COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Besides having national playoff implications, this year’s Ohio State vs. Michigan game is full of questions, story lines and intriguing matchups.
Can Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett solve Michigan’s best-in-the-nation defense?
Will Michigan superstar Jabrill Peppers be able to shut down Curtis Samuel, Ohio State’s do-it-all hybrid back?
Will injured quarterback Wilton Speight be healthy enough to play for Michigan? If not, can backup John O’Korn rebound from a lackluster performance last week to hurt Ohio’s State’s ball-hawking defense?
If Ohio State triumphs, does it belong in the College Football Playoff even without a conference championship on its resume?
Most of those answers will become clear Saturday afternoon after No. 2 Ohio (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) State and No. 3 Michigan (10-1, 7-1) tangle in Ohio Stadium in the 2016 version of the storied rivalry. "The Game" hardly needs any more hype, but it returns to the national spotlight for the first time in a decade because the winner is likely to end up in the playoff, with the loser shut out.
"Yeah, we’re playing for it all, pretty much," Ohio State center Pat Elflein said. "The stakes are always pretty high for this game. Everyone knows you can save a season by beating this team, no matter what your record is, but definitely the stakes are higher."
Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who graduated from the same suburban Columbus high school as Elflein, said he can’t wait to get on the field at Ohio Stadium.
"No. 2 vs. No 3, really everything on the line," Butt said. "For both teams it’s an absolute must-win game, so it’s going to be a great atmosphere. Everybody is going to be tuning in to watch this."
Some other things to watch as Michigan visits the Horseshoe on Saturday.
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
Peppers said he has watched other teams, including Penn State, Wisconsin and Northwestern, give the Buckeyes problems by getting extra physical. He and the Wolverines plan to test their rival in the same way.
"We’re going to see how they respond with physicality," Peppers said. "We come with bad intentions. It’s never our intention to hurt anyone, but when we hit you, we want you to feel it."
Peppers, who plays a position that is a hybrid between linebacker and defensive back, believes Michigan is in a much better position to win The Game than it was a year ago when Ohio State won in a rout.
"We got a lot of smart, savvy guys who have been through the 5-7 seasons and winning seasons," he said. "We got a lot of experience on our side. We got much better athletes this year, too."
Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley said the experience playing against other teams that run a spread offense should help them to corral Barrett, who’s passed for 2,304 yards and 24 touchdowns, and added 722 yards and seven scores on the ground. Last year against Michigan, Barrett ran for 139 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State’s 42-13 win.
"The last couple years we played him he put some numbers up against us," Wormley said. "We’ve seen a lot of similar offenses this season, the spread, different option plays they have, quarterback runs and things like that, so we’ve been preparing all year. Obviously they have different athletes and things like that. It’s going to be a game where we’re going to have to shut down a few players, and I feel we’re ready for that task."
LAST HOME GAME FOR J.T.?
Barrett demurred when he was asked this week if the Michigan game might be his last at Ohio Stadium. In other words, would he leave for the NFL after this season?
"Nah, I haven’t really begun to think about that, really," he said. "I’m just taking each week, trying to focus on the moment. But yeah, my mind, I haven’t got there."
Ohio State wide receiver Terry McLaurin, a sophomore from Indianapolis, said out-of-state players are schooled on the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry pretty quickly.
"When you come here, that’s one of the first things you learn," McLaurin said. "We don’t really say their names, and we know the significance and the history of the rivalry. You kind of learn pretty quickly what all this rivalry’s about — probably the biggest rivalry in all of sports. Coming in as a freshman, you learn very quickly what this game means to this university and to the team."
He said it also didn’t take much time for him and other out-of-staters to develop a distaste for "the team up north."
"To be honest, we don’t like ’em," he said. "It’s kind of personal for everybody. It’s personal for the people who have played in the game, and it’s personal for the people who are currently about to play in the game. That’s just kind of how it’s always been."
BIG TEN JUMBLE
Because of the tie-breaker system, Ohio State may not advance to the Big Ten Championship game if they beat Michigan. Penn State will win the East Division if Ohio State wins and the Nittany Lions take care of business at home against Michigan State. If Michigan beats Ohio State, the Wolverines will claim the divisional crown.
If Ohio State beats Michigan, the playoff committee will have to decide whether to place them in the top four without having won their conference. That could be a good scenario for the Buckeyes, who get an extra week off and won’t risk an upset in the conference championship game that would eliminate them from the playoff.