This one feels a little different, doesn’t it?
Sure, Ohio State has won 13 of its last 14 against Michigan. Coach Urban Meyer is 6-0 against the Wolverines, who haven’t won at Ohio Stadium since 2000.
But if history favors Ohio State, the current mood doesn’t. For the first time in Meyer’s seven seasons, the No. 10 Buckeyes are an underdog at home against No. 4 Michigan, even though both teams have 10-1 records.
Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
The optimism Buckeyes fans have felt about their matchup with Michigan this century has been replaced by apprehension. Could this rivalry, which has had many swings in dominance in its long history, be at a crossroads?
It has been a bumpy year for Ohio State, starting with the Zach Smith saga that culminated in Meyer’s suspension for the first three games and with Meyer volunteering last month that his future as coach is uncertain because of pain from an arachnoid cyst in his brain.
On the field, the Buckeyes have been maddeningly inconsistent. The offense has carried them, even though the running game went through a prolonged swoon.
The defense has mostly been a mess, especially after losing its best player, defensive end Nick Bosa, to a season-ending injury against TCU. Ohio State is yielding 398.6 yards per game. The most any Buckeyes team has ever allowed is 385.7 yards in 1988, when John Cooper’s first team went 4-6-1.
Still, except for the debacle against Purdue, the Buckeyes have found ways to win, thanks to their resilience and a healthy sprinkling of good fortune.
“Things are just getting overplayed because the games are closer than what they’re usually used to,” defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones said. “We do not have the same personnel, so don’t expect every game to be perfect. We’re 10-1. We’re not 1-10. We’re winning good games. We’ve won against ranked teams. We’re going to play up to our competition.”
The Buckeyes need to Saturday. After losing to Notre Dame in its opener, Michigan has steadily improved. Its defense is statistically the best in the country. Transfer Shea Patterson has been the missing piece at quarterback, a position that has held back the Wolverines in recent years.
“He’s got the ability and he’s got the win-it factor that some athletes and competitors have more than others,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
For Michigan and Harbaugh, Saturday is the last big hurdle that must be overcome for the Wolverines to be considered truly back among the elite teams nationally. Michigan has defeated Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin. But only a victory over Ohio State would provide complete validation.
“To us, this is as big as it gets,” Harbaugh said. “It doesn’t get any bigger. It’s the most important thing in our football lives for the whole 365 days. So it’s that big.
“It would mean so much to our team and everybody that’s for us.”
Victories over Ohio State and against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game would almost guarantee Michigan a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes would have a chance at the playoff if they were to win the Big Ten, though it would require some help.
Ohio State isn’t dwelling on that. The Buckeyes are more intent on fixing their flaws. Their hope is that playing their archrivals will bring out the best in them.
Meyer made no pretense of treating this week like any other. All week, LL Cool J’s “It’s Time for War” blared on a loop inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“Coach Meyer is obviously one of the greatest coaches of all time,” OSU receiver Parris Campbell said. “He’ll go down in history as a legendary coach.
“This game is just different. The air around the Woody is different. The way we attack practice is different. The preparation is just different. Everything is just different. I think he does a great job of (spreading) that through the whole team. The younger guys follow the leaders and the older guys follow our coaches. Everyone knows what’s at stake.”
Right guard Demetrius Knox said the team has taken the motto “Ohio Against the World” to heart.
“That’s what it feels like at times,” he said. “But we love it. If you were able to hear some of the outside noise and be able to prove somebody wrong, that’s great.”