As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my award-winning Sunday Morning Quarterback column.
Without any further adieu, here we go:
1. What impact, if any, will the weather have on the game? The forecast for Saturday in Columbus is for unseasonably warm weather (60 degrees) with a 30 percent chance of rain. It's hard to say who that might favor. One school of thought is the conditions could be a great equalizer, allowing the team – at least on paper – that is not as strong to close the gap a bit. Whether that plays to Ohio State's favor remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure, though. If it rains, ball security will be a major issue.
2. Can Ohio State stop Michigan's running game and, in particular, freshman tailback Michael Hart? This may be the single biggest factor in the game. Michigan has had no fewer than 190 yards rushing in any of its last five games. In fact, UM has been over the coveted 200-yard mark in each of its last four games. OSU's run defense has been fairly adequate. Nobody has gone for more than 184 yards (Wisconsin) on the ground against the Buckeyes.
A big part of this will be containing Hart, a 5-9, 194-pound dynamo who just churns his legs and fights for every yard he can get. Hart is not a breakaway runner, so the main issue will be to keep him and UM from ripping off 5 and 6 yards a clip. If OSU can contain Hart and make Michigan have to throw the ball to get first downs, the Buckeyes have a fighting chance.
3. Will the Buckeyes get pressure on UM freshman quarterback Chad Henne? We're going to assume that at some point OSU will contain Hart enough that the Wolverines will ask Henne to try and complete a pass. UM quarterbacks have been sacked 27 times this year, so opposing defense have succeeded in making some negative plays against the Wolverines. Likewise, Henne has thrown 10 interceptions this season. The Buckeyes desperately need to force the freshman – playing in his first game against OSU – into some mistakes. If they can do that, they will have a fighting chance.
4. Will the Buckeyes be able to contain UM's stellar receiver Braylon Edwards? As rumor has it, Edwards came back for his senior year to specifically have a chance to win this game in Columbus. (Well, that and the fact that last year's draft was replete with talent with Roy Williams, Reggie Williams Larry Fitzgerald and Mike Williams – even though he didn't end up being eligible.)
Ah, but I digress. OSU must recognize where No. 1 is at all times. Ashton Youboty has the athleticism to stay with Edwards, but the fact is UM emphasizes quantity of touches for him as much as it does quality. That means the Buckeyes must check him on every play. Even a short pass can become a big gainer with Edwards.
5. Can the Buckeyes run the ball effectively against Michigan? OSU has been much better running the football of late, going away from the power running game and emphasizing quarterback draws and the option. OSU must run the ball effectively to maintain possession and, in effect, shorten the game. It will take a village as Troy Smith, Antonio Pittman, Maurice Hall, Lydell Ross, Branden Joe and Ted Ginn Jr. all getting into the act.
The good thing is the quarterback draws and option plays should help open some things out if and when OSU does try to run inside. Nobody is expecting the world, but if OSU can come close to the 185 yards per game it has averaged over the last four games – all together now – the Buckeyes will have a fighting chance.
6. How will Troy Smith play? This is the game that could make or break Troy Smith's career as a Buckeye. I've said all week a win in this game would cement him as the morning line favorite to open 2005 as the starter, just as it did for Craig Krenzel after the 2001 win.
We saw last week the good and bad that results when OSU puts the game in his hands. The results can be spectacular … or devastating with an ill-timed turnover. Smith has the ability to run away from UM's gigantic defensive front. But he must play within himself and be confident. UM will feast on bad decisions or indecisiveness.
7. Can Ohio State get Ginn and Santonio Holmes involved? This is a big key. Holmes caught a big-time touchdown last week at Purdue, while Ginn was held largely in check. OSU would be in great shape if, say, this duo combines for two or three touchdowns against Michigan. Remember, Holmes caught two nifty TDs in the game at Michigan last year.
8. Will OSU's edge in the kicking game factor in? Everybody in Columbus believes that Mike Nugent will win this game with a late field goal. Kyle Turano's punting has also been strong this year. And the OSU return games are each ranked in the top 15 nationally. Certainly, Michigan has above average special teams. But OSU's truly are special.
9. Will the crowd factor in this game? OSU probably needs the home crowd of more than 105,000 to come through in a big way. The crowd can make it tougher on Michigan's offense and help will the OSU defense to success. The Buckeyes need as energetic a game as they have mustered in a long time, and the crowd can help that. This is OSU's comfort zone, where Tressel's teams are 24-3 in his four years on the job.
10. Is Ohio State good enough to win the game? A lot of these factors could go Ohio State's way and, quite honestly, the Buckeyes could still lose. One critical mistake or one huge Michigan play is all it would take to swing things in Michigan's favor.
As the teams enter the game, Michigan is 9-1 and 7-0 in Big Ten play. OSU is 6-4 and a dismal 3-4 in the conference. Of the teams that have beaten Ohio State, Michigan has defeated three of them (Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue). That tells me that, on paper, UM is better.
But now the Wolverines have to go on the field at Ohio Stadium just past 1 p.m. Saturday and prove it. We shall see if the Buckeyes are indeed good enough, won't we?
(Try and) Enjoy the game. See you on the other side.