“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” said the great Martin Luther King Jr.
By this metric, Michigan deity, and supposed football savior, James Joseph Harbaugh measures smaller than Peter Dinklage. As a superstar coach, Harbaugh has delivered considerable turnarounds at each of his temporary stops, though without ever actually reaching the championship summit at the Division I level.
Oh, and he lost a bizarre power outage ridden Super Bowl to older brother John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.
But maybe, just maybe, this is the year Wolverine fans have been dreaming of. The moment the hometown hero, “Captain Comeback,” slays the mighty Buckeyes on their home turf, assuring the Wolverines a spot in the Big Ten Championship game and almost undoubtedly the NCAA Playoff. The last time the winningest program in college football history defeated their most hated rivals in Columbus, I remember enjoying the remnants of our Y2K shelter’s canned food supply as my father flipped between “The Game” and that other time the Libs won the popular vote but lost the presidency.
Yes, it’s actually been that long.
Here’s how this recently fired, self-professed “expert” sees the biggest matchup of the final week of what has been a college football Holocaust of my personal finances.
Michigan fans claim starting quarterback Wilton Speight, who suffered a reported broken collarbone during the Iowa loss, aka the injury that ends Tony Romo’s season annually, will at least attempt to play on Saturday. After thoroughly enjoying last week’s performance from backup John O’Korn (had the under) it’s safe to say a broken Speight can’t possibly be much worse.
If Speight manages to avoid going the way of Humpty Dumpty in the Horseshoe, the once fearsome Wolverine attack could present issues for a Buckeye front seven that has struggled to contain power rushing attacks, having been gashed by Penn State’s Saquan Barkley and Wisconsin’s endless barrage of 230-lb. backs.
Jabril Peppers, the do-everything future first round pick who seemingly cannot grasp the “read” portion of the read option, is likely to get some looks at wide receiver and with several rumored run-pass wrinkles. Co-coordinators Schiano and Fickel have their work cut out for them.
JT Barrett cannot pass. While at one point he was a legitimate Heisman candidate in both 2014 and early 2016, Barrett has amassed the worst QBR of any Big Ten QB outside of the Rutgers dumpster fire on passes longer than 15 yards. Of the Buckeyes top five receivers, four are running backs or tight ends, with the most prolific pass catcher of the wide receivers group ranking 5th (Noah Brown).
The Buckeyes, however, are still an absolute juggernaut running the football, even as Zeke Elliot shreds NFL defenses in Dallas. Curtis Samuel, Mike Weber, Dontre Wilson (who is now healthy) form perhaps the most dangerous rushing trio in the nation, with no better coach suited to utilize their respective mix of speed and power than Urban Meyer.
Advantage: With a somewhat healthy Speight, it’s a push. With O’Korn, it’s the Buckeyes.
Somehow they have another Boss, and this one might be even better than big brother Joey, now in the midst of a terrific rookie season after being selected third in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bucks terrorize opposing QBs, with a co-coordinator all-star team of former Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano and Luke Fickel shaping one of the most athletic units in the country.
As mentioned, though, the Buckeyes are less stout than usual up the middle, starting seven underclassmen on defense for the first time in the Urban Meyer era. Fortunately for the Ohio State faithful, the back end of the defense, anchored by do everything linebacker Raequan McMillan, corner Gereon Conley, and safety Malik Hooker, may be the best unit in the conference not wearing maize and blue.
The Buckeyes are aggressive and Alabama level athletic, though their least experienced front in years perhaps matches up poorly with the Wolverines’ power rushing attack.
Remember me telling you this: The Michigan linebackers are absolutely awful. A holdover of the Brady Hoke era of prioritizing size over athleticism, the desperate move of Peppers from safety to linebacker is not a coincidence, these kids cannot cover, nor run sideline to sideline. Samuel and Wilson are nightmare matchups up for the Wolverines, who will likely rely on their blitz heavy scheme under first year coordinator Don Brown to force the Ohio State backs to remain in the backfield for extra protection of JT Barrett.
Michigan is, for my money, the best defensive unit outside of Tuscaloosa this season. The front seven is stout against the run, and has terrorized opposing quarterbacks to the tune of seven game-ending injuries (including two Spartan quarterbacks) in their first 11 games. Jordan Lewis and Channing Stribling make up the best coverage tandem in the country statistically, but Stribling’s struggles in run support, especially against a Buckeye attack that emphasizes outside runs, will likely play a pivotal role in deciding Saturday’s outcome.
Michigan will come after Barrett, likely committing heavily to stopping the run after last season’s 400+ yard Zeke Elliot-led humiliation in Ann Arbor. The question here will be the much maligned Buckeye receiving core vs. Lewis and Stribling in press coverage on the outside.
Michigan return man Jabril Peppers leads the conference in average yards per punt return, and has never lost a fumble in his collegiate career. Michigan placekicker Kenny Allen has made his last nine attempts and has not missed an extra point this season, while the Wolverines are top 10 in the nation in blocked punts.
Urban Meyer, in my mind at least, is the greatest to ever do it. Meyer is the only coach in history to win 11+ games at three different schools (Utah, Florida, Ohio State) and finished his first 50 games in Columbus with an astonishing 46-4 record. Until Harbaugh actually brings home a title or two, this is not a discussion.
Advantage: Ohio State
Speight plays, but is largely ineffective in what is his second true road start of his first year as a starter. With his injury, O’Korn is needed at points in both halves, a player that should not be starting for a national championship hopeful. The Wolverine defense and newfound offensive creativity largely centered around Peppers keeps the Wolverines in it early, but Ohio State’s speed and legendary home field advantage doom Harbaugh’s playoff dreams again.
Ohio State 27, Michigan 17.