COLUMBUS - There's an aura of pending celebration here today, with Ohio State's second-ranked Buckeyes a 41/2-point favorite over Michigan in Ohio Stadium.
From the Capitol City, if all goes as planned, OSU will travel on to Tempe, Ariz., and participate in the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan.3.
It's a done deal - unless history repeats itself for the fifth time in the last decade. Then OSU will be done in again, its hopes and dreams pillaged by those marauders from Michigan.
Four times over the last 10 years UM has prevented the Buckeyes from earning Rose Bowl berths, spoiling unbeaten seasons and possible national championship quests on three of those occasions.
“We get reminded of that constantly, but we stay focused,” OSU linebacker Cie Grant said. “This isn't the '90s anymore. We're trying to start something new around here. We want to be known as a team that played the whole season out and finished things off.”
The 21st century didn't get off to a blazing start for the Buckeyes in their rivalry with UM, with the Drew Henson-led Wolverines winning 38-26 in 2000. But the Bucks, who have seen Michigan prevail 12 times in the last 17 years, are on a one-win roll under second-year coach Jim Tressel.
Ohio State (12-0, 7-0) gained its first victory in Ann Arbor since 1987 last season, Tressel's freshman year as OSU's mentor.
The Buckeyes have heard, with agonizing regularity, how fortunate they've been in recent games, with narrow escapes from certain devastation, but they're also aware that the Wolverines have had their share of luck, too.
Michigan has five victories in games decided by seven points or less this season. UM is 4-1 in contests decided by three points or less.
The Bucks are also mindful that UM's kicking game has been borderline pathetic (8-of-20 in field-goal attempts), and if the outcome comes down to special-teams play, it's the Bucks in a rout. OSU kicker Mike Nugent has made more field goals (24-of-26) than the Buckeyes' 12 opponents have attempted this season (20).
Ohio State is also aware that Michigan's rushing attack, though improved over last season, still ranks ninth in the Big Ten, and tailback Chris Perry is running on 11/2 good ankles.
But if you're the Buckeyes, you're probably saying, “None of that matters. This is Michigan, 9-2, 6-1, ranked 12th and mighty dangerous if for no other reason than they've been our constant nemesis in recent years. Take them lightly and they'll probably take us out.”
“I think [Ohio State] might have a little more pressure. But when the game starts, both teams will be thinking about only one thing,” said Michigan strong safety Charles Drake.
Ohio State senior co-captain Donnie Nickey has been through it all. He knows what to expect. He's not taking anything for granted.
“The danger lies in getting caught up in the [hoopla], thinking we're more than we are, greater than we are, taking for granted all the hard work we've done,” he said.
“We've been taught well enough, and I think myself and the other seniors have been around to see both sides of the story, the winning and losing of this game. We've passed along our knowledge to the younger guys. The collective attitude on this team is such that we're focused enough. We're not going to get caught up in the hype.”
No one from the Buckeye Nation wants to consider the ramifications of an OSU loss today, but the download could be significant.
“You know, we're one loss away from [going to] the Capital One [former Citrus] Bowl, whatever it may be, and we've been that way for a few weeks now,” Ohio State linebacker Matt Wilhelm said.
Ohio State can't capture an outright Big Ten title. If the Buckeyes win today they will have to share that with Iowa, which already has finished 8-0 in the conference.
A loss today would knock the Bucks back into a second-place tie with Michigan and probably out of a BCS Bowl invitation. It would abate a 12-game winning streak and heighten the hatred even more for “that school up North” for demolishing still another dream.
“We've been in close enough games that people know we're going to fight to the end, especially with the Ohio State-Michigan game,” Grant exclaimed. “You're going to get more out of us.”
And bowl games and the BCS aside, this still is a huge rivalry game. Winning or losing is an end in itself.
Or as UM tight end Benny Joppru put it: “Michigan-Ohio State. The last game of the year. It makes or breaks your season.”