Rivalry Week is upon us in the college football world.
While every game matters, this week one game certainly stands out.
The annual tilt between Ohio State and Michigan.
There is no shortage of storylines as this game looms. From the ongoing allegations regarding sign-stealing at Michigan, to the two coaches involved, to the Heisman trophy race, to even the upcoming NFL Draft, there are a number of talking points to examine ahead of this tilt.
So let’s dive into the biggest ones. Here are the six burning questions that could be answered Saturday in Michigan-Ohio State.
How might this game impact the Heisman race?
The Heisman Trophy race has seen some shifts over the final few weeks of the college football season, and at the moment LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels is the odds-on favorite to bring home the hardware.
But Saturday in Ann Arbor offers a few different players an opportunity that Daniels will not have down the stretch.
A chance at a showcase game.
LSU’s final game of the 2023 regular season kicks off at the same time as Ohio State-Michigan, and while Daniels takes on an unranked Texas A&M team, it is likely the bulk of the voters will be tuned into one of the most critical games of the season.
That could see a big shift in Heisman sentiment come Sunday morning.
Will Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., widely considered one of the best players in all of college football, deliver a Heisman moment? If the Wolverines emerge victories, could it come on the backs of running back Blake Corum, or quarterback J.J. McCarthy? Can one of these players deliver a huge performance in this contest?
And book themselves a trip to New York City in the process?
Will the real J.J. McCarthy please stand up?
Speaking of the Michigan quarterback ...
Often, it is difficult to ignore the looming specter of the NFL Draft when discussing college football.
Particularly when it comes to the quarterback position.
Looking ahead to next April for a moment, while the discussion regarding QB1 between Caleb Williams and Drake Maye will garner the bulk of the headlines, the more fascinating debate may center on just who emerges as QB3 in the incoming class of passers.
There was a time, in the not-to-distant past, when McCarthy was the frontrunner in that discussion. A strong start to the season, including an impressive four-touchdown effort against Michigan State, propelled McCarthy into the draft discussion.
But that conversation has shifted in recent weeks. McCarthy has not thrown a touchdown pass since that game against the Spartans, which took place before Halloween. Complicating matters is the fact that McCarthy has almost played the role of spectator the past two weeks for the Wolverines. Against Maryland last week he completed just 12 of 23 passes for 141 yards and an interception, and two weeks ago against Penn State McCarthy hit on just 7 of 8 passes for 60 yards.
And he did not attempt a pass in the entire second half.
Ohio State features one of the best defenses in the nation, against both the run and the pass. This game offers McCarthy a chance to reestablish himself in the draft conversation, if he can put together the kind of game he has in the past. A year ago against the Buckeyes, McCarthy completed 12 of 24 passes for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns.
An effort like that, against this year’s Ohio State defense, would certainly be noteworthy.
So, too, would another game where he serves as a spectator.
Which defense reigns supreme?
Here’s a storyline that some college football fans might love.
Two of the best defenses in the country are set to square off tomorrow.
Michigan enters this week as the top-ranked scoring defense in the nation, allowing just nine points per game.
Ohio State is right behind them, allowing 9.27 points per game.
When it comes to rushing defense, Michigan ranks eighth in the nation, allowing just 90 yards per game on the ground. The Buckeyes are 19th, giving up just 108.5 yards per game on the ground.
As for the passing game, things are flipped. Ohio State has the best passing defense in the nation, in terms of yardage allowed, as opponents average just 144.4 yards per game against the Buckeyes.
Michigan is right behind them, having allowed 144.8 passing yards per game this season.
These are two incredible defenses. So points may come at a premium.
That means if you, or someone you know, loves defensive football, this game is a must-watch.
What happens to Jim Harbaugh if the Wolverines lose?
In many ways, the storylines write themselves.
Should Michigan win on Saturday, with the suspended Jim Harbaugh watching the game on television. the focus will shift to Ryan Day and his tenure at Ohio State.
But if the Wolverines lose ...
After all, Harbaugh is serving his second of two suspensions this season, and the current suspension will be viewed in a much different light if Ohio State prevails Saturday afternoon. The focus will become “Harbaugh cannot beat the Buckeyes without cheating,” given the swirling allegations of sign-stealing surrounding the Wolverines.
And a Michigan loss likely accelerates the notion of Harbaugh heading back to the NFL.
What happens to Ryan Day if the Buckeyes lose?
It might be time for a little Ohio State history lesson.
Featuring John Cooper.
Cooper was the head coach at Ohio State for 13 years, and during his time in Columbus he enjoyed a winning percentage of .715. He won 111 games at Ohio State, second only to the legendary Woody Hayes. Cooper also led the Buckeyes to ten-straight bowl games.
However, he never won a national title. Nor did Ohio State win an outright Big Ten title during his time in Columbus.
Making matters worse? His record against Michigan was a paltry 2-10-1. On multiple occasions, Ohio State had the chance to cap off a perfect season with a win over their rivals, and on many of those occasions the Wolverines spoiled Cooper’s party.
There was the 1993 season, when the Buckeyes entered their rivalry game ranked fifth in the nation, and just needed to beat Michigan to advance to the Rose Bowl. They were shutout by the unranked Wolverines 28-0.
There was the 1995 season when Ohio State, then ranked second in the nation, lost to the 18th-ranked Wolverines 31-23. The following season the Buckeyes were ranked second in the nation once more, and had already wrapped up a bid in the Rose Bowl. But Michigan ended any chances of a national title for Cooper, as the Wolverines won in Columbus by a final score of 13-9.
If you want to stay at Ohio State, and build a legacy, you need to beat Michigan. Especially in the big games.
Ryan Day, the current Ohio State head coach, has a 1-2 record against Michigan at this point in his career.
There are already rumblings that Day should be on the hot seat, from outlets ranging from our friends at Land-Grant Holy Land to ESPN analyst Paul Finebaum, who theorized last summer that Day might not survive 2023.
Could a third loss to the Wolverines tip the scales?
How will this game impact the College Football Playoff?
Massively, is the answer here, regardless of the outcome.
The team that wins this game takes a massive step closer to the College Football Playoff, and likely begins next week as the new No. 1 team in the rankings. They’ll head to the Big Ten Championship Game, where they will take on an Iowa team that likely plays the role of “speed bump” en route to the Playoff.
As for the loser?
They’ll need some help to keep their Playoff hopes alive.
Now, that is what happened a season ago. Michigan throttled Ohio State 45-23 last year, punching their ticket to the Big Ten Championship Game against Purdue. As for Ohio State, they were given a reprieve from the Selection Committee, and got into the Playoff ahead of a pair of multi-loss conference game champions. Kansas State won the Big 12 title game but finished with three losses on the year, while Clemson won the ACC Championship, but finished with two losses.
The path for the loser is a bit more daunting this year. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season Washington, Florida State, and Georgia are all undefeated, and even if these teams were to lose this weekend, they would likely get into the Playoff with a win in their conference title games over the loser of Michigan-Ohio State.
Then there are some one-loss teams, such as Oregon, Alabama, and Louisville. Take Alabama, for example. Say they beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl, and then beat Georgia in the SEC Championship game. It would be hard for the Selection Committee to pass on the Crimson Tide — or Georgia for that matter — for the team that loses between Ohio State and Michigan.
So, there is a lot at stake.
Adding to the drama? This is the final year under the current College Football Playoff format. Next year the field expands to 12 teams, which would make it much easier for the loser of a game like Michigan-Ohio State to get into the field.
Which makes this year’s installment of the game that much more dramatic.