Ohio State week.
You don't need me to tell you about the state of the rivalry. There's no need to retell the story of how the last meeting ended, or talk about the sick feeling that has lingered for the last 251 days.
What I can say is this: When the Buckeyes come to Ann Arbor in late November, the Wolverines will be ready for a fight.
Jim Harbaugh can preach all he wants about focusing only on the next opponent, but as sportswriters and fans we have the luxury of being able to look past that. Throughout the summer I've previewed each of Michigan's 2017 opponents, and just like watching the regular season play out, it feels like they were all leading to a culmination with Ohio State. Even just gearing up for writing this article, something felt different, like there was more on the line, like this one mattered most.
That's how football works in Ann Arbor — and Columbus, for that matter. You play your season, game after game, and each week you hope to get a little better for that finale.
Football is a game of inches, and to close out the 2016 Michigan season, those inches went overwhelmingly in the opponent's favor. But 2017 is a new season, and this will be a whole new ballgame.
"Do you see any similarities between last year's OSU team and this year's Michigan squad?"
Maybe a few.
Ohio State lost 12 players in the 2016 NFL Draft, following a season with sky-high expectations that fell just short down the stretch after losing to the Spartans at home. The Buckeyes only returned seven starters in 2016 (three offense, four defense), though what they did return was extremely important: leadership from a returning junior quarterback and one of the best coaches in the nation. That's not to mention all the talent they'd stocked up from a few years of great recruiting.
Now Michigan has lost 11 players in the NFL Draft, following a season with sky-high expectations that fell just short down the stretch after losing to the Buckeyes on the road. The Wolverines are only returning five starters this year (four offense, one defense), though what they do return is strong leadership from a returning junior quarterback and, of course, one of the best coaches in the nation. Luckily there's plenty of talent waiting in the wings from a few years of great recruiting.
(See the similarities?)
The Buckeyes came together quickly last season, even with their young roster, taking down a strong non-conference opponent (Oklahoma) away from Columbus early and then running through the Big Ten schedule, with their only slip-up coming on the road to Penn State under the lights in mid-October — though they did get a scare from a good Wisconsin team on the road as well. But those types of games are almost expected. Fans didn't quite judge the success of the team until the finale, at home against the archrival — a game in which they were outplayed for the majority, but pulled it out in the end.
Now Wolverine fans are hoping the young roster can come together quickly this season, since they have a big non-conference opponent (Florida) away from Ann Arbor early before a fairly manageable conference slate — though they will have some tough road games under the lights in mid-October with Penn State and against a good Wisconsin team late in the year. But the season, ultimately, as it often is, will be judged by fans based on the finale at home against the archrival.
(Okay, enough of all this repetition. Point being that there are many similarities, at least it seems so as we head into the season. Let's get on to the matchup.)
“The Buckeyes reload every year, even after losing some top starters. Who is coming back on offense this season that we should eye?”
Let's start with the guy we all know by now: J.T. Barrett. He's had his highs and lows over the last three years, but coming into his senior campaign he'll certainly have a chip on his shoulder — especially for a guy who many people criticized for his performances in big games last season.
Barrett should thrive this year with the return of many playmakers around him and with the addition of Kevin Wilson at offensive coordinator. Watch out for his arm — which has moments of brilliance, though can be inaccurate at times — but also his legs, as he's seemed to kill Michigan in scrambling situations the last couple years.
In the backfield, top tailback Mike Weber, a Detroit native, will be back for his second season as the starter. Last season he tallied over one thousand yards and added nine scores, and there's no reason to expect he won't build upon that this year. Weber reminds me a lot of the guy he replaced, Ezekiel Elliott. He's slightly smaller than his predecessor, but he has a fairly rare combination of quickness and power that seems to compliment Urban Meyer's offensive style.
With Curtis Samuel departing early for the draft, look for redshirt freshman Demario McCall to step into the hybrid running back role. McCall is a small guy with blazing speed and should work into the system nicely.
At receiver, Noah Brown, Dontre Wilson and Samuel are all gone — the top three targets a year ago. Do I expect the Buckeyes to take a step backward? Nope.
Big tight end Marcus Baugh returns, as does K.J. Hill, who showed moments of flash in 2016. After these two, it will likely be a mix of young, talented guys who compete early in the year until a couple of them pull away. I'll reiterate: the Buckeyes will be fine at receiver.
This is an offense that ranked 13th nationally in scoring last season with nearly 40 points per game. The scary part is that they may be better in 2017.
“The Game usually comes down to defense, at least at some point. Which Buckeyes should we know on that side of the ball?”
In 2016, Michigan and Ohio State were second and third in scoring defense per game nationally, respectively. We know what’s happening with the Wolverines’ defense, but what about Ohio State?
Much like the offense, they will be building on the success they had last year, though there are a few areas where they will need to fill the gaps (literally).
Let’s start with the line, where the Buckeyes will be great. Not good — great. Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes all return on the edge, with guys like Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill also returning in the center. All in all, OSU is bringing back 25.5 of its 28 sacks from last year. Yikes.
At linebacker, Raekwon McMillan, the team leader in total tackles in 2016, will certainly be missed. Christopher Worley and Jerome Baker will be back on the outside though, so if Meyer has someone ready to step into the middle linebacker role (and I can only assume he does), they’ll be fine here too. Dante Booker, who missed last year with an injury but otherwise would have been a starter, will solidify this unit if he can transition to the middle spot.
The secondary is where there are some holes. Damon Webb is back, a feisty safety from Detroit, but three first round NFL Draft picks are vacating their positions — Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley.
I’d like to say “it’ll take some rebuilding to get back to where they were last season,” but Lattimore, Hooker and Webb were first year starters a season ago, so I doubt there will be any rebuilding this year either. Look for young, capable guys like Denzel Ward — who saw plenty of playing time in 2016 — and Damon Arnette to step in and fill those spots.
"How does it all end?"
Are you one for drama? This one will be more like the 2016 version than the 2015, if you ask me (and you kind of are, since you’re reading this). Call me optimistic, or biased, or just plain crazy, but I have a good feeling about this one for the Wolverines.
By the twelfth game of the season, we won't be talking about the youth or inexperience of Michigan's roster. We'll be talking about what they've done throughout the fall to put themselves in a position for a shot at the postseason. We'll be talking about the breakout players, and we'll talk about how they competed in other big games — all the things that could lead us to a reasonable prediction about this one.
But truth be told, none of that matters a whole heck of a lot to me. Last year Michigan was a Top 5 team. Then they struggled against Iowa, and then they struggled against Indiana, and then people weren't so high on the team's chances in Columbus. Those people were wrong to think that Harbaugh would let Michigan walk into Ohio Stadium and not compete at the highest level. Did everything go according to plan? Obviously not. But you had to be proud of that team.
That said, there are no moral victories against Ohio State. In the end, it comes down to winning. As for the outcome of this one?
I'll leave it to Bo.