By MITCH STACY, AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — No. 8 Ohio State’s national championship hopes seemed to dissipate in the cold Iowa evening when the Buckeyes were inexplicably throttled by the unranked Hawkeyes on Nov. 4. A two-loss team has never made the College Football Playoff in the three seasons of its existence.
But a narrow path has opened that could see the Buckeyes (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten, CFP No. 9) work their way back into the final four. That would require robust victories over unranked Michigan at Ann Arbor on Saturday and against No. 5 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 2. Other teams would have to create some chaos in the rankings for Ohio State to move up, but it’s happened before.
The next hurdle just happens to be the 114th version of the rivalry game against “that team up north.” In Columbus, beating Michigan transcends win-loss records and defines legacies. Same in Ann Arbor.
So there will be no playoff talk at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center this week. Coach Urban Meyer is demanding a “laser focus” on preparing for the Wolverines, who have lost to the Buckeyes in each of the first five seasons of Meyer’s tenure.
Beating Michigan is in the DNA of the program, Meyer said, and the many Buckeyes players from out of state quickly learn the importance of the rivalry.
“I would say darn near every day you’re here you get reminded of this game,” Meyer said. “From coach (Mickey Marotti) in the offseason to myself during spring ball and training camp, we have periods devoted to this game during practice. I mean, there would have to be something wrong with you not to figure this one out.”
Meyer said that in previous coaching stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida, he had to learn about the traditional rivalries and what they meant. Because he grew up a Buckeyes fan in Ashtabula, Ohio, he already knew what was coming every year in late November.
“This one is very personal,” he said.
“It’s the biggest rivalry game in college football, so there’s always a little bit more added to it,” said Ohio State tackle and Chicago native Jamarco Jones. “It means a lot to a lot of people.”
Last year’s double-overtime 30-27 win by No. 6 Ohio State over No. 10 Michigan in Columbus helped pave the way to the College Football Playoff for the Buckeyes, even though they didn’t make it to the conference championship game.
The game moves to Ann Arbor this year, but the location hardly matters to the players.
“I love it, because there’s nothing like beating a team but also beating the will out of their fans,” Ohio State linebacker Chris Worley said of playing in the Big House.
There are no playoff hopes for Michigan (8-3, 5-3), but a win over the Buckeyes would be a first for third-year coach Jim Harbaugh. And an upset of the hated Buckeyes would be a salve to players and fans in another mediocre season.
“I haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here,” said Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, a fifth-year senior. “So I think it’s just such a big opportunity just to get to play them and try to grind out a win by any means necessary.”
Harbaugh witnessed his first Ohio State-Michigan game in 1973, and then he went on to play quarterback for the Wolverines from 1983-86.
“It’s our team’s opportunity,” he said, “to put that exclamation point on the season.”
More AP college football at http://www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy
(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)