ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Even without a trip to the national title game at stake, Ohio State-Michigan is huge.
Ohio State's hopes of returning to the BCS title game took a hit last week with its first loss of the season. The seventh-ranked Buckeyes still have plenty to play for Saturday at the Big House against No. 23 Michigan.
With a win, Ohio State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) would:
- match its longest winning streak in the rivalry at four straight.
- win a third straight conference championships, including consecutive outright titles for the first time in a half-century.
- likely earn a spot in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997.
``It isn't the BCS championship game, but the tradition of the Rose Bowl is great and we hope to be a part of that greatness,'' punter A.J. Trapasso said. ``It would be nice to finish the season in that bowl.''
Michigan (8-3, 6-1) is desperately hoping to play in Pasadena for the fourth time in five years, quite a prize for a team that opened the season with a stunning loss to Appalachian State and blowout loss to Oregon.
The Wolverines star senior trio of quarterback Chad Henne, running back Mike Hart and offensive lineman Jake Long have never beaten Ohio State. Coach Lloyd Carr is trying to avoid becoming the first Michigan coach to lose six of seven games in the series that dates to 1897.
``You get tired of hearing `Oh, they can't beat Ohio State,''' safety Brandent Englemon acknowledged. ``It's getting old.''
That's certainly true for Henne, Hart and Long, as well as Michigan's 62-year-old coach.
Carr, who is 6-6 overall against the Buckeyes, before the season seem to set up his contract to make this his last year on the sideline. He added to the perception by making sure Michigan gave all of his assistants unprecedented, two-year deals.
Speculation has run rampant that Carr will announce his retirement in the days following the game, or perhaps during his pregame speech to fire up his players in a similar way that the Buckeyes were motivated to win the Michigan game for fired coach Earle Bruce in 1987.
Carr steadfastly has stuck by his plan all year to deflect talk about the future, and his boss has maintained his job is safe.
``He can coach at Michigan as long as he wants,'' athletic director Bill Martin repeated earlier this week.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, meanwhile, has cemented a warm place in the hearts of Buckeyes fans for his tremendous success overall and his dominance against Michigan.
He was hired in 2001 and ignited passion right away by telling fans they would be proud of the way his players would play against Michigan.
The Buckeyes won their first game against the Wolverines under Tressel and the past three, putting them a victory within matching the school-record streaks from 1960-63 and 1934-37.
``We always talk about the history of every ballgame we play,'' Tressel said. ``But on the other hand, that won't get us a first down.''
Michigan hopes to move the chains against Ohio State's highly rated defense with a relatively healthy quarterback and running back.
Henne has been on and off the field since separating his right (throwing) shoulder Oct. 20 at Illinois. Hart was held out of last week's loss at Wisconsin and has missed 3 1/2 games with a badly sprained right ankle.
Carr wouldn't say if Henne and Hart would play, and neither player was made available for interviews.
But Ohio State's James Laurinaitis, like a lot of people, has no doubt he'll see Nos. 7 (Henne) and 20 (Hart) on the field in maize and blue.
``Yeah, they're going to play,'' the star linebacker said. ``Our thought process was that (Hart) sat out and wanted to rest himself up. I think Henne's going to go as much as he can. It's hard throwing with a partial separated shoulder.
``But they're tough kids.''
Henne, Hart and Long returned for their senior seasons, passing up NFL prospects, in part to beat Ohio State.
``It's a huge game regardless, but just to have them say that they came back for this game it adds more importance to it,'' Laurinaitis said. ``They circled this game on their schedule like we did at the beginning of our season.''
Both teams are coming into the game off a loss for the first time since 1959.
The Buckeyes' setback at home against Illinois ended their 29-game, regular-season winning streak.
Michigan's loss on the road against the Badgers was its first since opening the season in embarrassing fashion, ending a rally that still was good enough to put it in contention for the Big Ten title.
Carr is proud of the way his players fought back, following advice he was given when he was 11.
``There's going to be days out there where you get beat up, and they're no fun,'' Carr said. ``So, like my dad told me one day after I got beat up, `You got to go back on that playground, and you've got to fight.'
``I did what he told me, and it was one of the great lessons of my life. I was not afraid again.''
Ohio State is counting on quarterback Todd Boeckman to be unafraid in his first game at Michigan Stadium after throwing three interceptions last week.
Boeckman grew up watching the rivalry in tiny St. Henry, Ohio, and said it will be a dream come true to play in it.
He also dismissed any disappointment hanging from the loss that likely knocked the Buckeyes out of the race for the BCS title game, leaving them to play for the Rose Bowl.
``I don't know if it's lost its specialness because it's the Rose Bowl,'' he said. ``It's what we always wanted to be a part of.''