Opinion: 2021 Ohio State-Michigan game primed to return rivalry to glory

The Lantern
A member of the Ohio State Marching Band holds up their traditional “Beat Blue” banana during the game against Michigan Nov. 26, 2016, at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won 30-27. Credit: Mason Swires | Lantern File Photo

It’s been five years since The Game ended with a single-digit margin of victory.

The last time it happened, Urban Meyer still strolled the Ohio State sidelines, J.T. Barrett still led the Buckeyes’ offense and Ryan Day still coached quarterbacks in the NFL.

The 2016 game between bitter rivals Ohio State and Michigan will always live in the minds of Buckeyes and Wolverines fans — albeit for different reasons. But, 2016 also marked the last time the rivalry was truly competitive as Ohio State has dominated the past three meetings by a combined margin of 149-86 — including back-to-back three-plus score wins in 2018-19.

Like that double overtime battle, the 2021 meeting between the Buckeyes and Wolverines is expected to carry College Football Playoff implications. As of Nov. 10, Ohio State is in playoff position at No. 4, while Michigan sits at No. 6. In 2016, the Buckeyes and Wolverines both held playoff spots, with Ohio State ranking at No. 2 and Michigan at No. 3 heading into the game.

This season’s meeting could also bring some much-needed juice back into the rivalry, with Buckeyes and Wolverines — including Day and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh — jawing at each other since their last meeting in 2019.

“Beat Ohio [State], our rivals, Michigan State, everybody. That’s what we’re going to do,” Harbaugh said at Big Ten Media Days. “We’re going to do it or die trying.”

Although Harbaugh has said similar things in the past, he’s backed up his words with action within his program. The changes come on the heels of former Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields declaring that the Buckeyes take rivalry more seriously than their northern foe in 2019.

For starters, Harbaugh erected a sign that reads “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?” in the Wolverines’ facilities over the summer.

The Michigan skipper also changed the name of one of his more physical drills — a nine vs. seven running drill — to the “Beat Ohio” drill over the summer.

“It’s always been a period that we take a lot of pride in. I think the past couple of years, I’m not sure when exactly it was changed, it kind of came along with the whole tradition of ‘What are you going to do to beat Ohio State every day?’ ” Michigan graduate offensive tackle Andrew Stueber said.

While the Wolverine program and Harbaugh have begun to emphasize the rivalry in 2021, it’s always been a focus for Day, who is in his third season at the helm of the Ohio State program.

“I tell recruits the No. 1 job is to beat that team up north. If we can do that, the rest of the things fall in line,” Day said. “The best way to respect this rivalry is to work it every day during the year, think about it all the time and do a great job of preparing.”

Like his predecessors, Day even refuses to utter the word “Michigan,” as he told NFL Network’s and Michigan alum Rich Eisen. Although the third-year coach refuses to say the name of his opponent, that hasn’t stopped him from sharing heated exchanges with Harbaugh.

With The Game’s cancellation in 2020 due to COVID-19 issues in the Michigan program, the two adversaries haven’t met since Harbaugh reportedly accused Day of breaking offseason rules, to which Day replied by telling Harbaugh to focus on his own team.

Day then told his team that the Wolverines should hope there is a mercy rule because the Buckeyes were going to “hang 100 on them.”

While the energy and pettiness around the rivalry has returned to The Game, the competitive nature is also primed for a return.

The Buckeyes’ seemingly unstoppable offense, which averages 44.9 points and 541.8 yards per game, will meet the immovable object that is the Michigan defense. The Wolverines allow just 16 points and 297.3 yards per game.

As Michigan’s focus has increased and the Buckeyes have looked vulnerable at times this season, the 2021 meeting between Ohio State and Michigan is primed to return The Game back to its glory days.

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