By Ralph D. Russo
AP College Football Writer
COLUMBUS — The numbers strongly suggest they are two of the four — maybe five — best teams in the country, but after Saturday either no. 3 Michigan or no. 2 Ohio State will be on the outside looking in at the College Football Playoff race.
The Wolverines and Buckeyes play for the 113th time, at Ohio Stadium, and the stakes have rarely been higher, and rarely have both teams been quite so good. This will be the 11th time both teams meet ranked in the top five and only the second time they have both been in the top three of the AP poll.
Michigan (10-1) and Ohio State (10-1) are both outscoring opponents by 31 points per game. The Wolverines have out-gained their opponents by 205.4 yards per game. The Buckeyes have out-gained their opponents by 214.1 yards per game.
Conventional wisdom is that the defenses will have the upper-hand at the Horseshoe.
Some of the matchups that could decide The Game:
MICHIGAN’S PASS RUSH VS. OHIO STATE’S PASS PROTECTION
The Wolverines pressure quarterbacks as well as any team in the country (36 sacks). Mostly on the strength of a talented defensive line that has solid depth. DE Taco Charlton has been especially effective off the edge and DT Ryan Glasgow gets good push inside. Defensive coordinator Don Brown will mix in blitzes, often using versatile LB Jabrill Peppers.
Ohio State’s offensive line, led by center Pat Elflein, has had a good season protecting quarterback J.T. Barrett, except for one particularly poor performance in the Buckeyes’ loss at Penn State. Ohio State allowed six sacks in that game and 11 in its other 10.
What happened in Happy Valley? Too many obvious passing downs left OTs Isaiah Prince and Jamarco Jones exposed. Avoid those and Ohio State can negate or at least mitigate what looks like an advantage for Michigan.
PEPPERS VS. BARRETT AND H-BACK CURTIS SAMUEL
What makes Peppers so valuable is his ability to be used in so many ways. At 205-pounds and with excellent speed, he is built more like a defensive back than a linebacker.
He could be the perfect spy on Barrett, who is one of the smartest and most effective running quarterbacks in the country (722 yards rushing and eight touchdowns). Barrett is not particularly fast or elusive, but he is adept at finding space and picking his way through defenses, especially on designed running plays.
Peppers, who is third in the Big Ten with 15 tackles for loss, is one of the most explosive athletes in the country. Letting him lock onto Barrett could help shut down a key part of Ohio State’s offense.
Then again, maybe it is best to have Peppers follow Samuel? The Buckeyes’ junior is in some ways the offensive equivalent to Peppers. He lines up all over the field and Ohio State gets the ball into his hands in lots of different ways. Samuel is the only player in the country with at least 600 yards rushing (650) and receiving (790).
The best way to attack Michigan’s defense has been on the edges and both Barrett and Samuel present good options to do just that.
Most likely Peppers will spend his game as he usually does, being asked to handle numerous assignments from series to series and down to down. But it will be fun to see how often he and Samuel directly cross paths.
MICHIGAN RB DE’VEON SMITH VS. OHIO STATE MLB RAEKWON MCMILLAN
Last week against Indiana, when the Wolverines’ passing game was bogged down behind backup quarterback John O’Korn, it was Smith who wore down the Hoosiers.
The status of starter Wilton Speight (left, non-throwing shoulder) is again uncertain so figure another game where Michigan will be limited in the passing game.
Smith is not a make-you-miss runner. He runs to and often through contact.
McMillan is the quarterback of Ohio State’s defense and its leading tackles (71). He has had a good — not great — junior season but this is the type of game, and Smith is the type of runner that could have him in the middle of much of the action.
WIDE RECEIVERS VS. CORNERBACKS
It would be hard to make a college football matchup this season with four cornerbacks who have played better than Ohio State’s Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore and Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling.
They have all performed at All-America levels.
Michigan seems to have the edge at wide receiver, with Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, but both quarterbacks should expect small windows in which to throw and few deep shots available.