November 28, 2016
Michigan-Ohio State has the makings
of preeminent rivalry again – finally
By KEITH GAVE
The most important college football game of the season was played Saturday at The Horseshoe in Columbus, Ohio. That’s beyond debate. But that it involved Michigan and Ohio State is essentially a coincidence. When the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the land meet with so much at stake – a conference championship game berth and a shot at the national title in the College Football Playoffs – it’s a pretty big deal.
But please, let’s save all the flowery prose and poetry about this being one of the best rivalries in college football. Not when the best we could ask for most of the last decade is that the game be even slightly relevant – even in the Big Ten, not to mention on a national landscape. With Saturday’s disgracefully officiated 30-27 double-overtime victory by Ohio State, one team – the wrong one – has won 10 of the last 11 game, 12 of the last 13 and 14 of the last 116.
That’s not a rivalry. I don’t care how much fans on either side dislike one another. That part is real, bordering on being silly if it weren’t so hateful and dangerous at times.
And before that, for the record, Michigan dominated the series, winning 10 of 13 games and tying once. That’s no rivalry, either.
That kind of dominance on either side makes it far less interesting – especially for casual fans with no dog in the race.
Truth be told, fans and media on both sides have been living in fantasy world for most of the last four decades – since Woody Hayes retired from the sidelines in Columbus. That effectively ended the great “Ten Year War” that began when Bo Schembecheler hired in at Michigan and started taking it to his old boss, Hayes.
Earle Bruce kept the rivalry with Michigan alive, going 5-4 against Michigan but never earning enough respect to keep his job at Ohio State.
Thereafter, a coaching carousel at both schools effectively snuffed out the kind of neighborhood scuffle that captures the imagination of the entire nation. John Cooper went 2-10-1 against Michigan and lost his job. Lloyd Carr was 5-1 against the Buckeyes until Jim Tressel showed up and went 6-1 vs. Carr’s teams, resulting in a big change at Michigan.
Most of us on this side of the border north of Toledo don’t have to be reminded of what followed. The only Michigan victory since Carr retired was in 2011, when interim coach Luke Fickell coached the Buckeyes.
The best rivalries in college football involve the best coaches, which is why those games in the 1970s were so compelling. When Urban Meyer hired in at Ohio State four seasons ago, the Michigan-Ohio State series threatened to be a one-sided affair. That all changed nearly 23 months ago, when Michigan concluded in no uncertain terms that it wanted to compete at the highest levels of the sport by offering Jim Harbaugh a boatload of money (about $7 million per year over seven years).
Meyer has delivered as promised, going 51-4 in his four seasons at Ohio State (two of those losses to Michigan State, by the way). Harbaugh went 10-3 in his first season in Ann Arbor, but lost his first game against the Buckeyes, 42-13, at The Big House.
When they met Saturday for all (or at least most of) the marbles, both teams were 10-1, 7-1 in the Big Ten. Ohio State is a 6.5-point favorite.
A Michigan victory would have gone a long, long way toward restoring the virtues of a once-incomparable college football rivalry. We can argue until we’re maize-and-blue in the face about how the game officials screwed the Wolverines out of a win Saturday – come on, did you really expect a video review to result in a change in the spot of the ball in overtime? In front of 100,000 crazed fans? – but we all know it should never have come to that.
Indeed, Michigan played well enough to win. But the Wolverines also made enough terribly costly mistakes to cost them this victory, too. It shouldn’t have come down to a lousy pass interference penalty in overtime – the one called on a Michigan defender and the other one not called on the Buckeyes defender.
The best we can say about the officiating is that players on both sides deserved better. And the best we can say about this rivalry – The Game, as we’re prone to describe it in our own hyperbolic way – is that it looks to be one again. Seriously, the way Bo and Woody got it on.
Though the outcome was hard for some of us to swallow, we should be heartened by what we saw. The competitive balance, by any measure, finally matched the emotions on both sides.
And Harbaugh, who is right when he says we can do without the word “hatred” to describe this series, stoked the flames in his post-game remarks when he roasted the guys in the striped shirts for effectively ruining a great game.
So bring it on, Buckeyes and Wolverines. Give us more of that belligerent, smash-mouth football. If one team manages a lopsided advantage late in the fourth quarter, scores a touchdown and goes for two points – like Woody Hayes did in 1968 – so be it. Hayes rumored response, when a reporter asked him why he went for two, was: “Because I couldn’t go for three.”
That’s priceless. The stuff of legends. It’s what makes college football so undeniably compelling. The Game is on again, and it’s awfully nice to have it back.