Everything on the line for Michigan football this week against Ohio State

Wolverines ride 10-game winning streak into Columbus

Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer (Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Drew Henson. Anthony Thomas. Larry Foote. Those are some of the players who led Michigan football to its last win over Ohio State in Columbus.

It's been 18 years since that 38-26 victory in the Horseshoe, when Henson threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns, Thomas racked up 149 total yards and Foote caught one of three Michigan interceptions. The rivalry has been cruel to the Wolverines since then, as Ohio State won 15 of the last 17 matchups, including eight in a row at home.

Needless to say, Michigan faces a major challenge next weekend, regardless of what has happened the first 12 weeks of the season.

Ohio State hasn't been vintage OSU this season. From the very first week, when Oregon State scored 31 points against the Buckeyes to the final play last weekend, when Maryland was a two-point conversion away from a massive upset, Urban Meyer's team has seemed off.

Head coach Urban Meyer of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts after a play against the Maryland Terrapins during the second half at Capital One Field on November 17, 2018 in College Park, Maryland. (Will Newton/Getty Images)

The most glaring example of Ohio State's struggles was the 49-20 loss to Purdue, which has since lost three of four games. But closer-than-expected games against Indiana, Minnesota and Nebraska were also troubling for the Buckeyes.

None of that matters, though, as Ohio State managed to get through the first 11 games with only one loss. Struggles be darned, the Buckeyes are a home win away from a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game and a possible College Football Playoff appearance.

For Michigan, even more is riding on Saturday's contest.

There's the obvious short-term implications: Michigan is in the thick of the playoff race and will almost certainly be included in the top four if it beats Ohio State and Northwestern. It can also win its first Big Ten title in 15 years and play in its first Big Ten Championship Game.

Since losing the opener at Notre Dame, Michigan has improved as steadily as any team in the nation. It climbed from No. 21 in the Week 2 AP Poll to No. 4 in the CFP rankings by destroying the likes of then-No. 15 Wisconsin, then-No. 24 Michigan State and then-No. 14 Penn State.

Chase Winovich celebrates during a game against Rutgers at HighPoint.com Stadium on Nov. 10, 2018, in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Corey Perrine/Getty Images)

The Wolverines have the No. 1 total defense in the country and an efficient offense that can attack in multiple ways. For the first time in more than a decade, Michigan can march into Columbus confident that it has the better team.

But that doesn't mean anything unless Michigan can exorcise its demons.

It would be naive to think the rivalry's history won't play into Saturday's matchup. Nobody on Ohio State's roster has lost to Michigan, while Harbaugh will be one of the very few people on Michigan's sideline who know what it's like to beat OSU.

Ohio State goes into "The Game" every season expecting to win. Michigan can't help but take the field just hoping this is the year the tide will turn.

The sky is the limit for Michigan this season, especially coming off of 10 straight victories. A win at Ohio State would cement its spot in the top four, polish off an undefeated Big Ten regular season and put to rest the idea that Harbaugh can't finish better than third in the division.

Most importantly, Michigan has the weapons to control the game, unlike in 2016, when even a two-score lead in Columbus felt tenuous.

Don Brown has a dozen or more future NFL players on the defensive end, led by upcoming first-round picks Devin Bush and Rashan Gary. Lavert Hill and David Long make up the best cornerback tandem Dwayne Haskins has seen all season.

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh during warmups before a game against Western Michigan at Michigan Stadium on Sept. 8, 2018. in Ann Arbor. (Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

On offense, Michigan went from a disastrous quarterback a year ago to Shea Patterson, who is accurate with his throws, smart in the read option and will play on Sundays, whether that's next year or in 2020.

All the holes that sunk Michigan's ship last season have been plugged, and there's just one more major hurdle to clear.

Harbaugh has debunked the notions that he can't win on the road and can't beat his rivals. He's won big games and done so handily.

If he can win Saturday in Columbus, it will validate all the improvements Michigan made this year -- and it just might set up a special December.

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