Billy Price has four pairs of gold pants, the trinket given to Ohio State players for beating Michigan.
Four is not sufficient.
“What your season is predicated on is whether or not you win or lose against the team up north,” the fifth-year senior center said.
As the teams get set to play in Ann Arbor, there has been much discussion about the state of the rivalry. Ohio State has dominated Michigan in this century, just as the Wolverines did in the 1990s.
Jim Harbaugh’s arrival as coach in 2015 has not been the panacea that Michigan hoped it would be. He has one victory in three years against Ohio State and Michigan State, and if the natives aren’t restless, they are stirring a bit.
The Wolverines’ faint hopes of winning their first Big Ten title since 2004 ended last week with a loss at Wisconsin. Michigan (8-3, 5-3) has little to play for but pride, but that is incentive enough.
Michigan is still bitterly disappointed about last year’s game. The Wolverines dominated until Ohio State rallied to send the rivalry into its first overtime. After a controversial first-down spot on a fourth-down keeper by J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes prevailed in double overtime.
“I think everyone knows we definitely won that game,” Michigan running back Karan Higdon said, an opinion not shared by most in Columbus.
Michigan last beat Ohio State in Luke Fickell’s forgettable season as coach in 2011. Urban Meyer is 5-0 against the Wolverines.
“It doesn’t matter who’s been dominating because there have been times it’s been the other way around,” Ohio State senior defensive end Jalyn Holmes said. “You’ve got to take it seriously. I’d just hate to be on the losing end.
“Coach Meyer feels the same way and everybody on the team feels the same way. We could both not win all year and this game is everything, no matter.”
Holmes is from Virginia, not Ohio, but he understood the importance of winning The Game from the start.
“That was my goal coming in as a freshman — to go undefeated against them,” he said.
No player on the current roster has lost to Michigan. But Holmes recalled when Fickell, who played for the Buckeyes during the 1990s, told the team last year how painful a loss to Michigan is.
“I don’t want to have that feeling at all,” he said. “That’s one of my top fears in life — to lose to them. I’m going to do my best to not have that happen.”
The Buckeyes (9-2, 7-1) are 12-point favorites. They need a victory to keep alive their hopes for a third College Football Playoff appearance in four years. But inside the team, anything other than beating its rival is irrelevant right now.
Despite the Wolverines’ struggles, Ohio State is wary and respectful of Michigan. The Buckeyes’ 42-13 victory in 2015 is the only time they have won by more than 11 points in Ann Arbor since 1961.
“Playing in the Big House, it’s definitely hostile,” fifth-year senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis said.
Despite having only one full-time starter back from last year, Michigan has a championship-caliber defense. The Wolverines rank 11th nationally in scoring defense (17.1 points per game), third in total defense and first in defensive pass efficiency.
Maurice Hurst, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich are formidable linemen. Linebacker Devin Bush is an emotional leader and defensive back Khaleke Hudson leads the team in tackles for loss.
When Michigan has the ball, the big question is whether the Wolverines can throw effectively. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters started the season at third-string quarterback behind incumbent Wilton Speight and John O’Korn. But Speight sustained a serious back injury against Purdue and hasn’t played since. Peters got his chance and showed promise after O’Korn struggled.
But Peters was in concussion protocol this week after being injured last week against Wisconsin and his status is in doubt. Michigan has talented running backs, but the Wolverines will probably need balance against a rugged Ohio State run defense if it has a chance to pull the upset.
It’s an upset the Buckeyes are intent on avoiding.
“I cherish my gold pants,” Lewis said. “A lot of effort goes into winning them. Getting another pair, it’ll send me off the right way.”