Few matchups in sports transcend the game itself quite like Ohio State and Michigan do in late November of each year. To the two universities —and the communities at large around the respective states — the final Saturday of November is a holiday as anticipated as any other on the calendar.
But while the annual showdown referred to simply as “The Game” has never lost its luster in the two states, the same cannot be said for the national stage, where Ohio State’s dominance of the rivalry and Michigan’s struggles to maintain relevancy have largely rendered the contest an afterthought in the bigger picture of college football.
That is all expected to change on Saturday when scarlet and gray clashes with maize and blue in Ann Arbor with everything riding on the outcome. Not since 2016 have the Buckeyes and Wolverines met as top-five ranked teams, and the 117th meeting of the bitter enemies will mark just the fifth time since 2006 that the two teams enter the game ranked in the top 10.
With equal 10-1 records, the winner of Saturday’s contest will claim the Big Ten East Division and a spot in next week’s Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Either team is likely to be heavily favored in that championship game and, should they deliver, would keep their national championship dreams firmly alive with a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Add in the fact that the two teams haven’t met on the field in more than 730 days due to last year’s COVID-19 cancellation and, suffice to say, Saturday’s game has the attention of college football fans everywhere, regardless of rooting interests. Both premier pregame shows —ESPN’s College Gameday and FOX’s Big Noon Kickoff —are also slated to air from outside the Big House, only adding to the palpable hype that is building with every day the game draws closer.
Michigan will be looking to end an eight-game losing streak to Ohio State, and Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh is hoping to earn his first victory over the Buckeyes since taking over the program in 2015. After entering the season under considerable scrutiny after six seasons of varying degrees of disappointment, Harbaugh has managed to suppress some of the outside noise by leading Michigan to just its sixth 10-win season since 2004.
However, with a loss to Michigan State earlier this season, Harbaugh has a combined record of just 3-10 against Michigan State and Ohio State. With yet another loss to a hated rival on Saturday, the goodwill Harbaugh has managed to build up over this surprisingly successful season could evaporate quickly.
No such pressures exist for Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, who won his lone matchup against Michigan in 2019 and has already won two Big Ten championships en route to two College Football Playoff appearances.
Yet, given the obsessive emphasis with which his predecessors, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer, treated the game, Day is under no delusions about the primary objective attached to his job title. In fact, Day admitted last Saturday that he couldn’t even get through the entirety of the 56-7 beatdown of Michigan State before his mind shifted to the task ahead.
“We have a huge game. Everything is riding on this thing coming up right around the corner,” Day said following the game. “The game wasn’t even over yet and I was already thinking about it. All of the focus goes to the Wolverines.”
Indeed, all of the focus will be on the Wolverines, as well as the Buckeyes, when the two teams meet this week. It’s a refreshing, albeit far too rare feeling that surrounds the game these days. And as recent memory has indicated, it’s not something to be taken for granted.
At noon on Saturday, when the ball is kicked, all the hype and excitement will give way to playmakers and coaching decisions. There will be a winner and a loser, and plenty of fallout both regionally and nationally.
But until then, in the lead up to the game, all who enjoy the sport will have already won. Ohio State and Michigan will be the epicenter of college football on Saturday, and that’s exactly where “The Game” belongs.