There’s always one week in college football — ahead of a certain Saturday in the fall — where Ohio State fans will engage in a strange ritual. Buckeye Nation will be crossing out all “M’s” in their surrounding area. It’s not because of their disdain for Thanksgiving’s inferior side dish (mac and cheese), nor is it bred from a strange, deep-seated hatred of M&M’s. This always comes ahead of “The Game” — the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
What is The Game? Explaining the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry
If it feels like The Game has been around a while, that’s because it has. Michigan and Ohio State first played each other in football in 1897. Back then, only Michigan was in the Big Ten as one of the conference’s inaugural members. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, were an independent team and soon to be added to the Ohio Valley Conference.
At the time, Michigan was more established, and it showed. The Wolverines won the inaugural matchup with Ohio State 34-0. Not only that, but they’d go on to accumulate a 12-0-2 record in the teams’ first 14 clashes. Michigan dominated The Game in its early existence, even winning 86-0 in a 1902 blowout.
But eventually, in 1919, several years after joining the Big Ten, Ohio State would get its first victory. In front of a whopping 25,000 people, the Buckeyes bested the Michigan Wolverines in a 13-3 affair. Michigan still got the better of Ohio State more often than not in the following seasons, but that first win marked a paradigm shift for the Buckeyes. The Wolverines no longer had a stranglehold on the series.
The modern history of the Ohio State vs. Michigan rivalry
Since Michigan’s early dominance in The Game, the tables have turned. For a long time in the 20th century, Ohio State and Michigan traded blows.
There was the decisive 40-0 humiliation by Michigan in 1940, levied by what’s believed to be one of the greatest Wolverines squads of all time. There was the “Snow Bowl” in 1950 — a matchup with 45 combined punts, won by a Michigan team that didn’t gain a single first down or complete a forward pass.
In 1951, legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes took over. Not only did the tides begin to turn, but the resonant hatred between Michigan and Ohio State also began to fester. Famously, in a 50-14 win by Ohio State in 1968, Hayes went for a two-point conversion while up by over 30 points. When he was asked why he did it, he said: “Because they wouldn’t let me go for three.”
The series shift toward Ohio State has only grown more stark. Michigan still leads the series in total with a record of 58-51-6, but the gap has closed. Since 2000, the Buckeyes are 17-3 against the Wolverines. And in each of the last three matchups, Ohio State has won by double-digits.
Outlook for The Game in 2021
In our latest PFN Top 25 college football rankings, Ohio State is ranked second overall, while the Michigan Wolverines are ranked fifth in the nation. This would mark just the 12th time in series history that Ohio State and Michigan will meet as top-five teams. In the AP rankings, Michigan is ranked sixth. Going by the AP, it would be the 24th matchup between the two as juggernauts in the Top 10.
On paper, Ohio State has the edge. Behind a star-studded cast that includes C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, the Buckeyes’ offense has been arguably the most prolific unit in college football this season. Head coach Ryan Day’s unit is first in the nation in total yardage, yards per game, and yards per play. They’re coming off a 56-7 drubbing of Michigan State (who was in the Top 10).
If Michigan wants to keep up, they’ll have to get more out of their passing offense, which ranks just 71st in the nation in passing yards per game. But the more realistic path to success for Michigan, as odd as it may sound, is to slow Ohio State’s offense down. Michigan’s defense is one of the best in the league.
The Wolverines are ninth in yards per game allowed, but statistics can’t describe the brunt of their impact. The defense is led by a ferocious pass-rushing duo in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Combined, the two have 21.5 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, and 7 forced fumbles. Ohio State has a chance to stymie them with potential first-round offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere. But even then, Daxton Hill and DJ Turner are ball-hawking playmakers on the back end.
Prediction for The Game: Michigan vs. Ohio State rivalry
The chief matchup in this game is between Ohio State’s offense and Michigan’s defense. Michigan has enough talent in their backfield and their offensive line to potentially generate some movement in the running game. However, if the Wolverines fall behind, they’ll have to rely on the pass to get back. In that phase, a Cade McNamara-led offense may be limited.
One can expect the Michigan defense to get the best of Stroud and the Buckeyes offense on one or two occasions. But Stroud has been operating on a rare level the past few weeks. Even for Michigan’s stalwart defense, there may be too much firepower to deal with on Ohio State’s side.
Prediction: Ohio State 37, Michigan 27