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Who to root for, Michigan or Ohio State?

Depends on what kind of person you are.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern has had the Big Ten West locked up for nearly two weeks now, though its opponent in the Big Ten Championship is still yet to be determined. That will change after this week, however.

Michigan plays Ohio State in Columbus in a de facto play-in game for the Big Ten Championship, a game that pits the No. 4 Wolverines and the No. 10 Buckeyes. If Michigan wins, it will retain the inside track to the College Football Playoff barring anything crazy, and, if Ohio State wins, it will have an outside chance at the Playoff and will likely need some help to get in.

With that in mind, who would Northwestern rather play?

The case for Ohio State

If you’ve watched both Ohio State and Michigan this season, Michigan has undoubtedly been better. The Buckeyes probably could’ve lost to Nebraska, probably should’ve lost to Maryland and got blown out by Purdue. Michigan, meanwhile, lost to now-third-ranked Notre Dame in Week One and has handled its business in Big Ten play — its tightest game was Northwestern, which looks better and better.

The stats back it up; Michigan has been better than Ohio State this season.

Michigan vs. Ohio State S&P+ rankings

Team Overall S&P+ Offensive S&P+ Defensive S&P+ Strength of schedule Special teams S&P+
Team Overall S&P+ Offensive S&P+ Defensive S&P+ Strength of schedule Special teams S&P+
Michigan 4 23 2 37 15
Ohio State 8 5 38 74 34

Michigan also ranks higher in Sagarin ratings, and S&P+ gives the Wolverines a 61 percent chance to win in Columbus Saturday.

Notably, Ohio State’s defense has been shoddy all season, which would give likely Northwestern’s offense plenty of chances. The Buckeyes have given up an uncharacteristic amount of explosive plays this season, ranking No. 122 nationally in IsoPPP, which measures explosiveness. Explosive plays aren’t really Northwestern’s forte, but the point stands. Clayton Thorson & Co. would be able to move the ball.

Michigan’s defensive line absolutely dominated Northwestern’s offensive line when NU played Michigan played earlier this season, and the speed of players like Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary would have even more of an effect on the indoor turf at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Plus, playing Michigan a second time could spell trouble. Northwestern’s win expectancy against Michigan was 19 percent at home, so, in a stadium mostly filled with Wolverine fans in Indianapolis, regression to the mean would be a possibility, and would result in a greater margin of victory for Michigan.

The case for Michigan

If you’re a realist, you probably want the Wolverines to win. Because, the truth is, Northwestern will ~probably~ lose to either Michigan or Ohio State. That’s not to say NU can’t keep the games close or can’t win, but it’s unlikely. Every statistic and every metric says the Wildcats would be heavy underdogs.

So, if you think Northwestern will likely lose, then Michigan is the team you’d rather face as an NU fan. If Michigan wins out, it will be in the College Football Playoff (unless Georgia beats Alabama, which would create some insanity, but that seems unlikely). From Northwestern’s perspective, it’s preferable for a Big Ten team to get into the playoff because it would slot theoretically slot NU in a better bowl game. If no Big Ten team makes the playoff, that pushes NU down in the bowl pecking order.

The difference between bowls like Citrus, Outback and Holiday isn’t massive, but it’s not insignificant either. Playing in a more marquee bowl and getting more exposure will always be beneficial.

And, if you feel that Northwestern keeping the game close against Michigan earlier this season was indicative of a relatively close gap between the teams (and you don’t put stock in what the advanced stats say about that game), then you’d probably prefer Michigan, a team that doesn’t have the explosive offensive playmakers that Ohio State does.

The upshot

If you’re an optimist, and think NU has a good chance to win the Big Ten Championship, you should root for Ohio State because the Buckeyes probably aren’t quite as good as the Wolverines.

If you think NU will lose regardless, you should root for Michigan.

The thing is, though, the difference between the non-New Year’s Six bowls is much smaller than the difference between the Rose Bowl and and the Citrus Bowl, for example. Going to the Rose Bowl would be much more memorable and historic for Northwestern, and would give NU far more exposure than any of the other bowls. So, on the whole, increasing the chances of the Rose Bowl, no matter what the playoff and conference implications are, is probably the most preferable option.

Northwestern won’t play in the Big Ten Championship all that often, so rooting for a good chance at a slightly better bowl, as opposed to a slightly better chance at a significantly better bowl, feels too pessimistic for me, even if it’s probably statistically optimal.

What that means, then, is that you should probably root for Ohio State to beat Michigan (even if it means rooting for Urban Meyer, which is admittedly difficult).