Michigan-Ohio State will have unrivaled impact on playoffs

It seems Jim Harbaugh isn’t too interested in talking about the past.

Specifically, he doesn’t warm to questions about the time, 30 years ago, when he was playing quarterback for Michigan and guaranteed a victory over Ohio State.

Now that Harbaugh is coaching the Wolverines, how would he react if one of his players did that?

“I’ll just say I’m not into hypotheticals,” he replied. “Thanks for asking the hypothetical question, though.”

That bit of history isn’t lost on Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer, who was a graduate assistant on the Buckeyes staff when Harbaugh made his 1986 prediction.

 “I actually remember it very well,” Meyer said.

This season, no one from either side of the rivalry has uttered any brash statements. Maybe they don’t need to — “The Game” is drawing more than enough attention on its own.

The winner between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan will go a long way to determining not only the Big Ten Conference championship but also the final four spots in the College Football Playoff.

Simply put, Saturday’s matchup at Ohio Stadium ranks as the most important rivalry in the country this season.

“Everyone knows what kind of game it is,” said Kyle Kalis, a Michigan offensive lineman. “It doesn’t need to be said.”

First things first. The Wolverines and Buckeyes must do their part to help untangle a convoluted Big Ten championship race.

They are part of a three-way tie with No. 8 Penn State in the conference’s East division. Michigan is the only team that controls its destiny with a win, but could be playing Saturday without injured quarterback Wilton Speight.

Ohio State must win and have Penn State lose. Penn State must defeat Michigan State and have Michigan lose.

Got all that?

 “It is surreal to a point where if you sit down and think about it, it’s incredible,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. “But taking care of the next game is the only way we’ll be able to have that opportunity.”

The situation is a little clearer in the West, where No. 6 Wisconsin and No. 16 Nebraska are the only teams with a shot at the title game. The Badgers will go if they defeat Minnesota.

Nebraska needs a Wisconsin loss, and will have to get past Iowa with its top two quarterbacks injured and potentially unable to play.

Remember, that’s the same Iowa team that upset Michigan two weeks ago.

“We’ll need our best defense for sure,” Nebraska Coach Mike Riley said.

Though the Big Ten jumble should be fun to watch, it really just serves as a warm-up for the bigger national story.

Top-ranked Alabama continues to look like the closest thing to a lock with a chance to remain undefeated if it can take care of business against No. 13 Auburn. No. 4 Clemson has clinched a trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game but must finish its regular-season schedule against South Carolina.

No. 5 Washington remains in the hunt but faces a challenge in the Apple Cup against No. 23 Washington State.

After that, a hodgepodge of two-loss teams — including Wisconsin, Penn State, No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 9 Colorado, No. 10 Oklahoma State — could jump up the CFP rankings.

Even No. 12 USC is getting mentioned as a longshot to make the playoff with three losses if the deck gets sufficiently reshuffled.

Any sort of  major change would begin with Michigan and Ohio State and an annual meeting that dates back to 1897. The animosity is such that some Ohio State fans — as well as coaches and players — hesitate to utter their rival’s name, calling it “that school up north.”

The weather could play a factor this weekend, the forecast calling for temperatures in the mid-40s with a slight chance of precipitation in Columbus.

Inclement conditions would put an onus on the run game, which would help the Wolverines if they must go without Speight. Backup quarterback John O’Korn looked less than impressive against Indiana last week.

Defense has been key for both teams. Michigan ranks first nationally and Ohio State is fourth.

Their regular-season finale hasn’t seen this kind of hype in a long time, in part because the Buckeyes have won four in a row and 12 of the last 15 in the series, not counting a 2010 victory that was vacated because of NCAA violations.

Still, Meyer dismisses any talk of imbalance.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever considered a gap,” he said, adding: “And if there is, it doesn’t matter.”

Harbaugh knows his team will face a challenge in containing Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett and said he expects a “big, healthy, fair, honest, loud, boisterous environment” inside Ohio Stadium.

Asked if this season’s matchup — with all of college football watching — might be a good thing for the Big Ten, he replied: “Probably good.”

“Is that an obvious question?” he continued. “Was I missing something there?”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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