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Michigan football faces highest stakes in history of rivalry with Ohio State

Wolverines, Buckeyes put national title hopes on line in Columbus

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It's the game everyone's been waiting for, and now it's finally here.

Michigan and Ohio State have been on a collision course since the season began, and the stakes are even higher than we imagined in early September. Both teams survived major scares this weekend to set up perhaps the most meaningful chapter of The Game in the rivalry's history.

For the first time since the introduction of the College Football Playoff, Michigan has joined the ranks of national championship contenders and controls its own destiny heading into Thanksgiving weekend. Ohio State is also firmly in contention, despite needing help to get into the Big Ten title game.

 

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When talking about the most important Michigan-Ohio State game in recent memory, the first matchup that comes to mind is the 2006 meeting, when No. 2 Michigan went into Columbus against No. 1 Ohio State. As the only 11-0 teams in the country, Michigan and Ohio State had separated themselves as the nation's best teams.

But there's one glaring difference between the 2006 and 2016 matchups. In 2006, it wasn't definitive that the loser would be knocked out of title contention. Despite its loss in Columbus, Michigan was still the most deserving team to play against Ohio State in the national championship game. Although Urban Meyer's Florida Gators ultimately got the nod -- despite losing to two-loss Auburn by 10 points while Michigan's only loss was at No. 1 Ohio State by three points -- Michigan had a legitimate chance to play for a title even with a loss.

This year, everything comes down to Saturday for both teams. Ohio State's loss to Penn State and Michigan's loss to Iowa put both teams in a situation where it would be nearly impossible to recover from a second loss in the final game of the season. There's no more room for error as both teams put it all out on the table.

Michigan also has to consider its current roster make-up. The Wolverines honored 43 seniors during their final home game Saturday, a stark reminder of the turnover this roster will experience heading into next season. While Jim Harbaugh figures to have Michigan playing competitive football every season, there's no doubt this is Michigan's best chance to compete for a championship in the immediate future.

Ohio State is only two years removed from a national title, but desperately hopes to return to the playoff after missing out last season. The Buckeyes won't have a chance to play for the Big Ten title unless Penn State loses to Michigan State, so this could be their final audition for the College Football Playoff committee.

Even if it does miss out on a conference championship appearance, an 11-1 Ohio State team with wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan would clearly make the field of four.

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The Wolverines haven't beaten Meyer since he arrived at Ohio State, and they haven't won in Columbus since 2000. With Ohio State having won 11 of the last 12 meetings, Michigan is desperate to turn the tide and pick up its first win over a legitimate OSU team since 2003.

Michigan is also looking for that first signature win of the Harbaugh era. It took seven years of mostly bad football for Michigan to turn things around, but there still hasn't been that one, program-changing victory that brings everything together. If the Wolverines win Saturday, it will be one of the most impactful victories in school history.

On the long checklist of events on Michigan's road to being "back," two of the biggest remaining items are "beat Ohio State" and "win a Big Ten championship." Michigan can still accomplish those goals, but a loss in Columbus would provide another setback.

 

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Things are rarely clear-cut in college football, but in this game, the stakes are plain and simple: the winner takes all, and the loser takes nothing.

Will Michigan vanquish its demons against Ohio State, and keep its Big Ten title hopes alive? Will it have a chance to compete for a national championship and announce its official return loud and clear to the college football world?

Or will Ohio State foil Michigan's season once again, leaving the Wolverines without a playoff dream, without a Big Ten title and without a win over its biggest rival?

The work put into all 12 games for both teams this season will be validated or dismantled in the Horseshoe Saturday, setting up one of the most important college football games of all time.