I'll never forget when Jim Tressel was introduced as the head coach at Ohio State. At halftime of an Ohio State-Michigan basketball game, he told the crowd, "I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Mich."
That comment speaks volumes about the intensity of Saturday's rivalry game (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
Tressel knew what he had to do to be considered successful in the eyes of Buckeyes fans, and he has succeeded, earning a 4-1 record against Michigan.
This year's edition features a number of intriguing matchups. Both quarterbacks -- No. 1 Ohio State's Troy Smith and No. 2 Michigan's Chad Henne -- have evolved dramatically since they last met on the field. Smith has developed into the total quarterback with his poise; he is calm and comfortable in the pocket.
Chad Henne, who was hampered by poor decision making in the past, has cut down on his sacks while increasing his completion percentage.
Both quarterbacks have stepped up their games in hostile environments: Smith at Texas, Henne at Notre Dame.
As good as these quarterbacks are, neither will be asked to win this game by himself. Both benefit from their talented teammates.
Running back Mike Hart opens up the passing game for Michigan and is the difference between the 2005 edition of the Wolverines and the current edition.
Henne also has three big targets in Mario Manningham (who has been hampered by an injury), Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington. Smith, meanwhile, relies on game-breaker Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and running back Antonio Pittman.
But for all the attention each team's offense receives, the defenses might be better: Michigan ranks first in the nation in rush defense, third in total defense and fifth in scoring defense.
The Wolverines boasts powerful defenders and one of the country's top special teams units. There is a lot of hidden yardage to be gained in the return game, and both Ginn and Breaston have the ability to take it all the way.
Ohio State is also nationally ranked; the Buckeyes are No. 1 in scoring defense, and in the top 10 for pass efficiency and total defense. The Buckeyes are opportunistic, and the key for Michigan will be pounding the ball.
This game will be decided in the small plays and the plays people don't expect; each team might receive only one or two chances to make a difference to decide the game. Preparation is crucial for a game of this magnitude, and much of the responsibility for getting the team up to speed will fall on the scout team. It must do a good job of executing so the starters know what to expect and how to handle every situation.
There is only so much you can do on the field to prepare your team for a rivalry game, but there are many things you can do off the field to get your players in the right mind-set. Of the tactics I have employed as a coach in this situation, here are a few of my favorites:
1. The night before the game, have players stand up and say who they are going to play the game for and dedicate the game ball to -- a parent, friend, coach -- someone who inspires them to play their hearts out. You can't use this every year, but it can be an effective strategy.
2. On your team's bulletin board, post everything that has been written in the past year about the other team. This always adds a little fuel to the fire.
3. Every coach has his own routine, but one thing I liked to do once a season on a Friday night was gather the team before they went to sleep and talk to them one last time. On every team, there is someone who can imitate the coaches really well -- let them take the stage. It lightens up the mood and shows that the coach is "bustable" and that not everything is super-serious. You want to show the players the human side of the game.
4. A lot can be done between Thursday and Saturday, and it's crucial to separate the players from the hoopla surrounding the game -- this even includes family and friends, who might put undue pressure on the players. Convince your players that they're heading into a test in which they know all the answers, so they'll play the game loose and confident.