It’s been 32 years since Jim Harbaugh last led the Michigan Wolverines to a win over the Ohio State Buckeyes. Ever since the consummate Michigan Man made good on his guarantee in 1986, the maize and blue have largely been muzzled by the scarlet and gray. To some degree, Harbaugh must have returned to his alma mater for games like Saturday’s. But he has fumbled each of his three chances at the Buckeyes.
This week represents his best opening. Las Vegas sportsbooks installed the Wolverines as 4-point favorites, despite the fact that Michigan has won just two of its past 17 games against its rivals to the south.1 Expectations loom large for Harbaugh and his team, which may be the more talented squad for the first time in more than a decade. Some have already designated the upcoming game a referendum on his tenure, even though no program this season has rewritten its post-Week 1 narrative more than Michigan has. In fact, according to our Elo ratings, no team has improved more since the preseason than the Wolverines.
Saturday’s matchup is the 115th installment of one of college football’s richest rivalries. This one features a cornucopia of College Football Playoff implications: The winner’s playoff chances will spike to between 59 and 67 percent, according to our model, while the loser will be virtually eliminated from contention. Additionally, of course, the winner of the game will play for a conference championship.
Like nearly every entry in this rivalry, the stakes Saturday are high — and there will be no shortage of talent on the field. So to check this game’s true matchup power, we looked back at the Elo ratings for Michigan and Ohio State at the time of each meeting since 1897, and we averaged those Elo ratings using the harmonic mean.2
Few Michigan-Ohio State games have been bigger
The best Michigan-Ohio State games based on the harmonic mean of each team’s pregame Elo rating
|RK||season||Michigan||Ohio State||Harmonic Mean||Location||Result|
|1||1975||2016||2033||2025||Ann Arbor||OSU, 21-14|
|3||1997||2065||1952||2007||Ann Arbor||Mich., 20-14|
|5||2003||1945||1974||1960||Ann Arbor||Mich., 35-21|
|6||1977||1935||1957||1946||Ann Arbor||Mich., 14-6|
|10||1961||1867||2016||1939||Ann Arbor||OSU, 50-20|
This year’s chapter, which pits twin 10-1 programs against each other, checks in with the fourth-highest harmonic mean, trailing only the 1975, 2006 and 1997 showdowns. It’s the best matchup between the schools during the College Football Playoff era. Among the nine other epic showdowns in the top 10, the results have been mostly spilt: Ohio State winning five, Michigan winning four.
Here are two keys that could decide the outcome this year:
Will Michigan’s pass defense lock down Ohio State’s throw-heavy scheme?
Ohio State’s pass-at-all-costs offense squaring off against Michigan’s solve-your-problems-with-aggression pass defense is about as ideal a strength-against-strength, identity-against-identity matchup as we can get.
In his previous six seasons with the Buckeyes, Urban Meyer typically favored an offensive blueprint shaded toward the run game. He had never had a rushing attack rank outside the top 20 in yardage. Despite returning J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, his two leading tailbacks from 2017, this season’s squad has fallen out of the top 50.
However, that yardage can be found through the air, with the Buckeyes passing the ball on 51.5 percent of team plays, well above their average of 40.6 percent from 2012 to 2017. For a program largely recognized by its rich tradition in the backfield — Ezekiel Elliott, Eddie George, Archie Griffin and Maurice Clarett, to name a few RB standouts — this year has been an anomaly.
Ohio State has gone to the air this season
How the Buckeyes’ offense has ranked each year under Urban Meyer in rushing and passing, 2012-2018
|Season||Passing offense rank||Rushing offense rank|
Meyer has never coached a team that relied on the passing game to the degree it does this season. Despite having yet to complete its regular-season slate, his team already has set a school record with 452 passing attempts and 3,954 passing yards. Only five teams throw more on average, and most of those employ Air Raid systems.
But it’s difficult to argue that the lopsided offensive approach isn’t working. Ohio State has compiled 13 games since 2012 with more than 19 expected points added on passes, and six of those have come this season. Dwayne Haskins is completing a Big Ten-best 69.3 percent of his passes and will likely be a Heisman finalist, having set 12 school records this season. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in both total offense and scoring offense, with 11 more touchdowns than any other team in the conference. As Harbaugh succinctly put it when asked about the Buckeye passing attack, “It’s really good.”
