By Phil Rodriguez
2 Michigan at 3 Ohio State
The biggest game of the week is one of the biggest rivalry matchups of the year, as the Michigan Wolverines head to the Horseshoe to take on their hated rivals the Buckeyes. This Saturday will show college football fans what happens when an unstoppable force collides with an immovable object, as these two quintessentially Big 10 squads duke it out in the most Big 10 way possible: brutal, hard-hitting defense and smash-mouth, “grind-it-out” offense.
At press time, it appears Michigan will still be without starting quarterback Wilton Speight, which brings up big question marks for this Michigan offense after they turned in a fairly pedestrian performance against Indiana last week. They’ll have to fare better than their 57 passing yards they accumulated if they want to win in Columbus, as they’ll have a hard time running the ball on a team allowing only 120 rushing yards per game, good for 18th in the nation. Michigan has leaned very heavily on their rushing attack the entirety of the season, with quarterback Wilton Speight contributing touchdowns here and there between handoffs to De’Veon Smith and Chris Evans. Considering that Ohio State has allowed only four rushing touchdowns all season, the Wolverines will have to do something really special on the ground to score on this defense.
It remains to be seen what Houston transfer John O’Korn can do, though, as we’ve yet to see him really get let loose by coach Jim Harbaugh. He only threw the ball 16 times against Indiana, but his dismal 43.8% completion rate and lack of a touchdown were cause for concern. In relief duty for Speight this season he’s been solid, going 13 of 18 for 114 yards and two touchdowns, although both touchdowns came late in blowout wins for the Wolverines. O’Korn will face a Buckeyes defense allowing a frighteningly low 159.5 yards per game through the air, good for third best in the nation. The Wolverines boast an equally boisterous defense, allowing only 246 yards per game.
Both teams boast potent rushing attacks, as the Wolverines have gained 235 yards per game while amassing 39 touchdowns, while the Buckeyes have pounded it out for 263 yards per game and 30 touchdowns. The slight edge seems to go to Ohio State in the form of J.T. Barrett, as the senior quarterback has been stellar this year. Barrett has been monstrously efficient, completing 63% of his passes for 2304 yards and 24 touchdowns, contributing 722 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. His play should be the edge for the Buckeyes, as well as the home-field advantage.
Ohio State 16 Michigan 14
13 Auburn at 1 Alabama
Although the stakes aren’t as high for this game as they were before Auburn’s Week 11 defeat to Georgia, this year’s Iron Bowl still promises to be as relevant as ever. These two schools run the football better than just about any team in the nation and do it in a fairly similar fashion except for one major difference: how they use their quarterbacks. Sean White, Auburn’s signal-caller, isn’t nearly as mobile as the Crimson Tide’s Jalen Hurts, and is more of a game-management quarterback whose job is predicated on efficiency. White has shown the ability to move in the pocket and burst for a decent gain now and then, but he’s nowhere near the runner that ‘Bama’s QB is. Hurts, who’s amassed 803 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, has more rushing attempts than anyone else on the Tide and has only 47 yards less than running back Damien Harris, the team’s leading rusher.
But White may not even play on Saturday, prompting coach Gus Malzahn to possibly have to make the choice between Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III, neither of whom have thrown more than 25 passes this season. Johnson started against Alabama A&M last week in place of the injured White, throwing the ball decently well but not necessarily showing flashes of brilliance, even against an FCS school. Junior college transfer Franklin III played briefly as well and did not attempt a pass, but showed he’s definitely got the jets and good enough agility to burst through defenses and make a big play. He’s amassed 400 yards on 38 carries this season, including 81 in this last appearance. Watching Franklin play brought back flashes of nimble quarterback Nick Marshall, who led the 2013 Auburn team to an SEC Championship and a national championship appearance. That team pulled off a shocking upset of then first-ranked Alabama with the Tigers’ Chris Davis’ famous (or infamous) “Kick Six,” a moment forever ingrained in Alabama sports fans’ minds. Perhaps starting Franklin could give the Tigers that flashy, fast-moving spread-option offense that once beat the Tide before.
The problem for Auburn, however, is this: no matter who starts for the Tigers, they’ll be facing arguably the most ferocious defense in all of college football. The Tide have allowed a mind-bogglingly low 69 rushing yards and 184 passing yards per game, with only 12 touchdowns scored on this unit all season. Alabama’s defense is a cohesive unit with few players sticking out statistically above the others, but they’re not without their studs. The linebacking unit of Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton have combined for a wild 46 tackles for loss, 18.5 of which have been sacks. Meanwhile, safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison have combined for 11 passes defended and six interceptions, two of which have been returned for touchdowns. This team has forced 20 turnovers on the season but has also given it up 17 times, which was is what really gives Auburn a chance. If the Tigers can hold on to the ball and force Alabama to turn the ball over even once, they could have a good chance here.
That being said, as much as I’d like to see Goliath fall I don’t see any way it could happen here. Between the game being in Tuscaloosa, Auburn’s quarterback shuffle, and the Tide’s defense rolling better than perhaps they ever have, it seems almost a certainty the Tide will slip into the SEC Championship game against Florida unscathed.
Alabama 27 Auburn 14