COLUMBUS — A rivalry is roughly defined as competition for superiority in a specific field. In the case of college football, that competition comes on, not in, a field.
Ohio State knows one rivalry on the gridiron, and it needs no introduction. Since 1935, Ohio State and Michigan have met on the final day of the regular season to renew what is widely considered one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
Seasons, championships, and even individual careers have often hanged in the balance of how those games played out, and stories of those games have become legends that will stand the test of time.
But while it’s true that beating Michigan will always resonate much deeper with the Ohio State fan base, recent history would suggest that, at least on the field, the game against Michigan has taken a back seat to another annual Big Ten foe of late.
The last three meetings between Ohio State and Penn State have been nothing short of instant classics. In 2016, a blocked field goal, returned for a touchdown by the Nittany Lions, sparked an upset of Ohio State that kept the Buckeyes out of the Big Ten Championship game.
Penn State went on to win the Big Ten that year but was ultimately passed over by the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee in favor of Ohio State.
In 2017, the teams met in Columbus in a showdown between two top six-ranked teams. Ohio State avenged its loss the previous season by rallying from an 18-point second-half deficit to break the hearts of Penn State players, coaches, and fans alike.
Last year’s game in State College maintained the trend of spectacular football contests as Ohio State, ranked fourth at the time, went into Beaver Stadium and once again rallied late to steal a win over No.9 Penn State in devastating fashion.
The win helped propel the Buckeyes to another Big Ten championship after their 62-39 dismantling of Michigan.
Given the recent history of the matchup, it comes as no surprise that this year, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 8 Penn State will meet once more with the eyes of the college football world upon them, waiting to see how the outcome of the game will reverberate throughout the college football landscape.
For both teams, a win guarantees a Big Ten East Division championship and a spot in the Big Ten Championship game in two weeks. Even more importantly, whoever is victorious in Ohio Stadium will continue to control their own destiny in the race for a spot in the CFP and a possible national championship.
Such major implications have become the norm when these two teams meet, but historically, have been reserved for Ohio State’s games against the maize and blue, not the blue and white.
But Penn State’s recent rise to being a great — not elite — program has coincided with Michigan being stuck in relative mediocrity. Add in Michigan’s inability to actually beat Ohio State and the perceived threat level of the two teams aren’t the same.
Win or lose on Saturday, Ohio State will have to reset completely as it prepares for the 116th meeting with Michigan next week.
The pageantry and tradition of “The Game” and the week leading up to it will still be a special experience as always, and the game itself will be filled with the passion and emotion that has become synonymous with their meetings through the years. Everyone will love it, as they always have.
But Ohio State’s season, one that has the potential to be regarded as the best in program history, rides on what they do against Penn State on Saturday, not Michigan next Saturday. It’s Penn State who is competing against Ohio State for Big Ten —and possibly national —superiority.
Indeed, the stakes couldn’t get much higher for Saturday’s game, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be when two rivals meet in late November.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.