Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Collision course: Big Ten
By Austin Ward
The toughest two-week stretch on the schedule is in the rearview mirror, and Ohio State remains unbeaten.
A rocky nonconference slate made the opening month of the season something of an adventure for Michigan, but the Wolverines survived without a blemish on their record as well.
Both programs point toward arguably the most heated rivalry in the country as the most important matchup all season regardless of rankings or what's at stake in the Big Ten or nationally, and that won't change in late November. But so far, everything appears to be lining up for what could be an epic confrontation with far-reaching implications aside from just bragging rights.
And if the Buckeyes and Wolverines stay on track heading into the second half of the season, there might even be an encore to The Game one week later in Indianapolis in the Big Ten championship game.
Game: Ohio State-Michigan
What's at stake: Michigan hasn't done much to put itself in the national title conversation just yet with some unimpressive victories over Akron and Connecticut, but if the Wolverines keep that record unblemished, they ultimately would have to be in the discussion. Ohio State is already a prominent part of the championship picture now that it has knocked off Wisconsin and Northwestern to push its winning streak to 18 games overall, and the Buckeyes have long circled the trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., as one of the biggest hurdles in "The Chase" for a trophy.
But just in terms of the feud between the rivals, Urban Meyer got a leg up on Brady Hoke by winning the first head-to-head matchup between the coaches last year at the Horseshoe. And in the battle for public perception and in the recruiting wars, no victory means more than one against "Ohio" or "That Team Up North."
Roadblocks/derailment opportunities: The Wolverines have made life difficult for themselves with costly turnovers, and they spent their first bye week making sure they weren't tripping over their own feet heading into conference play. Quarterback Devin Gardner showed marked improvement as Michigan opened up Big Ten action with an easy victory over Minnesota, operating the offense with the type of efficiency that was expected during training camp and appearing to right the offensive ship. The Wolverines will have to keep playing with that sharpness during a brutal three-game stretch that starts after its second second bye week, visiting Michigan State on Nov. 2, hosting Nebraska and then going back on the road to take on Northwestern.
Ohio State, though, is mostly playing against itself and Meyer's high standards until it faces Michigan. With a favorable Big Ten draw that didn't include Nebraska or Michigan State this season, the Buckeyes will be heavy favorites in each of their next five games, particularly now that the offense is starting to look more like Meyer envisions thanks to the return of Braxton Miller from injury and Carlos Hyde from suspension. A visit from Indiana's high-powered offense Nov. 23, a week before The Game, might be the toughest remaining test.
How it unfolds: With the spread offense clicking, the front seven developing ahead of schedule and a couple of bye weeks to potentially tweak the retooled secondary following Christian Bryant's injury, everything appears to be in place for Ohio State to hold up its end of the deal to set up a memorable meeting in Michigan. The Wolverines figure to have the tougher time staying unbeaten into late November, and they've also shown more vulnerability, thanks to those narrow wins outside of conference play.
The focus will remain on Gardner and his ability to cut down on mistakes as the race in the Legends Division heats up, though the return of linebacker Jake Ryan could provide a lift on the other side of the ball and maybe offer a bit more breathing room for the offense if he regains his all-conference form after tearing his ACL in the spring. But if the turnover issue pops up again, particularly on the road, knocking their rivals out of the national title race might end up being the biggest motivator for the Wolverines.