Game of the Century II: Michigan-Ohio State at stake like 2006

ANN ARBOR — A few weeks ago, a few days before Michigan was scheduled to play Nebraska, Michigan assistant coach Mike Hart was asked about possible similarities between this season’s Michigan-Ohio State game and the 2006 matchup.

He laughed. “A little early for that,” he said. “When we’re there, we’re there. We have to win the next two.”

What seemed inevitable for a while has come true. Michigan and Ohio State, unbeaten and considered one of the best teams in the country, meet in Columbus on Saturday.

It’s 2006 again, with a major shift in the college football landscape set to tower over Saturday’s game.

Sixteen years ago, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, No. 2 Michigan visited No. 1 State Ohio. Both teams were tied 11-0 and had their sights set on a spot in the BCS national championship game.

At the start of this season, Michigan and Ohio State were considered the top two teams in the Big Ten. This was before the conference had a championship game, and many expected their meeting to determine the league’s champion.

Their schedules weren’t exactly scary leading up to The Game. After September, neither Michigan nor Ohio State played a team that finished in the top 25.

Oddsmen made the Buckeyes favorites by 6.5 points.

On November 18, it was 45 degrees when the game started at 12:00 p.m. ET at Ohio Stadium. Hart, then a junior running back, opened the scoring with a one-yard touchdown run. He finished for Michigan with 142 yards on 23 carries and three touchdowns.

It wasn’t enough.

The Wolverines lost 42-39 in an instant classic that lived up to its tremendous hype.

Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith sealed his Heisman Trophy campaign. Hart ended up in fifth place in the vote.

The bigger story, however, was that Ohio State had earned a spot in the national title game while Michigan stayed in the mix.

“If that was boxing, they would definitely get a rematch,” Ohio State defense attorney Brandon Mitchell said, according to the AP Game Story.

All of this should look very familiar to you.

Although The Game is now played on Saturday after Thanksgiving, Michigan and Ohio State are both 11-0 for the first time since 2006. The Buckeyes are number 2; Michigan is No. 3.

The rivals entered the season as predicted best in the Big Ten and delivered. They’ve also been navigating relatively easy schedules lately, with each team playing only one Big Ten team ranked at the time of the matchup.

Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud starts this weekend as a Heisman frontrunner; Michigan has a running back, Blake Corum, who is also a contender.

Ohio State is a 7.5-point favorite in the game. The winner stays alive for a national championship. The forecast maximum temperature for Columbus on Saturday is 45 degrees.

So much of this year’s matchup is similar to what happened in 2006.

And when the game is competitive again, there will likely be debate over the fate of the loser.

This time there is the College Football Playoff with four teams. The Michigan-Ohio State winner will claim the Big Ten East and be heavily favored in the conference title game the following Saturday, putting them in a great position to make the playoffs. The loser has a case.

Tuesday’s playoff rankings will likely retain the same four teams from last week: Georgia at No. 1, followed by Ohio State, Michigan and TCU.

USC, fifth in Sunday’s AP poll, could be No. 5 in the next playoff rankings. Regardless, experts believe the Trojans are in best position to earn a playoff bid – ahead of loser Michigan-Ohio State – if they beat Notre Dame on Saturday and the Pac-12 championship the following week to win. LSU would be considered with a win over Georgia in the SEC title game.

In other words, there will be lively debate between fan bases and playoff selection committee members.

In 2006, AP voters were so impressed with Michigan’s performance in Columbus that they kept the Wolverines in second place after the loss, ahead of USC, Florida and Arkansas. What mattered, however, was the BCS rankings, and USC skipped Michigan. Florida beat Arkansas in the SEC championship the following week to put the Gators in 2nd place, one spot ahead of Michigan.

It gave Florida a crack against the Buckeyes in the national championship game. As the Gators dominated to win the title, there was little dispute as to whether they belonged.

Michigan went to the Rose Bowl and was set on fire in the second half by a loss to USC.

It was disappointing for Hart, who had voiced his opinion after Michigan’s loss to Ohio State. “I guarantee if we play (again at Ohio State) it would be a very different game,” he said. “We should have gotten them the first time. We are not. If (the rematch) doesn’t happen, it’s our fault.”

Michigan was denied a Big Ten title and more when it lost in Columbus in 2006. Hart, now coach, is preparing the Wolverines for another Game of the Century.

If the result is different, he doesn’t have to fight for his players to have a chance at a national title. You will undoubtedly deserve it.