After weeks, months, and quite frankly a year of preparation, The Game returns this weekend as the No. 2 Ohio State football team hosts No. 3 Michigan in the latest chapter of the legendary rivalry. Both teams go into the game unbeaten and deep in college football playoff talk, adding even more juice to an already juicy rivalry.
As we begin previewing the matchup, we take a look at how the two teams stack up on paper in our weekly By the Numbers story. As we see how the two teams fare among 131 FBS teams nationwide, let’s take a look at who has the advantage across 55 different categories in The Game.
As it has every year for the past decade, Ohio State is entering the matchup as one of the best teams in the country. The Buckeyes are 11-0, lead the nation in goal margin and are a top-two team in every objective rating or subjective ranking we could find. They’ve basically had the Wolverines season – bulldozed by what appears to be a weak Big Ten and an easy no-conference schedule – with the key differences that Ohio State is now beating — no. 15 Notre Dame and had a more one-sided path to 8-0 in the Big Ten game.
We’ll get into that more, but the Buckeyes appear to be a little worse off offense and a little better on defense than they were a season ago. But like Michigan, it’s a little hard to tell which struggles and strong moments mattered in Saturday’s matchup, as neither team was remotely tested to the level they will be on Saturday.
Michigan Offense vs. Ohio State Defense
Statistically, Ohio State’s defense has improved by a ton (for reference, the Buckeyes were only top 20 in four of those categories and only top 30 in six categories). A major key to this growth is the annual improvement of several members of their Front Seven. Tommy Eichenberg is playing like an All-American, while Zach Harrison, JT Tuimoloau, Michael Hall Jr. and Jack Sawyer all made a step up a season ago.
Michigan fans looking for good news might look to Wisconsin — 192 yards rushing, two touchdowns, 5.39 yards per carry — for an example of the Buckeyes struggling a little against strong running play. But so far this season, the only teams to surpass Ohio State by 21 points have been Penn State and Maryland, who each threw more than 300 yards and attempted more than 35 passes.
Ohio State Offense vs. Michigan Defense
Surprise, surprise, Ohio State is the best offense Michigan has faced all season — by a pretty wide margin. Ditto, however, that Michigan’s defense is significantly better than any other defense the Buckeyes have faced this year. Ohio State still has CJ Stroud, and its front room is once again elitist; This year, it’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka who lead with 1,951 yards and 19 touchdowns between the two. The Buckeyes’ offensive line is also better than it was a season ago, allowing for pressure on 20.1 percent of passing snaps and an average of 2.45 yards from contact per carry (for reference, Michigan is up at 25.0 percent and 2.67 respectively) .
It will be interesting, similar to the Wolverines, that running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams are both struggling with injuries. Freshman Dallan Haden has put in a decent performance, including a 146-yard rush and three touchdowns in Maryland, but it’s unclear if that will hold up against the nation’s No. 2 defense unless Henderson and Williams are in full action.
Special Teams and Miscellaneous
Ohio State has as many recruiting talents as any other team in the country, so it’s no surprise the Buckeyes rank highly on special teams, too. However, Michigan was the superior team when it came to controlling possession, turning the field, and avoiding penalties or costly mistakes. If the Wolverines can again make Saturday a low possession game like last season and play to their low mental error standards, it will almost certainly increase their chances of ending the upset.
Pro Football Focus sheet music
So I went back and checked last year’s By the Numbers piece, which had the PFF grades, and it could be argued that the site predicted last year’s results before almost anyone else. PFF had the Buckeyes ranked No. 31 in defense, No. 30 in run defense, No. 20 in pass rush, No. 54 in tackle and No. 60 in coverage. There is some subjectivity in the grades, and Ohio State didn’t play as many good teams this year as they did last year, but the side appears to be being sold significantly more by Ohio State’s defense this fall, with the Buckeyes in the top 20 overall five defensive metrics.
Overall, Ohio State “won” this year’s By the Numbers tally 32-22-1, suggesting they have the advantage on paper. Last year it was 29-21-3, but of course fans of both teams know that ultimately that advantage didn’t matter on paper when the game started.