I wrote my preview of Michigan-Ohio State three weeks ago. Not much has changed since then. Both teams are healthy. The signature players have continued to perform as advertised. Aside from the rise of Rutgers and the advance of Arkansas, not much changed among the elite teams. Sure, USC dropped a tough game in Corvallis and Stoops stubbed Cal’s toe in the desert. Nonetheless, here we are. The hype machine is in full swing and the ESPN Gameday crew is headed to Columbus, Ohio for what promises to be one of the best games we’ve seen since last year’s USC-Texas game.
It’s tough to make a prediction for this game. I don’t have a feel for the type of game that will be played. With teams that are this evenly matched, you could get a defensive struggle, a shootout or a blowout (either way). Michigan’s defense is as good as I’ve ever seen at the U. Last year, I had an extensive conversation with some of my fellow alums about why Michigan was no longer an elite team (7-5 last year). Many of them attributed this to the absence of athletic QBs at the school. The examples of Vince Young, Troy Smith and others stand out. I, conversely, felt that the answer was really to be found along the line of scrimmage. In recent years, there haven’t been any defensive lineman from Michigan drafted in the first round by the NFL. Moreover, most Michigan D-linemen weren’t be drafted at all. Aside from James Hall and Shantee Orr (currently a reserve LB), I would be hard pressed to name a Michigan lineman in the NFL.
When you look at USC (Mike Patterson, Kenechi Udeze, Frostee Rucker, Shaun Cody, etc.), LSU (Chad Lavalais, Jarvis Green, Marcus Spears, Claude Wroten, Marquise Hill, and Anthony “Booger” McFarland), Oklahoma (Tommie Harris, Kelly Gregg, Dusty Dvoracek, etc.), Texas (Casey Hampton, Cory Redding, Marcus Tubbs, etc.), and Georgia (Richard Seymour, Phillip Daniels, Marcus Stroud, Jason Ferguson, etc.) it’s easy to see why these programs have been so dominant. Don’t even open the conversation to include defensive players from Florida State and Miami.
Moreover, the same is true of the offensive line. Michigan used to turn out NFL quality linemen every year. Lately, it’s not what you might expect. Instead, Michigan has been turning out a mixed-bag of wide receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks. For every Tom Brady, there is an Elvis Grbac. For every Braylon Edwards, there is a Marquise Walker. And the tight ends like Benny Joppru and Jerame Tuman are among the more pedestrian players at a position that has enjoyed a Golden Age in recent years. So, athletic quarterbacks aside, Michigan has not effectively been able to impose its will on elite opponents.
This year is a different story. The defensive line reminds me of the group that USC had which absolutely destroyed Michigan in the Rose Bowl – and the groups (plural) that LSU used to crush Oklahoma and Miami in the past few years. Units like this are difficult to put together, but worth pursuing because their value to a football team cannot be overstated. I suspect that if they play with discipline and composure, they will decide the game. I don’t believe that OSU has an answer for Alan Branch and Lamar Woodley. I suspect that Tressel’s priority will be to minimize their aggressiveness and limit the plays the line can make in the backfield. Power running and trickery. That’s the tried and true mechanism. A few old Green Bay Packer power sweeps and some new Green Bay Packer screens and reverses and draws and traps are in the forecast. But, the key for OSU will be winning on 1st down.
I’ve already said that OSU home field advantage, kicking game, and coaching advantages have to be worth about 10-13 points. Still, I have a feeling (not a strong one though), that Michigan finds a way to this game behind the BALL CONTROL game of Michael Hart and the quick strike game of Mario Manningham. I like Michigan to win a close one – high scoring – second half adjustments by both teams…Michigan 34, Ohio State 28.