COLUMBUS — There are effectively two seasons at Ohio State this year.
The Buckeyes have high standards and aren’t willing accept failure in either one, of course. But if there’s a choice between missing out on a national championship or coming up short against rival Michigan, there’s not much doubt which would sting more.
With the East Division already clinched, it’s also possible for the Buckeyes to finish the season with a College Football Playoff crown. But it might feel tainted without another set of Gold Pants, which has ensured that there will be no loss in focus, motivation or effort when they step on the field in the Big House on Saturday at noon.
“I don’t know [about other scenarios] — I just know we’re focused on this game,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “I don’t know. I mean, a lot of people do a lot of what if scenarios and everything. I know that this game means everything to us. Nothing matters if we don’t win The Game.
“That’s the only way I look at it: We have got to win The Game.”
The Buckeyes are a solid favorite to extend both their winning streak over Michigan and the perfect run through the regular season, and they’ll head into the matchup having won every game this season by a double-digit margin. The Lettermen Row staff is again unanimously picking Ohio State to come out on top, so the crew went beyond the score to make Five Bold Predictions about what’s going to happen when the best rivalry in sports gets a new chapter added to the legacy this weekend.
Austin Ward: Damon Arnette will fight, return pick for score
Damon Arnette isn’t a captain for the Buckeyes. But when it comes to the kind of trash-talking, never-back-down-from-a-fight variety of leadership, the senior cornerback sets the tone for the program. Arnette was up to some of his tricks before kickoff last week against Penn State, even getting a little support from co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, who flashed his Jersey Toughness and never flinched during the pregame scuffle. There is some kind of dustup virtually every year between Michigan and Ohio State, and it would be an upset if Arnette isn’t in the middle of it. But even with a cast on his hand, he’ll back it up with a game-changing interception for the Buckeyes — and don’t be surprised when it goes back for a touchdown.
Jeremy Birmingham: Ohio State will score two defensive touchdowns
After last season’s debacle in Ohio Stadium, Jim Harbaugh, Don Brown and the Wolverines defense will be eager to prove they belong on the same field as the Buckeyes. I fully expect that Michigan will have something unique drawn up to slow down Ohio State. Michigan will focus on playing fundamentally-sound defense to make Ohio State put long, gritty drives together for points. On the other side of the ball, though, the Wolverines know that to beat the Buckeyes they’re going to be forced to open things up in the passing game — and they’ll take some chances down the field. That’s why Chase Young and the defensive unit come will need to step up and make game-changing plays if the Buckeyes are going to leave Ann Arbor undefeated. As they have all year, that group will deliver and lead Ohio State to a win over Michigan.
Tim May: Justin Fields will throw for 300 yards for Ohio State
The feeling this time a week ago was Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, fresh off his first 300-yard passing game as a collegian, was about to rack up a second straight against a Penn State defense that seemed to be begging for it. Turns out, he racked up a career-high 21 runs on a day in which coach Ryan Day kept the passing game grounded except for some strategic strikes in the 28-17 victory marred by three lost fumbles — two by a running Fields. Expect to see the Buckeyes flip that script Saturday at Michigan as Fields eyes Chris Olave, K.J. Hill, Binjimen Victor, Austin Mack, Garrett Wilson … the list goes on. And don’t forget tight ends Luke Farrell and Jeremy Ruckert. Unless the weather dictates a ground-based approach, Fields will fire away towards that 300-yard mark … and beyond.
Spencer Holbrook: Buckeyes will force two Shea Patterson fumbles
I get that Michigan’s offense has been an entirely different animal the back half of this season, but Patterson had a tendency to put the ball on the turf when faced with pressure early in the season, and that’s not quite as correctable as getting comfortable in an offensive system is. He’ll likely be under more pressure Saturday than at any other point this season. If the Buckeyes can get to Patterson — from the defensive tackles or the inevitable Chase Young barrage — I expect at least one Patterson fumble by default. Another one could come late in the game, when Ohio State needs a big stop; that’s when Baron Browning and the rest of the pass rush swarm opposing quarterbacks. With bad weather coming, Patterson’s fumbling issues will reappear when he can’t afford them.
Will Crall: Ohio State will hold Michigan to less than 10 points
The Ohio State defense has had plenty of memorable performances this season, but it has saved its best for Michigan. All the talk is how Michigan found their offense in the second half at Penn State and haven’t looked back. “Look at the way these two teams are trending,” the pundits have said. “Look at the way Jim Harbaugh has this Michigan team playing.” This is the same thing they were saying last year before Ohio State laid a 62-39 beatdown on the Wolverines. The difference this year is Ohio State’s defensive coaching staff with Greg Mattison and Al Washington coming over from Michigan to join Jeff Hafley, Matt Barnes and Larry Johnson. There will be extra motivation for Mattison and Washington having coached for Harbaugh last year. Ohio State has the nation’s best defense and is unlike anything Michigan has faced — and the coaches will put their playmakers in the right position to have a huge game.