Welcome to Ohio State week. What do you mean you’re not enthusiastic?
The Michigan football team will play its annual rivalry game on Saturday, in Columbus, at noon. Maybe. The Wolverines returned to limited workouts on Monday, with the clearance of their medical team, but it’s yet to be seen whether that means a football game can safely happen on Saturday. Or, for that matter, whether Michigan has the personnel to make it happen even if the spread of COVID-19 stops within the program.
Regardless, the Wolverines come in as 29-point underdogs as of Monday night, a massive point spread befitting a 2-4 team with roster questions playing a College Football Playoff favorite. As much as X’s and O’s, the questions this week surround Jim Harbaugh’s future coaching at Michigan and whether the Wolverines can even play.
The Daily football beat breaks down what we’re watching in the week leading up to The Game.
How will COVID affect the rosters of both teams?
The last we heard, Michigan’s football program has a COVID-19 outbreak affecting about a dozen players. If the Wolverines are cleared to play The Game on Saturday, they will be short-handed — but it’s still a question of where. Among the things we don’t know: how many of these players are starters, whether they are concentrated in a particular position group or spread across multiple and how many players may be out due to contact-tracing concerns. All of those could have a large impact on Michigan’s competitiveness, especially since players who test positive are required to sit out 21 days before returning to play.
But the 21-day rule affects Ohio State, too, which had an outbreak of its own that caused it to cancel its Nov. 28 matchup with Illinois. Per Big Ten rules, anyone who tested positive after Nov. 21 would not be able to play on Saturday for either team. Last week against Michigan State, the Buckeyes were missing several starting offensive linemen, although those players could have been out due to reasons other than a positive test.
Even if Ohio State has multiple starters out, it likely won’t significantly dampen its performance against a team that has been as bad as the Wolverines — the Buckeyes still blew out the Spartans despite the absences. Still, both teams will have to figure out how to prepare with a likely large number of missing players. Ohio State is already expected to win this game by a lot — the betting line has the Buckeyes winning by 30 — but that expected margin could increase if Michigan is missing multiple starters or if a position group is wiped out.
The Wolverines have also struggled with injuries this season, especially in the trenches. Even one or two cases at those positions would be a big blow, not to mention a further injury risk for the players left. — Aria Gerson
Will we get news on Jim Harbaugh?
As you surely already know by now, Harbaugh only has a year left on his contract after this season. Functionally, that means Michigan needs to either extend him or start looking for his replacement, as recruiting with a year left on a deal is a near impossibility.
The situation is complicated by two factors: first, the pandemic and second, that this is Michigan’s worst season under Harbaugh. In July, Harbaugh said that he was close to signing an extension in February, before the pandemic hit, but with the economic impact of it, there became “bigger fish to fry.” The situation has festered.
The athletic department laid off 21 employees a few months ago due to pandemic-related impacts. On the field, the Wolverines are 2-4 and come into the Ohio State game as historically large underdogs. They’re nowhere near where they want to be as a program, and the appetite for keeping Harbaugh is at an all-time low since his 2015 arrival. But ultimately, athletic director Warde Manuel’s opinion is the only one that matters, and he hasn’t said anything on the matter.
Varied reports have indicated a three-year extension is anywhere from in the works to already signed to nonexistent. But with national signing day coming on Dec. 16, and a number of Michigan commits tweeting to affirm their intent to sign on that day, a resolution — one way or another — appears as though it may come sooner rather than later. — Ethan Sears
Does Michigan have any fight left?
More often than not this season, the Michigan sideline has appeared dejected. Whether it’s Harbaugh standing with his hands on his hips or players with their heads down on the bench, the team’s energy has reflected its performance on the field for much of 2020.
With an offseason of uncertainty looming, Saturday’s game represents a last-ditch effort for this season’s team to salvage something. If Michigan takes the field — which is a big “if” — it will do so as a 30-plus-point underdog. Thanks in large part to Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak and 2-4 record, the Buckeyes are expected to roll. That’s exactly what they’ve done in the last two years, outscoring the Wolverines by a combined 52 points.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, that’s exactly why this is the perfect game for Michigan to show some semblance of a fight. Anything less than a blowout is a positive in terms of national perception, which hasn’t been the case so far in the Harbaugh era. The 2016 and 2018 games are remembered as collapses with a College Football Playoff berth on the line, and Harbaugh’s teams remain winless in the series. Like last season, Ohio State is now the one fighting for a spot in the Playoff, while Michigan has the chance to play spoiler.
Given the Wolverines’ injuries and COVID-19 situation, most will write them off before the game even kicks off. If Michigan has any fight left, now’s the time to show it. — Daniel Dash
Can Ohio State set a rivalry record?
In the 124-year history of The Game, Ohio State has never won by more than 38 points. Breaking that record would only require the Buckeyes to cover the spread by eight points, a palpable feat for a team that covered a 23.5-point spread by 16.5 against Michigan State last weekend.
Meanwhile, Michigan is 1-5 against the spread — the third-worst record ATS in the FBS this season, with no covers since its season opener at Minnesota. In four of those games, the Wolverines failed to cover by more than the eight points that they needed to avoid an ignominious record.
Adding to Michigan’s uphill battle Saturday will be a roster that figures to be heavily depleted. Last week, the Associated Press reported that the Wolverines had at least 12 COVID-19 cases in the program. Given that the athletic department released data on Friday stating that only one staff member in the athletic department had tested positive, that means at least 11 players have tested positive. Due to the Big Ten protocols, all of those players will be ineligible for The Game, even if they no longer have COVID-19.
An already weak team combined with an even further depleted roster opens the door for a record-breaking day for Ohio State. Underlining the Wolverines’ woes is a secondary that ranks 94th in the country in pass yards allowed. Against the Buckeyes’ passing offense — which is second in the Big Ten with 281.4 yards per game behind quarterback Justin Fields — that could spell disaster.
And even if Ohio State won’t score 100 — as coach Ryan Day said he wanted before the season — or top Michigan’s 86-0 win in 1902, the Buckeyes could be destined for their largest-ever margin of victory in this matchup. — Theo Mackie