What’s at stake in Michigan vs. Ohio State: The future of the Big Ten

It’s that much-anticipated time of the season: No. 2 Ohio State hosts No. 3 Michigan in The Game (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App) on Saturday, a contest that has the potential to change the balance of power to change in the US Big Ten. Both teams are going off with 11-0 records, with Big Ten championship and college football playoff spots at stake.

The Buckeyes have been pondering this moment for the past 365 days. Last year in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines were the attackers, dominating their archrival 42-27 while bludgeoning him for 297 rushing yards and ending OSU’s run game (64 yards on 30 carries). It remains Ryan Day’s only loss to Michigan during his tenure at Ohio State, so it’s been a focus for the head coach and his players ever since.

“We had to sit on it for a calendar year and that’s not good,” Day said at the Big Ten Media Days in July. “We don’t want to have to go through that again.”

Preview #3 Michigan vs. #2 Ohio State

Preview #3 Michigan vs. #2 Ohio State

Joel Klatt stops by The Herd to chat with Colin Cowherd and build The Game.

As with most great college football rivalries — Texas-Oklahoma and Alabama-Auburn among the notable others — coaches often remind their players of these heartbreaking offseason encounters. The coaches want to make sure everyone remembers the horror of defeat in hopes they don’t do it again. Day said his boys were “a little scarred” and “a little numb” after that loss.

“You know what it’s like to lose a game and it’s not fun,” Day said. “We remind our boys regularly.”

Rivalries aside, what’s particularly interesting about The Game this year is what’s at stake. It’s not just about conference titles and national championships, it’s about possible regime change.

If the Buckeyes win, it’s the status quo. The Ohio State crown will be safe and last season’s result is seen as an anomaly. However, if the Wolverines win, questions will be asked about Ohio State’s dominance.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh actually paved the way for that possibility last season. After beating OSU, Harbaugh famously said of Day, “Some people are born on third base and act like they hit a triple.” This implied that Day had the talent and culture that Urban Meyer had in Columbus happily inherited, while Harbaugh had to work harder to build his program.

The comment came more than a year after a fiery back-and-forth between coaches. During a conference call for Big Ten coaches in August 2020 Harbaugh Day reportedly interrupted and accused Ohio State of violating rules regarding improper on-field instruction. Day reportedly denied the allegation, telling Harbaugh, “How about I’m worried about my team and you’re worried about yours?”

Day reportedly told his players that they would “hang 100 on them” later in the day during a team meeting in Ohio State. The game was canceled this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but all of that reached a boiling point in 2021 when Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time in a decade. It was hugely important to the Wolverines in terms of narrative shift.

Unsurprisingly, the storyline returned this week. Harbaugh was asked about the above jokes by both coaches, but he deflected.

“I think it’s irrelevant,” Harbaugh told reporters, although nothing is ever really irrelevant when it comes to this rivalry.

If Michigan wins on Saturday, it will be the first time since 1999-2000, before the Jim Tressel era, that it has beaten Ohio State in a row. The Wolverines will also be going back to the Big Ten title game and CFP. And by and large, it could mean they’ve finally leveled the playing field with the Buckeyes, both at the conference and national levels.

Last year’s result changed the dynamic of this rivalry. Previously, it was all about Michigan’s losing streak and whether Harbaugh would ever be able to beat Ohio State. Now his team wants to do it again and build on this success. It could be a first step toward potentially doing what Georgia did in the SEC — finally beating Alabama, winning a national championship, and continuing to dominate.

Ohio State vs. Michigan: Extended Preview of ‘Big Noon Kickoff’

Ohio State vs. Michigan: Extended Preview of 'Big Noon Kickoff'

The Big Noon Kickoff crew gives an in-depth preview of Saturday’s match between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines.

Oddly enough, however, Michigan hasn’t seen its recent success translate into anything resembling a recruiting surge. The Wolverines flipped a few kids during the early signing phase last December, but the Class of 2023 is currently ranked 22nd overall by 247Sports, without a single five-star recruit or top 100 player. It’s hard to keep up with Ohio State, let alone Georgia and Alabama, if you don’t have the players. You’d think back-to-back wins over the Buckeyes, conference titles, and playoff trips would pay off.

Now there is a world where both states are Ohio and Michigan will make the playoffs this season. Ohio State in particular has a chance of going through the CFP with a loss.

To do that, Michigan and Ohio State have two other teams to keep an eye on. If TCU and USC win and the Big 12 and Pac-12 win, respectively, only one Big Ten team would make the CFP. But if the Horned Frogs lose the conference title game and/or USC loses to Notre Dame on Saturday — or its conference title game the following week — Michigan-Ohio State’s loser will be heavily considered by the selection committee, increasing the odds of the game, part II either on New Year’s Eve or on January 9th.

Until then, Ohio State is plotting revenge while Michigan bets on another monumental victory. Either way, the Big Ten appear to have two legitimate national powers in the increasingly competitive college football landscape. The question is who rules the most?

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Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of Strong Like a Woman, which will be released in Spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @SheetLitman.

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