-- EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A funny thing nearly happened on the way to The Game we've all been waiting for.
Both No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan almost spit the bit. The Buckeyes had to intercept a two-point conversion try at Michigan State to escape with a 17-16 victory, while the Wolverines trailed Indiana into the third quarter before pulling away at home.
Whew. What a downer it would have been if both teams had suffered their second losses of the season on the Saturday before their long-awaited showdown (ABC, noon ET). ESPN's planned five-hour "College GameDay" extravaganza from Columbus would have needed a sad trombone soundtrack.
But both teams stayed alive in the College Football Playoff chase. It was survive and advance, Big Ten football style. And now we can finally look ahead to a potentially epic confrontation.
"It's going to be intense," Ohio State defensive end Jalyn Holmes said. "The Game of the Century."
Well, The Game of the Decade, perhaps. The 2006 meeting, when the Buckeyes and Wolverines were 1-2 in the rankings, will be hard to top. This year's version also brings back memories of 1997, when both teams ranked in the top four, and a do-it-all defensive back (Charles Woodson) led Michigan to a national title en route to winning the Heisman Trophy.
This will be the first time in a decade that Big Ten and national championship stakes ride on this rivalry. It feels like we've been headed for this since Jim Harbaugh was hired on Dec. 30, 2014. Two days later, Ohio State beat Alabama on its way to a national title.
For all the hoopla and hard-earned success Harbaugh has already brought to Ann Arbor, he ultimately will be judged on whether he can beat Ohio State. His first time around didn't go so well, as the Buckeyes won 42-13 last year in the Big House. Michigan has lost 11 of the last 12 in this series.
But Harbaugh has the maize and blue back on more equal footing with the Buckeyes. One of the best Big Ten parlor games this year has been comparing scores between the two superpowers. Michigan beat Wisconsin by seven at home. Ohio State needed overtime to beat Wisconsin by seven on the road. The Wolverines trounced Rutgers 78-0, one week after the Buckeyes stomped the Scarlet Knights 58-0. Ohio State hammered Maryland 62-3, exactly three points better than Michigan's results against the same Terrapins a week earlier.
Now these teams can finally measure up against each other. In the waning moments against Indiana, the Big House crowd starting chanting, "Beat Ohio!" (At least something remains from the Brady Hoke era.)
"Ohio State and Michigan, the greatest rivalry in sports, how can it not be in the back of your mind from right after the day you played last year?" Michigan senior defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow said. "I wouldn't hesitate to say that's the biggest game we play in every year.
"It's awesome when [the Big Ten title and playoff] comes down to that. It puts a little oomph in it."
Neither team aced the playoff eyeball test on Saturday while playing about 70 miles apart. But November weather emphatically arrived in the state of Michigan, bringing wet, blustery conditions best-suited for old-school football. In East Lansing, 30 mph wind gusts made bubble-screen lobs float like bubbles.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer ran J.T. Barrett 24 times into the teeth of a defense that knew what was coming, while Ohio State mustered just 86 passing yards.
"We'll lose next week if we play like that," Meyer said.
The Buckeyes have had some passing game issues this season and must find ways to throw against the nation's top pass defense, led by All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis. Then again, Michigan must deal with an Ohio State defense that grabbed two more interceptions on Saturday (17 for the season) and another pick that didn't officially count, on Michigan State's two-point try. The Wolverines may again be without injured quarterback Wilton Speight; John O'Korn started against Indiana and struggled to connect with his receivers through snow flurries.
There are plenty of compelling storylines to go around. The Big Ten's most versatile offensive player (Ohio State H-back Curtis Samuel) goes against its most versatile all-around player (Michigan's do-everything LB? Jabrill Peppers, who modeled his game on Woodson). OSU redshirt freshman RB? Mike Weber, whose recruiting battle between the teams sparked Harbaugh's infamous "tangled web we weave" tweet, makes his debut in the rivalry. The Big Ten's East Division could be decided on the field, or both teams could stay home and watch Penn State go to Indianapolis.
Add it all up, and the usual craziness that already is Michigan-Ohio State week will be ratcheted up to an 11 out of 10.
"I've never been in a top-five Michigan game," Holmes said. "But we could either both be in the top five or we could both be 0-11. It's still going to be intense."
Saturday's struggles will be relegated to a mere footnote if Michigan and Ohio State stage a thriller next week in the Horseshoe. The Game we've all been waiting for is almost here.
"It's officially rivalry week," Meyer said. "Our eyes are forward, and let's go."