Big Game Hunting: Michigan or Ohio State to the playoff? Purdue or Illinois to Indianapolis?

Whoever wins “The Game” — the Wolverines or the Buckeyes — should be locked into college football’s top four no matter what happens a week later in the Big Ten title tilt.

SHARE Big Game Hunting: Michigan or Ohio State to the playoff? Purdue or Illinois to Indianapolis?
A year ago in Ann Arbor, Blake Corum and the Wolverines ran all over the Buckeyes.

A year ago in Ann Arbor, Blake Corum and the Wolverines ran all over the Buckeyes.

Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Where to begin? With “The Game” or with the big maybe?

With No. 3 Michigan (+7½) at No. 2 Ohio State (11 a.m., Fox-32), the mother of all college football rivalries and the kerfuffle to end all 2022 kerfuffles?

Or with Illinois (-14½) at Northwestern (2:30 p.m., BTN, 890-AM, 720-AM), which has — maybe! — Big Ten championship game implications for the Illini. Nebraska’s upset of Iowa on Friday put the Illini in position to win the West division and go on to Indianapolis, but only if they beat the last-place Wildcats and get major help in the form of a Purdue loss at Indiana.

Let’s start with the 118th meeting of the two schools — Michigan and Ohio State, in that order — with the most wins in FBS history. They come in with matching 11-0 records and dueling national-title aspirations. The Game is a big deal under any circumstances, but the College Football Playoff implications this time — it’s likely a win-an-in scenario for both teams, no matter what happens a week later in Indy — make it an absolute monster.

“We’re very grateful to be in this position to be playing this game,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Winner takes the East [division]. Winner takes all right there. Strong opponent, and it’s the kind of situation that gives you the opportunity to display how strong our team is.”

How strong are the Wolverines and the Buckeyes? Harbaugh likened them to “superheroes” preparing for a comic-book clash. His colorful-phrase game was amped all the way up throughout the week as he spoke of his “happy warriors” on a “happy mission.”

But Michigan hasn’t won at Ohio Stadium since 2000, losing its last eight there, and is a sad, sorry 3-for-20 against the Buckeyes overall since that victory. Last year’s 42-27 win in Ann Arbor snapped an eight-game losing streak in the series and was Harbaugh’s first “W” in six tries since taking over at his alma mater.

If running back Blake Corum, the key to the offense, were sure to be able to play, things might look fairly promising for the Wolverines, who steamrolled OSU in the run game last year. Corum’s injury status was unclear heading into the weekend.

Regardless, the Buckeyes have been fueled by that embarrassing loss for the last year.

“We have scars,” coach Ryan Day said. “It motivated us all offseason. We’ve worked very hard to get to this moment right here.”

The OSU defense is much better than it was then, and the offense continues to light the Big Ten on fire. Quarterback C.J. Stroud leads the nation in pass efficiency and touchdowns (35). Receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. is the best there is. Michigan’s “D” — ranked No. 1 in the land — has entered the prove-it-or-lose-it zone.

“We know it’s our toughest test of the year,” Harbaugh said, “and I think we’re going to find we’re made of the right stuff.”

Yeah, well, the right stuff is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Buckeyes, 34-20, for their 30th straight Big Ten win at home.

And how about the Illini? An eighth win would give them their most since 2007 and their first above-.500 league record since that same season. It won’t be the worst thing in the world if that’s all they get out of their Saturday. Losing the Land of Lincoln Trophy — known as “the Hat” — to the Wildcats would be, on the other hand, truly awful.

After Bret Bielema took the Illinois job heading into 2021, he had a trophy case installed in the locker room. The only problem was there were no trophies to put in it.

“A moron,” he called himself by way of explanation.

But the Illini ended a six-year Hat losing streak last November, and that trophy sat by its lonesome in the case all this season. If it goes, it’s going to be awkward all over again.

Illinois v Michigan

Illinois’ Chase Brown leads the nation in rushing.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Illini running back Chase Brown, the national rushing leader at 1,582 yards, needs triple digits to set the school record with a 17th 100-yard game and 117 yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher. Can Northwestern keep him relatively in check? Do the Wildcats have any chance at all?

“I’ve been on the winning side of this game quite a bit,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it takes to win it, and my hope is that I can get the guys to play clean and play consistent here for one last time together.”

Hat’s off to that sentiment, but it’s not enough. Illini, 26-13.

OTHER WEEK 13 PICKS

Purdue (-10½) at Indiana (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): Are the Hoosiers really going to beat Illinois twice in one season? First they knocked off the Illini in September. Now they can do it again, in a manner of speaking, by going out in the Old Oaken Bucket game and playing like their usual subpar selves. The Hoosiers’ only hope is to run the ball like maniacs, because they can’t throw it whatsoever and don’t play any defense. Talk about a bucket of cold water — Boilermakers, 34-26.

Auburn (+22) at No. 7 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2): The Iron Bowl arrives more quietly than usual, with the Tigers at 5-6 and the Tide pretty much on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. But it’s still a chance for Nick Saban, Bryce Young and Co. to kick their rival while it’s way, way down. Bama, 41-17.

No. 9 Oregon (-3) at No. 21 Oregon State (2:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The Beavers have taken two of the last three Civil War games in Corvallis. If they do it again, they could knock the Ducks out of a spot in the Pac-12 title game. I’ll be dammed — Beavers in an upset.

Colorado v USC

USC’s Caleb Williams is closing in on the Heisman.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

No. 15 Notre Dame (+5) at No. 6 USC (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7, 780-AM): The Irish have had the Jewelled Shillelagh since pummeling USC in 2017 — running a head-to-head winning streak to four for the first time since the early 1990s — but now they’re in Caleb Williams’ house. With a big night and an 11th “W,” the Trojans’ sensational QB probably locks up the Heisman Trophy. Time to give back that shillelagh, whatever the heck it is. Fight On, 34-27.

My favorite favorite: Wisconsin (-3) vs. Minnesota (2:30 p.m., ESPN): The Badgers and Gophers, bless ’em, have mixed it up more times than any other FBS rivals. Badgers take back Paul Bunyan’s Axe and interim coach Jim Leonhard gets the head gig, all in one day.

My favorite underdog: South Carolina (+14½) at No. 8 Clemson (11 a.m., Ch. 7): Last time out, the Gamecocks hung 63 on Tennessee. They lose an eight straight Palmetto Bowl but cover the outsized number.

Last week: 9-1 straight up, 7-3 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 66-38 straight up, 53-51 vs. the spread.

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