Wins over an archrival define the success of a University of Michigan football coach.
That’s why many view the Jim Harbaugh era as a major disappointment. The former Wolverines quarterback and San Francisco 49ers head coach was expected to level the playing field in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
Instead, Harbaugh holds the distinction of being the first Michigan coach to lose his first four meetings with the Buckeyes. Ohio State has won seven consecutive meetings and has lost to Michigan just three times since 2000.
For the No. 13-ranked Wolverines, a victory in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday would not only provide some validation for Harbaugh, it would shake up the College Football Playoff picture. No. 1 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) has won all its games by double digits and has locked up a spot in the Big Ten title game.
“I love the competition. This is the biggest game of the year,” Harbaugh said. “It’ll be the state championship between two states. It’d be big, it always is.”
The Wolverines took the Buckeyes to overtime in Harbaugh’s second season, but Ohio State decisively won the past two meetings. A year ago in Columbus, the Buckeyes shredded Michigan’s highly regarded defense in a 62-39 romp.
A pair of conference losses have eliminated Michigan (9-2, 6-2) from national championship and Big Ten contention, but the Wolverines appear to be peaking at the right time. They’ve won four straight by an average of 30.25 points, a stretch that includes wins over other rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State.
Quarterback Shea Patterson has passed for 21 touchdowns and rushed for five scores. Freshman Zach Charbonnet (4.8 yards per carry, 11 TDs) leads the rushing attack and the wide receiving corps is deep, with Nico Collins and Donovan Peoples-Jones (combined 12 touchdowns) as its top playmakers, while Ronnie Bell leads with 38 catches.
“I think it’s an improving team, an ascending team,” Harbaugh said.
“Playing really good football. Could name a number of position groups that I think are playing outstanding. Starting with the quarterback, Shea Patterson. … He’s going into these games very confident about his reads. Very confident about his job. Being able to see coverages, anticipate defenses. Playing with great timing, poise, accuracy. Doing tremendous things.”
Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is putting together a Heisman Trophy-caliber season. Fields has thrown 33 touchdown passes while getting intercepted one time. He has completed 69.4 percent of his attempts and rushed for 10 touchdowns.
J.K. Dobbins has rushed for 1,446 yards and 15 touchdowns, and top receiver Chris Olave has reached the end zone 10 times.
Defensive end Chase Young is the nation’s most disruptive lineman with 16 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles. He had three sacks, four tackles for loss and a forced fumble in a 28-17 win over Penn State last weekend after serving a two-game NCAA suspension.
Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who will be coaching for the first time against Michigan, is not downplaying the significance.
“I know that this game means everything to us,” he said. “Nothing matters if we don’t win this game.”
In this rivalry, preparations start well in advance of game week. And like past Ohio State coaches, Day won’t mention this opponent by name.
“If you’re working on it all year, then you’re prepared,” Day said. “You’ve worked on it in the spring and worked on it in the preseason. You have certain periods you set aside just to work on the team Up North. You talk to your guys all the time about what it means, so they understand coming into the game what to expect.”
–Field Level Media