense in the country. The most points the Wolverines have given up all season came in their season-opening loss against Notre Dame, and it was only 24 points. Since then, all 10 teams they’ve faced have been held to 21 points or less, with four being held to single digits.
The Ohio State offense will have their work cut out for them against the Michigan defense. Dwayne Haskins may be the best pocket passer the Buckeyes have had under Urban Meyer, but they’ve also lost a running threat at that position outside of using backup Tate Martell in certain situations. Even with plenty of talent around Haskins, there have been a few times the OSU offense has had a hard time getting going, at least for a half. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar situation against the Wolverines.
Up in the Air
The biggest difference between Michigan’s offense this season and in past years is the presence of a competent quarterback in Shea Patterson. The Wolverines still have a workhorse back in Karan Higdon, who has run for over 100 yards in nine of 11 games this year. But Patterson gives them a big-armed quarterback who can be a Plan B and step up when Michigan needs to get yards through the air.
Meanwhile, the Ohio State defense has shown vulnerabilities against both the run and pass at various times this year. They were shredded on the ground last week against Maryland, while teams like Purdue, Nebraska, and Indiana have all had success against them through the air in games that were more competitive than expected. The Buckeyes have given up 26 points or more in seven of their 11 games, which is a little uncharacteristic of Ohio State.
Defense Wins Championships
The old adage should ring true in this game. Even on the road, the Wolverines have a defense that will be tough to crack. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes may need to play their best game of the season on defense to match Michigan. Eventually, the Wolverines will get a lead and let their defense do the rest. Bet on Michigan winning and covering the 4.5-point spread against Ohio State.