But Saturday will be Haskins’s toughest assignment. In early October, the sophomore tied a school record with six touchdown passes in a win over Indiana. Michigan has allowed seven passing touchdowns all season.
Under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Don Brown, the Wolverines’ defense is smashing its competition. Harbaugh and Brown have trotted out some elite defenses over the past three seasons, but this year’s is likely the best one yet. Opposing quarterbacks average a passer efficiency rating of 88.7 against the Wolverines, a mark that if maintained would rank sixth lowest by any team since at least 2004. Michigan is also holding opposing quarterbacks to 4.91 yards per passing attempt, which would also be the sixth lowest mark over that same stretch.
Teams not only fail to generate big plays against Michigan, they also fail to get past the line of scrimmage. Less than 30 percent of opponent plays gain 5 or more yards against the Wolverines, the lowest rate in the country, while a whopping 41.4 percent of opponent plays are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, a mark that ranks third highest. Brown brings the heat, too: Only six teams generate a higher pressure rate on opposing quarterbacks than Michigan (39.1 percent).
Haskins may be completing 26.7 passes per game on a clip hovering around 70 percent, but no starting quarterback has completed more than 19 throws in any game against Michigan or connected on more than 56 percent of passes. Over the past five conference games, Brown’s seek-and-destroy defense is holding quarterbacks to 9.4 completions per game on a clip south of 40 percent.
Can Ohio State stop the big play?
If last week is any indication, no.
The Maryland Terrapins produced three touchdowns exceeding 25 yards, two of which that went for at least 75, in a 52-51 overtime loss. “Alarming is the right word,” Meyer said of his team’s inability to prevent gashing offensive plays. Then, on Monday: “Obviously, it wasn’t good.”
Ohio State has either set or is on pace to set single-season worst marks under Meyer in big plays allowed from virtually every distance.
The Buckeye defense is getting gutted by the big play
The number of plays given up at various lengths by Ohio State this season compared with previous years under Urban Meyer
|Plays given up at … (in yards)|
Two of Ohio State’s four worst games since Meyer arrived, as defined by expected points added on defense, have come this season. And while the Wolverines’ offense isn’t exactly Alabama’s, it’s easily the best unit Harbaugh has had at Michigan.
Michigan’s offensive efficiency and national rank in the category under Jim Harbaugh
This offense is also Harbaugh’s best at generating big plays. Starting running back Karan Higdon was on the brink of leaving for the NFL draft after last season, but good thing for Michigan that he stayed. The senior has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark and has five carries of 40-plus yards, tied for the second most of any player in the Big Ten. Junior transfer Shea Patterson, the best quarterback Harbaugh has had in Ann Arbor, leads the Big Ten in Total Quarterback Rating (84.0) and ranks second in yards per attempt (8.54).3 Patterson’s running ability is another wrinkle for an offense with little difficulty finding the end zone.
The team scores on a conference-best 47.7 percent of drives, which is on pace to be the eighth-best mark by a Big Ten team in the past 15 years. Michigan also seldom gets stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, besting last season’s rate by 8.2 percentage points. Wisconsin (23.9 percent) is the only Big Ten team stopped in its tracks less than Michigan (25.7 percent). In turn, 43 percent of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s plays have gone for 5-plus yards, the program’s highest rate since 2010. Overall, the Wolverines are picking up 6.29 yards per play, by far the most of any team since Harbaugh arrived.
Of course, perhaps the most tantalizing storyline is the one most difficult to measure. Ohio State hasn’t lost to Michigan in the Horseshoe since 2000, and, at least lately, the Wolverines seem to mutate into a far worse version of themselves in the annual rivalry. The Buckeyes’ real advantage in this game may be found on the psychological side, as the team has grown accustomed to upstaging that school up north. Harbaugh and the Wolverines have a chance to rewrite the script, with everything on the line Saturday in Columbus.
Neil Paine contributed research.
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