COLUMBUS, OHIO (AP) - All that separates Ohio State from a season for the ages is a contest so big that everyone simply calls it “The Game.”
Just five teams in the program’s 122 previous years have gone through a campaign unbeaten and untied. The Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) can become the sixth Saturday when they take on archrival Michigan.
Perfection is exceedingly rare, whether for a baseball pitcher, a pearl or a college football team.
“That’s the goal for every team. I mean, why not?” said former NFL and Ohio State All-American offensive lineman Jim Lachey, now a radio analyst for Buckeyes games. “Everybody dreams about that opportunity.”
Since the schools officially saved the best for last and moved their biggest game to the end of the schedule in 1935, Ohio State has carried a perfect record into the Michigan game 12 times, going 8-3-1.
Some believe that it is more difficult to run the table and win every game now than ever before, due to scholarship limits, spread-the-wealth conferences and even small schools getting a chance to appear regularly on television.
Just last week many experts already had Kansas State and Oregon in the national championship game, virtually conceding that they would win the rest of their games and put up unblemished records.
Instead, they both lost, leaving No. 1 Notre Dame and fourth-ranked Ohio State as the only major unbeatens left in the country.
“You saw last week with Kansas State and Oregon that it’s hard to do,” first-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. “It’s a credit to a bunch of players and assistant coaches who keep that focus in spite of all the distractions. It’s such a credit to this team to be in the position they’re in. It’s hard. It’s real hard.”
Ohio State, of course, is trying to preserve its perfect season. But is Michigan motivated by trying to ruin it?
Marcus Ray, a former Wolverines player who is from Columbus, knows a little bit about both sides of it. He played for the last unbeaten and untied Michigan team to beat Ohio State, in 1997. Coach Lloyd Carr’s team went on to win The Associated Press national championship.
Ray also played strong safety on teams that twice demolished perfect seasons by Ohio State, the Buckeyes‘ second-ranked squads that were 11-0 in 1995 and 10-0 a year later.
“It heightens the stakes and makes the game more entertaining to watch because it adds more fuel to the fire,” Ray said of having an undefeated team in The Game. “It works against the undefeated team in a rivalry game. If you win, you were supposed to win. If you lose, your rival can say they knocked you off your high horse.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke said neither team’s record matters in such an emotional game.
“It doesn’t, to be honest with you,” he said. “If you need anything to get amped up more for this football game, then you don’t know college football and you don’t understand the importance of this great rivalry.”