A national TV audience and an NCAA record crowd in the neighborhood of 111,800 are expected to be watching as OSU and Michigan play for the outright Big Ten championship and a spot somewhere in the Bowl Championship Series.
If Michigan, which oddsmakers have favored by a touchdown, wins, the Wolverines will likely head to the Rose Bowl. However, if Ohio State can pull off a third straight win over UM, the Buckeyes could be ticketed to the national championship game at the Sugar Bowl.
Accordingly, I have 10 pressing questions surrounding this titanic struggle, which is set to kick off at just past noon Eastern time. Here goes:
1. Can Ohio State contain Michigan's powerful running game? This is, perhaps, the single biggest factor in this game. In the games UM has won, tailback Chris Perry has been a driving force. Perry has developed into quite a running back and he works behind a veteran offensive line. OSU's front seven has allowed none of its previous 11 opponents to gash the Buckeyes with the run. Can they keep that streak alive? The OSU linebacking corps, namely A.J. Hawk and Robert Reynolds, must come up big here.
2. Will OSU's B.J. Sander keep the ball away from dangerous punt returner Steve Breaston? This one is also key. Jim Tressel would like his own punt returners to get 10 yards a return, although he'd settle for five the way the return game has gone for OSU this season. Breaston is one of the best return men in college football. If he can break loose for some 20- or 30-yard returns or, worse yet, a touchdown a la Charles Woodson in 1997, that could be disastrous. OSU must maintain the field position edge it has lived off of most of the year.
3. Can Ohio State's pass rush get to Michigan quarterback John Navarre? The 6-6 Navarre is almost indestructible as he stands in the pocket. OSU's front four needs to be able to get off blocks and harass the passer. If he is given all day in the pocket, he will pick OSU apart. Sinply put, Will Smith, Darrion Scott, Tim Anderson and Simon Fraser need to have their best game as Buckeyes.
4. How will OSU's defensive backs hang with UM's Braylon Edwards, Jason Avant and Breaston? This is another biggie. In recent weeks, OSU has given up a lot of passing yardage underneath without surrendering the devastating big play. OSU needs to keep tabs on this talented trio and, most importantly, limit their yards after the catch. Navarre excels in the short passing game. These guys excel in adding more yardage and first downs after the catch.
5. How will the massive crowd impact the game? OSU would be well served to get an early touchdown or, failing that, at least delay UM's first score until well into the game in an effort to take the crowd out of the game. UM is a different team at The Big House, but UM fans are notorious for clamming up and sitting on their hands when nothing is happening.
6. What wrinkles do Tressel and Jim Bollman have up their sleeve? As I write this, it remained unclear what Santonio Holmes' status for the game would be. That means, likely, that Chris Gamble must pull double duty. Roy Hall can also look for more business. Moreover, Tressel likes to save a trump card for the big game. Granted, they have been fighting for their lives just to get here the last few weeks. Do they have anything left to show? How about some Branden Joe?
7. Can Craig Krenzel help deliver a third win over Michigan? The Sterling Heights, Mich., native is 2-0 against the Wolverines. But injuries and inconsistency have plagued him throughout his senior year. He can't wait a quarter-and-a-half to get into a flow because OSU could be behind 14-0 by then. Talk show callers are clamoring for Gunslinger Scott McMullen. In my opinion, you will only see McMullen if Krenzel pulls a Bret Powers (three bad INTs or something of that nature). As long as this game is in doubt, Tressel will stick with the one who brought him to the dance. For all of his faults, Krenzel deserves that. It amazes me that he is judged solely on his passing ability. He brings so much more to the table. He is a quarterback; not just a passer.
8. Will Ohio State be able to establish the run? This comes back on the offensive line, in large part. It helps that they have Joe back at fullback to lead the way for Lydell Ross. Ross has enjoyed four fine games in a row and the run game seems to be peaking at the right time. UM will give up a few yards on the ground. If you see that Ross is at or near 100 yards on the day, I would imagine OSU would be in a position to win this game in the fourth quarter.
9. Can they go the distance? I think we know the answer to this question. The key for Ohio State is to maintain contact and fall no worse than a touchdown behind. If they can get this into the fourth quarter as a one-score game – kind of like we thought the Fiesta Bowl had to go – then they have the chance to pull off the upset.
10. Will Navarre deliver the goods? This is the biggest question of all. We think OSU will contain Perry, although we won't know that until deep into the third quarter. By that time, UM will maintain offensive balance or, as it has done in recent losses to OSU, simply abandon the run and put the ball in Navarre's hands. Everybody has said all the right things this week regarding his "legacy" as a Michigan quarterback. But the fact is if he and the 26 – yes, count ‘em – 26 Michigan seniors don't win this game, they have no legacy whatsoever. No Big Ten titles (except the one Drew Henson won for them in 2000 when they were freshmen) or BCS bowl bids. They do not want to go through the rest of their lives as some afterthought in the history of Michigan football. They will play every down as hard as they can. Navarre, though, has to play within himself. He has averaged three turnovers a game in two starts against OSU. If OSU can get it away from him just twice – maybe a fumble caused by Scott or Smith and a pick by Dustin Fox – the Buckeyes should be looking good. You know Navarre will get his 250 yards. You can mark that now. But if you see that total rising toward 350, you might start checking flights for Orlando.
In conclusion, this should be the latest Instant Classic between these two tradition rich college football powers. I invite you to sit back and enjoy the 100th meeting between Ohio State and Michigan. I doesn't get any better than this. I will see you on the other side.