There's plenty of important games on tap for the final week of the regular season as rivals do battle, but no game has more stakes than "The Game" between Ohio State and Michigan.
The Wolverines have gotten the better of the Buckeyes in the last two editions of the annual season finale between the two teams, and the stakes are as high as ever with a Big Ten East title on the line and in all likelihood a College Football Playoff appearance.
There are plenty of questions on both sides as Michigan has had to deal with a sign stealing scandal and won't have Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines while Ohio State has had to integrate a new quarterback in Kyle McCord to middling results.
Michigan is the home favorite, but will the team overcome a bumpy finish to the regular season as Ohio State has racked up a handful of blowout victories? Let's dive in to the biggest game of the College Football season to date.
Ohio State vs. Michigan Odds, Spread and Total
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Let's start here: Michigan is laying just north of a field goal with a modest total of 46.5. This market has been available as a lookahead line for nearly the entire season and we have seen Michigan reach as high as -7 as the team has blown out its opponents while Ohio State has been tested far more often.
However, this number has trickled down as the roles have flipped, with Michigan playing its most difficult opponents closer to the end of the season while Ohio State has overpowered the inferior Big Ten opponents gaining a perceived momentum edge.
However, is that valid?
Michigan: Will J.J. McCarthy Pass, and How Effectively?
Last season, we had questions about Michigan's ability to pass against Ohio State's secondary under first year -- and elite -- defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, and boy did McCarthy answer the call.
While he only completed 12-of-24 passes, three were for touchdowns, all 45 yards or more. The Buckeyes didn't respect McCarthy's ability to throw downfield and the Wolverines made its rival pay. After a handful of chunk passes, Ohio State had to take defenders out of the box and Donovan Edwards rushed for over 200 yards, sealing a 45-23 win.
McCarthy is far better this season, he is averaging about 10 yards per pass and is completing 60% of his passes 10 yards or further down the field. For reference, last season that number was about 49%. Further, the volume in which he is pushing the ball deep is up, from 37% in 2022 to north of 46% this season.
The Wolverines prefer to run the ball still, leaning on its powerful offensive line and veteran running back Blake Corum to get ahead of schedule and take timely deep shots. We saw Michigan opt to throw one non official pass in the second half when it built a lead against Penn State two weeks ago and trust its defense to hold off the Nittany Lions.
I don't believe Michigan will look to do that -- at least early -- with the threat of Ohio State's skill position players looming on the other side. The Buckeyes secondary is better this season, but has also been rarely tested, just like last season.
Ohio State has played two offenses inside Pro Football Focus' top 50 passing games this season, Penn State and Notre Dame.
While I think we can now all agree PSU is inflated due to its schedule, Notre Dame was actually able to move the ball through the air on the Buckeyes.
Sam Hartman completed 17-of-25 passes for 188 yards, posting a 0.45 EPA/Play (88th percentile when compared to all games in 2022), according to gameonpaper.com. However, the Irish ran the ball on more than 60% of plays and struggled to move the ball at a sustained rate to put up more than 14 points.
That being said, the team was in position to win in the final minutes.
I'm sure Knowles and the Buckeyes defense is well aware of McCarthy's capabilities now after he torched them over the top last season, but I believe his growth is paramount and the Wolverines offense can stay ahead of the chains and test a far less proven Ohio State offense relative to last year's team with C.J. Stroud at the helm.
Ohio State: Is Kyle McCord and the Offense on Track?
As I noted in my college football fraud rankings, McCord still has a lot to prove in this game. He did engineer a game winning drive on the road against ND, and found Marvin Harrison Jr. enough to win at home against Penn state, but now faces the most dynamic offense and best defense of those three in Michigan.
McCord has been fine with a bevy of future NFL pass catchers, including top-five pick Marvin Harrison Jr., but the team remains limited in the passing game. McCord has 16 big-time throws this season with 12 turnover-worthy plays. He is averaging less than nine yards per pass attempt and has been terrible under pressure (comprising about 25% of his total dropbacks), completing only 38% of his passes on four yards per pass attempt with two big-time throws to seven turnover-worthy plays.
McCord's lack of playmaking will be on full display on Saturday against an elite Michigan pass rush that is fourth in PFF's pass rush grade and is fourth in yards per play allowed. Ohio State may be backed up early and often as the Wolverines allow less than three yards per carry, will McCord answer?
It's worth noting that TreVeyon Henderson looks fully healthy after suffering a mid-season injury. The Buckeyes running back will look to alleviate some of the pressure off of its quarterback with his violent running.
However, the Buckeyes offensive line may be out-matched against a Michigan team that is top 10 in defensive line yards. It's worth noting that Ohio State is down from third in run blocking last season to 32nd in 2023, according to PFF.
Can McCord make downfield throws against a Michigan defense that is allowing less than six yards per throw?
We could be facing the same question we had for McCarthy last season, will Ohio State hit enough explosive plays to offset the team's inability to methodically move down the field? That will likely decide the game on Saturday and likely go to the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State vs. Michigan Prediction and Pick
I've long been in the Michigan camp while comparing these two teams and I believe we are getting a slight break on the price given the recent weeks events.
Ohio State overpowered inferior opponents in Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan State and Minnesota while Michigan travelled to Penn State and Maryland. There is a sense in momentum on the Ohio State side as the team gets healthier while Michigan deals with its off-the-field issues and limits its passing game.
However, let's look at the season as a whole, where Michigan has leaned on both its offensive and defensive line to play to near peak efficiency while its quarterback has grown as a downfield passer with a reliable set of pass catchers.
Meanwhile, Ohio State has the singular best player on the field in Harrison Jr., but a quarterback that can't stretch the field and test defenses with his arm and an offensive line that is very good, but not as great as its been in the past.
I expect Michigan to win, but it may not be the blowout that some expected a few weeks ago. My favorite look in this game is going to be the first half under when that market opens.
Michigan plays at the second slowest pace in college football, ahead of only service academy Air Force, in terms of plays per minute and Ohio State isn't in a rush either, outside the top 80. Given the nature of this game, I expect a conservative outlook early as each team waits for another on to make a mistake.
Ohio State will likely tinker its coverage to be a tad less aggressive and aware that McCarthy has the arm to throw the Wolverines to victory with a handful of deep passes, while Ohio State continues to try to use the run game to make life easy on McCord.
Fireworks may come eventually, but not in the first 30 minutes.
Buckle up, should be a good one in Ann Arbor with so much on the line between two bitter rivals.
PICK: 1H Under at 23 or better
Game odds refresh periodically and are subject to change.
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