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November 21, 2012Saturday's matchup is not a preview of the Big Ten Championship, but for the Buckeyes it could be the culmination of an undefeated season that ushers in a new era of Ohio State football, and maybe, just maybe, leads to an AP national title.
Technically, the Scarlet and Gray are still eligible for the Associated Press title even though NCAA sanctions stemming from the tattoo-gate scandal forfeited OSU's postseason and standing in the BCS/Coaches polls.
It wouldn't be unprecedented for the AP to vote a No. 1 team that didn't claim the BCS crown - it did just that with Southern Cal during the 2003 season - but it does seem unlikely, with Ohio State ranking only fourth in the country right now despite the fact that it is still perfect at 11-0.
"I think it's a long shot because of the fact that they won't play in the Big Ten Championship or a bowl game and everyone else will, and there's not really a lot of talk that anyone feels the need to reward Ohio State this season even if it finished 12-0," BuckeyeGrove.com beat writer Ben Axelrod said.
"The fans don't really care what everyone else thinks. This is about going 12-0, beating Michigan to do it, having that special season in Urban Meyer's first year, and sort of that signal of what's to come."
Michigan has played the spoiler role before - beating an undefeated Ohio State team in the season finale of 1996, 1995, 1993 and 1969 campaigns - and while the Wolverines won't be motivated simply to ruin the Scarlet and Gray's fun, it is a welcome outcome.
For the Buckeyes, meeting the Maize and Blue opposite the line of scrimmage will actually help with their focus because the motivation for The Game trumps any emphasis on finishing with an unblemished mark and what that could mean later in the season.
"You saw last week at Kansas State and Oregon, going undefeated is hard to do," said Meyer, trying to dismiss such talk, for now. "We've just talked about winning this game. We're not talking about what everybody is going to think a week from now, two weeks from now."
"If we come out and get a win, then yeah, I'm sure we'll have a lot of opinions about the AP but we're sticking to what we've done all year, and that's take each game one at a time," senior linebacker Zach Boren added.
"If we're 0-11, it'd still be a huge game, and that's the way we're looking at it. It's the biggest game of the year no matter what."
The Buckeyes' road to perfection has not been easy this year - Ohio State clipped California 35-28 when it scored a touchdown with only 3:26 remaining; barely held on for a 17-16 win over Michigan State; outlasted Indiana 52-49; scored with three seconds remaining (and converted a two-point conversion) to force overtime against Purdue; and added another extra-session win last week at Wisconsin.
But its success in close games is also what makes OSU special in 2012. Ohio State is finding ways to win.
"It may be improbable but I don't think Ohio State has been lucky," Axelrod said. "Look at Notre Dame - they're winning a lot of close games to stay unbeaten - and Ohio State is the same way. They're making those key plays late in games that the opponent isn't making."
Last year's game was decided by only six points, with U-M snapping its seven-game losing streak to the Buckeyes with a 40-34 win. Prior to that, the 2006 (42-39) and 2005 (25-21) contests were also decided by a touchdown or less, and Saturday, The Game could once again come down to the wire.