Michigan-Ohio State: Wolverines fierce ‘D’ will give them a shot

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Jabrill Peppers and Michigan’s dominant defense will try to lead an upset of No. 2 Ohio State. (AP/Tony Ding)

One year ago this week, I wrote in this very column that Ohio State at Michigan was “merely the third-most important Big Ten game on the final Saturday of November.”

But that was last season, when Michigan State and Iowa were on the final legs of their journeys to the Big Ten title game and fighting hard to reach the College Football Playoff. This time around, No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State (Saturday, 11 a.m., Ch. 7) isn’t just the game of the day in the Big Ten. It’s the game of the year in all of college football.

Yet it’s bigger than that, too. It’s the greatest matchup in college football’s No. 1 rivalry since 2006, when the unbeaten, top-ranked Buckeyes hosted the unbeaten, second-ranked Wolverines with a spot in the national championship game on the line.

That one — Buckeyes 42, Wolverines 39 — more than lived up to the billing. This one might, too, despite the collarbone injury that kept quarterback Wilton Speight out of Michigan’s game last week and has his availability for Saturday in question. Whether it’s Speight or John O’Korn, the Wolverines (6½-point underdogs) will have a shot to win because of their killer defense, statistically the nation’s top unit.

“Any big game, any championship game, any road game — you’ve got to pack your defense,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Our guys will be ready for the challenge.”

Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, Jabrill Peppers — they’ll give the Buckeyes’ terrific dual-threat quarterback, J.T. Barrett, all he wants.

“We don’t like them,” Barrett said, “and they don’t like us.”

Has Michigan ascended to Ohio State’s level of talent yet? Not quite, though Harbaugh is getting the program there fast. The Buckeyes have won 11 of the last 12 games in this series, a grotesque statistic to all who favor the Maize and Blue.

An important edge for Michigan: experience. The Wolverines have many more seniors in their two-deep.

“Those guys have been there for a while,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “They’re grown men.”

The winner of this matchup of 10-1 teams will remain in the playoff picture. The loser will be ticked off all offseason. If Speight were fully healthy, I’d pick the Wolverines to win. But you know what? I believe so strongly in their defense that I’m going to do it anyway — 23-20 in a trend-busting upset.

Let’s tear through eight other key Week 13 contests in chronological order (all games Saturday unless otherwise noted):

No. 5 Washington (-6) at No. 23 Washington State (Friday, 2:30 p.m., Fox-32). This is the game Cougars coach Mike Leach has been building toward ever since he arrived on the Palouse. Oh, well. Huskies pull away late to win the Pac-12 North.

No. 16 Nebraska (+1) at No. 23 Iowa (Friday, 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7). To get to the Big Ten title game, the Huskers need a victory in Iowa City followed by a Wisconsin loss on Saturday. Neither of which is happening. Hawkeyes in a good one.

No. 13 Auburn (-17½) at No. 1 Alabama (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2). Over. Before. It. Starts. Which is a bummer, because nothing beats the tension of a down-to-the-wire Iron Bowl. Tide in a rout.

Minnesota (+14) at No. 6 Wisconsin (2:30 p.m., BTN). Not sure the Badgers are good enough offensively to run up the score even if they want to, so they’ll just have to impress the playoff committee with their outstanding defense. Let’s call it 30-7 for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

Michigan State (+12½) at No. 7 Penn State (2:30 p.m., ESPN). Like it or not, the Nittany Lions are in the Big Ten title game if they beat the 3-8 Spartans and Ohio State beats Michigan. I don’t know … Sparty has nothing to lose, and there’s a whole lot of unfamiliar pressure on the Nits’ shoulders. Can you tell I want to pick an upset here? PSU by just a field goal.

South Carolina (+24) at No. 4 Clemson (6:30 p.m., ESPN). The Palmetto Bowl is one of those great rivalry games that doesn’t get enough national respect. Of course, it’s better when it’s a fair fight. Tigers 34-17.

No. 22 Utah (+10) at No. 9 Colorado (6:30 p.m., Fox-32). If the out-of-nowhere Buffs win, they’ll take the Pac-12 South crown and head to the league title game. Wouldn’t that be a trip? Utes in a dream-dasher.

No. 15 Florida (+7½) at No. 14 Florida State (7 p.m., Ch. 7). The Gators know they’re not beating Alabama in the SEC title game, so why not give their best shot to rival FSU? For the disappointing Seminoles, it’s a chance to take out some pent-up frustrations. FSU 24-20.

My favorite favorite: Oregon (-3) at Oregon State (3 p.m., PAC12). The Ducks finally found themselves in last week’s upset victory at Utah. A ninth straight year of Civil War despair for the Beavers.

My favorite underdog: Kentucky (+27) at No. 11 Louisville (11 a.m., ESPN). Yes, I know this isn’t basketball. The Wildcats went .500 in the SEC this season. They’re sneaky-kinda-good.

Last week: 2-5 straight-up, 2-5 vs. the spread

Season to date: 55-31 straight-up; 46-37-3 vs. the spread.

THE LOCALS

Northern Illinois at Kent State

The facts:Friday, 11 a.m., CBSSN; 560-AM.

The records: Northern Illinois 4-7, 4-3 MAC; Kent State 3-8, 2-5 MAC.

The line: Huskies by 5.

The story line: How does yet another starting quarterback sound, Huskies fans? It’s freshman Daniel Santacaterina’s turn to take a whack at running the offense. He did a very nice job in last week’s comeback win over Eastern Michigan after Ryan Graham got hurt. Man — four starting QBs in one season for this hard-luck team. What a long, strange trip it has been

Greenberg’s pick:Kent State, 27-17.

Illinois at Northwestern

The facts:11 a.m., BTN; 670-AM, 720-AM.

The records: Illinois 3-8, 2-6 Big Ten; Northwestern 5-6, 4-4 Big Ten.

The line:Wildcats by 15½.

The story line: The IIlini have been beyond awful of late. The only thing left for them now is the slim chance of playing their very best football and discovering that it’s just good enough to beat rival Northwestern and keep the Wildcats from reaching a bowl game. There’s actually a bit of pressure on Pat Fitzgerald’s team in this one, when you really think about it. Will the Wildcats’ star receiver, Austin Carr, play after his concussion last week?

Greenberg’s pick:Northwestern, 27-13.

Notre Dame at No.12 USC

The facts: 2:30 p.m., Ch. 7; 890-AM.

The records: Notre Dame 4-7; USC 8-3, 7-2 Pac-12.

The line: Trojans by 17.

The story line: Can the Irish find four quarters of sustainable motivation for this game? Even if they can, will it matter? The Trojans, led by outstanding quarterback Sam Darnold (an early-early favorite for the 2017 Heisman Trophy) and a defense that has been absolutely stifling, are playing as well as any team outside of Alabama. Brian Kelly never thought he’d face odds as long as these at Notre Dame.

Greenberg’s pick:USC, 41-20.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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