You’ll read this sentiment several times this week:
The Michigan football team will play Ohio State — its biggest rival — Saturday, with a chance to keep its dreams alive. The Wolverines can exorcise their Big Ten Championship demons, their can’t-beat-the-Buckeyes demons and continue their trek toward rising to the College Football Playoff. Put another way, they control their own destiny.
Those will be tired tropes by the time kickoff comes around, but that isn’t without good reason.
Michigan is staying mum on the topic. The Wolverines have avoided any dream-killing loss for 10 straight games, doing what they must to get to this position by beating any and every team in their path. And they claim they’ll maintain the same mindset this week.
“It’s just another game,” said junior quarterback Shea Patterson. “We understand the tradition and meaning behind it, and we’re gonna attack it the same way we have the past 10 or 11 weeks. We know that they’re a good ball club, and at their place, but we’re just gonna prepare.”
The Wolverines have to say that, of course. But this isn’t another game, for all the reasons listed above. It is a game to prove this season has been for something.
The last 14 seasons — the time since Michigan last won a share of the Big Ten — have been leading up to this. Realistically, it’s been longer than that, considering the Wolverines lost to the Buckeyes that season. The Wolverines haven't beaten Ohio State and won the Big Ten in the same season since 2003.
“It is different,” said senior running back Karan Higdon. “It’s been awhile since this has been a game to determine our fate in the national championship, for a Big Ten Championship. It definitely is a different year.”
That isn’t exactly true.
Michigan was in this same position in 2016, when it came into The Game ranked No. 2, while the Buckeyes were No. 3.
We remember how that went. The Wolverines played about as well as they could, except they couldn’t tackle Ohio State running back Curtis Samuel on a 3rd-and-long. Then JT Barrett squeezed out a first down, and then Michigan ultimately wilted, losing in overtime.
If you think back further, the Wolverines were here in 2006, too, when the teams were ranked first and second, respectively, and once again, the Buckeyes won.
What Higdon said is true in that this feels like Michigan’s best chance to actually go into Columbus and win the game in quite a while.
The 2016 Wolverines had just lost to Iowa, and they were probably at a talent disadvantage with how the Buckeyes’ offense was clicking. If it weren’t for Ohio State’s kicker that afternoon, The Game wouldn’t have even reached overtime — let alone double overtime — that year.
In 2006, it was a knockdown, dragout fight, but Troy Smith was Troy Smith, and the Michigan defense really struggled against the Buckeyes’ spread offense.
This season, though, the Wolverines have blown through every challenge that has come their way. They killed Wisconsin and Penn State, and they physically dominated Michigan State, even if the score didn’t reflect the bludgeoning that the yardage totals did.
Those games began the Revenge Tour that has shaped how this season has felt for Michigan.
All the wrongs that have been done to the Wolverines over coach Jim Harbaugh’s tenure have been righted.
There is one more regular-season score to settle.
“Everybody in the entire country knows what this weekend is,” said junior defensive end Rashan Gary. “We know what this weekend is. So we’re gonna attack it. It’s been a whole year having a bad taste in our mouths. We’ve just gotta go out, prepare the right way and, you know, go out there on Saturday and see what happens.”
Additionally, the Wolverines are nearly at full strength. Even with the injury to fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich, who hurt his shoulder Saturday against Indiana, Michigan has had very good luck with injuries. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Tarik Black came back this season. Junior defensive end Rashan Gary came back too. And Winovich’s backups, sophomore Kwity Paye and freshman Aidan Hutchinson, have proven capable.
So there are no excuses to be had.
It has all been leading up to this game for Michigan.
Forget the past, forget what has already happened this season and forget the future for now.
If the Wolverines want to reach that future, they need to win Saturday. It’s as simple as that.
You know it. I know it. They know it. Now it’s time to see if this whole season — the 10-game win streak, the talk of a new attitude in the program, the Revenge Tour — is for real, or if it’s just another opportunity in Columbus gone to waste.