This season, The Game isn't the biggest game of the weekend.
There are no national championship implications in the 105th edition of Michigan-Ohio State, no No. 1 vs. 2 matchup and quite possibly no Rose Bowl ticket for the winner.
The national buzz that usually accompanies this game is instead being heaped on No. 2 Texas Tech vs. No. 5 Oklahoma in Norman, and for good reason. The 10th-ranked Buckeyes (9-2) are out of the BCS title hunt, the Wolverines (3-8) have lost eight games for the first time in their 129-year history and the 21 1/2-point spread is the largest ever in the rivalry.
But despite all that, one thing hasn't changed: it still remains the hottest ticket in college football.
Michigan-Ohio State tickets are commanding the highest average ticket price on StubHub at $461, more than Oklahoma-Texas fetched ($345) and more than OU-Texas Tech ($201).
"From what our data says, this game withstands all variables of what is on the line," said Sean Pate, StubHub's head of corporate communications. "The rivalry still is packing people in and they still want to spend. That is what really surprised me. I expected to see this game somewhere in the realm of the $200 range, demonstratively lower than year's past. But the data shows what it shows."
Considering the game is in Columbus, maybe it's the lure of sadistic Buckeyes fans hoping to see the rivalry's biggest blowout since the Wolverines' 28-0 win in 1993. While there's a lack of national cachet that has been the series' benchmark, there's still plenty at stake Saturday afternoon in the Horseshoe.
For the ninth straight season, Michigan-Ohio State will directly impact the Big Ten race. With a win, the Buckeyes will clinch at least a share of their fourth straight conference title, making them the first team to accomplish that feat since Michigan did it from 1988-92. Ohio State also needs a win to put themselves in line for a sixth BCS berth in eight years under Jim Tressel. A Buckeyes' victory and a Michigan State win over Penn State later in the day will send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. If the Nittany Lions prevail on their home turf, they're headed to Pasadena. If OSU were to lose, it would fall to 9-3 and likely be headed for a New Year's Day bowl game -- and there's no denying a defeat, especially against an opponent that lost to Toledo at home, would do further damage to an already battered reputation.
But Tressel isn't looking at Michigan as a team with just two Big Ten wins -- he's focused on the rivalry, and nothing else.
"Ohio State vs. Michigan trumps everything," Tressel said. "It trumps your record. It trumps whether it's dangerous or you don't have a chance or any of those kinds of things. It trumps all things because it's the Ohio State-Michigan game. And I would like to think our guys understand that."
Tressel has had a penchant for getting his team ready for Michigan, winning six of the last seven in the series. In fact, no current Michigan player has ever beaten Ohio State. It's that swing in the rivalry that was a major reason why Lloyd Carr resigned a year ago and why the Wolverines brought Rich Rodriguez in from West Virginia.
It's been a historically bad debut season for Rodriguez in Ann Arbor, with the Wolverines missing out on a bowl game for the first time in 33 years. In transitioning to the spread that RichRod used so successfully with the Mountaineers, Michigan is tied for 87th nationally in scoring offense (21.4 points per game) and 105th in total offense (299.2 yards a game).
"This isn't Michigan, this is like Michigan Tech," Wolverines' Heisman winner Desmond Howard said on a Columbus radio show earlier this week. "They've improved, but not to where they should be at this point by any stretch of the imagination."
But beating Ohio State would immediately help to ease the pain of this humbling season and it would be an upset that could look awfully familiar to Tressel.
In 2001, his first season at OSU, Tressel's unranked Buckeyes beat heavily-favored Michigan 26-20 in the Big House as quarterback Craig Krenzel made his first career start. Rodriguez's team, also unranked and an underdog, will likely start Nick Sheridan, who has two career starts, at QB over injured Steven Threet. Seven years ago, the Wolverines, like these Buckeyes, had to win to clinch a BCS berth, but instead were relegated to the Citrus Bowl with three losses.
Of course, the difference in '01 was that Ohio State team was bowl-bound, while the best thing you can say about this Michigan team is that its season is almost over.
Rodriguez has bucked a number of historical trends at the winningest program in history, but here's one he may want to embrace: the last six Wolverines coaches, Fitz Crisler, Bennie Oosterbaan, Bump Elliott, Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Carr, all won their first game against the Buckeyes. Or maybe not. "Like we need any more [pressure]," Rodriguez said. "It's quite a challenge that we have."