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Big-Game Hunting: ‘Angry’ Michigan must come through (finally) vs. Ohio State

It was 2004 the last time — until this week — that Michigan went to Ohio State as a favorite. A Buckeyes team that had lost to Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue fell behind 14-7 before tearing off 27 points in a row. The 37-21 final was one of the bitterest pills the Wolverines had been forced to swallow in this mega-rivalry in a long time.

Fourteen years later, the Wolverines have suffered the unimaginable indignity of a 1-13 stretch in the series. Bitter? And then some.

No. 4 Michigan (-4½) at No. 10 Ohio State (11 a.m. Saturday, Fox-32) has come around again in bigger-than-usual fashion, the top-of-the-marquee game on what annually is the most tradition-soaked Saturday of the season. It’s Rivalry Week, and everything from the Iron Bowl to the Apple Cup is falling in line behind The Game.

The Wolverines are 60 minutes — and a victory against Northwestern a week later in the Big Ten title game — from the College Football Playoff. The Buckeyes, likewise with only one loss, are in the hunt for all of the above, too.

It gets no bigger than Saturday for Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. (AP)

But Michigan — since falling at Notre Dame in the season opener — comes in looking like the far more complete team. Its hell-on-wheels defense ranks No. 1 in the country, a formidable test for the Buckeyes’ No. 2-ranked offense. The Wolverines have a dependable running game and — finally — a quarterback to match Ohio State’s. Shea Patterson vs. Dwayne Haskins will be riveting theater.

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And then there’s the Jim Harbaugh-Urban Meyer matchup. Harbaugh, the alum returned to restore the glory in Ann Arbor, is 0-3 against the school — and the iconic coach — he was hired to beat. Another loss would be catastrophic for a team bent on revenge.

‘‘Anger has proven to be a powerful motivator,’’ Harbaugh said.

The Wolverines aren’t hiding from the implications of this one. They expect to win.

‘‘That’s how I feel,’’ running back Karan Higdon said. ‘‘I believe firmly in my brothers, this team and this coaching staff. As a captain, I’ll take that stand.’’

It’s time for a change. Michigan, 27-21.

The Jeweled Shillelagh

It’s an odd trophy name and a rivalry oddity, considering No. 3 Notre Dame (-10½) at USC (7 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 7)
joins schools a couple of thousand miles apart and has zero conference implications.

The unbeaten Irish need one more victory to break into the playoff, though. It’s kind of a big deal.

‘‘We had three goals this year,’’ coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘Beat Michigan, win all of our games at home and then win the month of November. So that will be the primary focus. All that other stuff will take care of itself.’’

Kelly is 5-3 against USC, and failing to add one in the ‘‘W’’ column would mean arguably the worst loss of his career. The Trojans are 5-6. Their coach, Clay Helton, is awash in rumors that he’ll be replaced as soon as the dust settles on a devastating season.

A freshman quarterback, JT Daniels, shouldn’t be able to solve this rugged, nasty Irish defense. A Trojans run defense that was dominated last week by the crosstown weaklings from UCLA ought not to have a chance against the Irish’s gung-ho offensive line and top-drawer running back Dexter Williams. How the Trojans will cover Notre Dame’s elite fleet of receivers is anyone’s guess.

An upset? USC has talent — it always does — but the Irish are so much better. Call it 34-17 and on to much bigger fish to fry.

Best of the rest

No. 6 Oklahoma (-2½) at No. 12 West Virginia (7 p.m. Friday, ESPN): How big is this one? The winner moves on to the Big 12 title game. If it’s the Sooners, they’ll stay in the playoff argument. If it’s the Mountaineers, they’ll make irrelevant noise about the playoff. Either way, there’s no topping the quarterback matchup of Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and West Virginia’s Will Grier. Hail to West Virginia, 42-35.

No. 16 Washington (+2½) at No. 7 Washington State (7:30 p.m. Friday, Fox-32): The Huskies have won five in a row in the Apple Cup. They were everyone’s Pac-12 favorites heading into the season. Regardless of rankings, this is big brother vs. little brother in the state, with the Pac-12 North title on the line. Yeah, whatever to all that. Wazzu by 10.

Auburn (+24½) at No. 1 Alabama (2:30 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 2): A seeming mismatch in the Iron Bowl is a real letdown, isn’t it? Cam Newton isn’t walking in that door for the Tigers. It’s statement time for the Crimson Tide, and that statement is: ‘‘Wake us when the playoff starts.’’ Bama, 41-20.

My favorite favorite: Wisconsin (-10½) vs. Minnesota (2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2): The Badgers took the load of a disappointing season off their backs with a comeback victory at Purdue in triple overtime last week. Running back Jonathan Taylor rumbles past 2,000 yards here, and the playbook continues to open up for backup quarterback Jack Coan.

My favorite underdog: Virginia Tech (+4½) vs. Virginia (2:30 p.m. Friday, Ch. 7): The Hokies — has a ball bounced their way yet? — have a 25-year bowl streak to extend. And a 15th consecutive Commonwealth Cup game to win.

Last week: 4-3 straight-up, 2-5 against the spread.

Season to date: 60-27 straight-up, 41-43-3 against the spread.

THE LOCALS

ILLINOIS AT NO. 19 NORTHWESTERN

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

The records: Illinois 4-7, 2-6 Big Ten; Northwestern 7-4, 7-1 Big Ten.

The story line:One thing was made clear last weekend as the Wildcats won handily at Minnesota: They weren’t going to ease up on the gas pedal just because they’d already clinched the Big Ten West title and a spot in the league championship game. They’re sure as heck not going to do that with the Illini in town for a visit.

The Illini are, meanwhile, in a delicate state after a humiliating 63-0 loss at home to Iowa.

“We have four wins this year, so that’s reality right now,” embattled coach Lovie Smith said. “We have an opportunity to finish with a good taste in our mouth. The state of the program is disappointing right now, but we see brighter days ahead.”

It’s a sentiment Illini fans have been hearing — from the basketball program, too — for what must feel like forever. Surely, it has gotten pretty old.

Meanwhile, congrats to Northwestern’s seniors. That is, assuming they don’t screw up Senior Day in unforgettable fashion.

“It’s definitely weird saying it’ll be my last game at Ryan Field, especially with two more games coming after this,” quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “But I’ve got a lot of great memories here — especially this year — so it’ll be a pretty cool day.”

The line: Wildcats by 17.

Greenberg’s pick: Northwestern, 38-17.