Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer gets the Buckeyes ready for their game against Nebraska on November 3, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For the first time since 2004, fourth-ranked Michigan comes to Ohio Stadium for the annual showdown with No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday as a favorite.
The Wolverines (10-1, 8-0 Big Ten) have legitimate reasons to believe that this might finally be their year to take down the Buckeyes (10-1, 7-1), a 3.5-point underdog early in the week, and end nearly two decades of frustration.
Michigan has lost 13 of the last 14 meetings between the archrivals. Its only win in the series during that stretch came in 2011, when Luke Fickell was Ohio State's interim coach for a season after Jim Tressel was forced to step down.
Ohio State has not been an underdog at home since that 2011 season against Wisconsin in a game that the Buckeyes won 33-29. The last time they were not favored at home against Michigan, they also prevailed in that game 37-21.
The struggle has been real for Michigan and its fourth-year coach, Jim Harbaugh, but they're ready to end Ohio State's domination. One of the players who was asked whether he believed the Wolverines would win Saturday (noon ET, FOX) didn't shy away from the question.
"Yeah, I do," Michigan running back Karan Higdon said. "That's how I feel. I believe firmly in my brothers, this team and this coaching staff. As a captain, I'll take that stand."
His prediction echoed the stand his coach took back in 1986 when Harbaugh, then Michigan's starting quarterback, guaranteed a victory at Ohio State. He backed up his words then by leading the Wolverines to a 26-24 win, but he stayed away from brash statements this week.
"I don't think about that," Harbaugh said Monday. "It's been a long time since. There's not much to say about that. I can't remember what it was or what it was that really made me say that or do that."
As usual when the teams meet, there's lots at stake for both teams. The winner goes to the Big Ten Championship Game next month in Indianapolis and remains a player for the College Football Playoff final four.
Since the Big Ten split into divisions in 2011, Michigan has never played in the championship game. To get there, the Wolverines will have to win in Columbus for the first time since 2000.
Adding a layer of intrigue to the week is speculation that this might be the last regular-season game for Urban Meyer, who has never lost to Michigan as Ohio State's coach, because of health issues. He appeared to be in pain on the sideline last week at Maryland.
Many analysts see Michigan winning because its defense ranks No. 1 nationally in fewest yards allowed and its offense has a quarterback (Shea Patterson) who can make plays and a running back (Higdon) with 1,106 rushing yards (second in the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor).
Like Michigan, Ohio State has only lost once, but it has shown more inconsistency this season, particularly on defense. Ohio State gave up more than 500 yards to Maryland in a 52-51 overtime victory last Saturday.
"We've had some really good defensive play at times, but not consistently," Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. "I said that after the first quarter of the season, I said that at the midway [point]. It's frustrating that we're not a consistent defense right now. But rest assured, every waking minute we have, we're going to try to get that fixed."
There are fewer concerns about Ohio State's offense, led by record-setting quarterback Dwayne Haskins, a deep group of playmaking wide receivers and a running back tandem of J.K. Dobbins and Michigan native Mike Weber, who missed last week's game but is expected to play.
Haskins has broken numerous school season passing records this season and last week for the first time showed a willingness to run when needed, scoring three touchdowns on the ground.
And the sophomore is no stranger to this game. Last year, he relieved injured starter J.T. Barrett and rallied the Buckeyes to a 31-20 victory in Ann Arbor.
The Maryland native is well aware of what this game means.
"I watch Michigan every week," Haskins said. "They are always pretty good. I think they are like No. 1 in [total] defense.
"Getting some experience against them last year will help going out this week. Everything goes into full throttle and we will get ready for them."
Michigan's players will also be prepared for the fiercely competitive, hard-hitting battle.
"You start to play with your buddies and all of your brothers and you be with the guys that are from Michigan, that grew up and just can't stand Ohio State," Michigan defensive tackle Carlo Kemp told reporters this week. "You're with the guys who are from Ohio, who are enemies within their own state. You embody that rivalry game for them. This game is history, it's historic.
"This is the game everybody plays for. You want to go out there and you want to win for them, you want to win for your brothers."