The Harbaugh Factor: Ohio State Has More at Stake vs. Michigan. Or Does It?

Herb Gould

Wouldn’t it be funny if Michigan, after being tormented by Ohio State an incredible 14 times in the last 15 years, paid back the Buckeyes on Saturday?

Not funny, ha-ha. And not funny, strange.

But funny, ironic. Because even though the Buckeyes, who are tracking for the College Football Playoff, have the more accomplished team and seemingly much more at stake, this series is filled with surprises, paybacks and intensity.

And speaking of Ohio State having much more at stake on Saturday, when we really look at it, that may not be as true as we think.

Yes, the Buckeyes need a win to stay unbeaten and move another step closer to the Big Ten championship, a coveted playoff berth and a shot at national-championship glory. But they could lose and still win the Big Ten and go on to the four-team national playoff with a win in the Big Ten title game, where they have already clinched a spot.

But a win for Michigan, on the other hand, would be a turning point for the five-year angst the program has endured during Jim Harbaugh’s coaching watch.

With a win, Harbaugh can remove the immense Brutus Buckeye on his back. If the Wolverines, a 10-point underdog at home, were able to ruin Ohio State’s unbeaten perfection, they would elevate this year’s game to epic status in the annals of perhaps the nation’s best college-football rivalry.

That would be especially true because Michigan, which began this season with an alarming sneak past Army and a crushing defeat at Wisconsin, has improved enough since then to raise maize-and-blue hopes that Ohio State can be had.

The Buckeyes and the Wolverines have been pulling the rug out from under each other at least since 1969, when Bo Schembechler, then a relatively unknown coach in his first year at Michigan, guided the Wolverines to a 24-12 shocker over unbeaten Ohio State, which had stomped its first eight opponents. In other words, Bo, who had learned from Woody Hayes as a Buckeyes assistant in 1958-62, wasted no time punching his beloved old boss in the mouth..

Michigan wound up finishing 8-3, including a Rose Bowl loss to USC. In those simpler times when only one Big Ten team went bowling, the top-ranked Buckeyes wound up 8-1 and stayed home, missing out on a chance for a second straight national championship and undefeated season.

That began The 10-Year War between Bo and Woody, the most hallowed stretch in what might be the best rivalry in college football.

But the hijinks have continued to this day. And that will be very much in play when the No. 2 Buckeyes come to Ann Arbor on Saturday. Once again, Ohio State has national-championship designs. And No. 13 Michigan has spoiler plans on its mind.

A year ago, the roles were reversed. Both teams were 10-1, but Ohio State had been drilled at Purdue in its loss and had barely escaped Maryland in its previous game. Michigan's only loss, a tough opening setback at unbeaten Notre Dame, left its Big Ten and national championship goals intact. But the Wolverines left the Horseshoe with a humiliating 62-39 loss in what was supposed to be Harbaugh’s first win over Ohio State—and Harbaugh’s first first Big Ten East title.

It didn’t happen.

What did happen was Harbaugh’s future at his alma mater was in question—a question that lingered into the start of this season.

The Wolverines have curbed that chatter with their current hot streak.

They are 7-1 since their 35-14 debacle at Wisconsin, a game in which they trailed 35-0. Ironically—there’s that word again—their lone defeat since then, a 28-21 loss at Penn State, was the turning point in a positive way for their season. Down 21-0, they put together a stout second half. smacked Notre Dame 45-14 in their next game and added three more routs after that.

Ohio State-Michigan has been a series marked by streaks.

The Buckeyes have won seven in a row, 14 of 15 and 16 of 18. Before that, though, the Wolverines went 10-2-1, Ohio State leads the series, which began in 1904, 51-47-4, so its recent dominance has tipped the overall scale.

There are good reasons that the Buckeyes are a big road favorite this week. They start with Justin Fields, the best quarterback in the Big Ten who has had a Heisman-Trophy-worthy season even though he won’t win it. J.K Dobbins isn’t the league’s best running back. Jonathan Taylor owns that. But Dobbins is awfully good.

The Fields-Dobbins combination will provide a big challenge for Michigan’s talented defense. But the Buckeyes figure to score some points. That’s how college football is built these days.

The big question is whether Michigan’s Shea Patterson will be up to this challenge.

Despite his recent gaudy numbers, Patterson is the blue-collar quarterback in this matchup. That’s a big reason Ohio State is favored.

And that’s why, if Michigan pulls off the upset, it will be a memorable one in a series filled with memorable moments.