This weekend in Columbus, Ohio, Michigan and Ohio State renew the most storied rivalry in college football; or “the Ohio game,” as Michigan Head Coach gruffly refers to it. This Saturday, the schools will meet for the 109th time.
The Ten-Year War. Woody Hayes. Bo Schembechler. Eddie George. Desmond Howard. Charles Woodson. Each left an imprint on this rivalry that fans on both sides never forget. There are no trophies, no little brown jugs, no Paul Bunyon axes or shillelaghs up for grabs. It’s all about pride. Period.
After losing nine of the previous 10, Michigan broke the streak last year with a 40-34 win at The Big House, in Hoke’s first season as Wolverines head coach. For legions of Michigan fans, it was a relief to finally end the spell. But it wasn’t such a shock, given all the turmoil at Ohio State a season ago. Tressel resigned, leaving the program under NCAA sanctions. An interim coach holding down the fort. And the game was in Ann Arbor. Michigan should win that game. Perhaps, but what “should” happen isn’t always the case in this series.
Think back to the 1995 and 1996 seasons, when undefeated Ohio State teams squared off against a Michigan team coming into both contests with three losses. Buckeyes roll to victory, right? Wrong. Michigan dashed Ohio State’s National Championship party both times.
Or in 2001 when new head coach Jim Tressel—fresh from I-AA Youngstown State—brought his four-loss team to Ann Arbor and quieted the Big House with a 26-20 upset win. Tressel’s teams went on to dominate the rivalry, wining seven of the next eight games, including the 2006 42-39 thriller, featuring #1 OSU vs. #2 Michigan.
As for this Saturday’s game, conventional wisdom would argue Ohio State is the favorite. Under new head coach (and world-class whiner) Urban Meyer they’re undefeated and playing for nothing other than pride as they serve out their post-season suspension this year. Ohio State also has a stronger overall offense and running game than Michigan. Ohio State is a 4-1/2 point favorite. Did I mention the game’s being played at the Horse Shoe?
All signs point to an Ohio State victory.
But not so fast. We’ve been here before. Brady Hoke is not going to roll over like his predecessor did for three consecutive seasons. It’s going to be an uphill climb, but I would hazard to guess the game will be anything but a blowout. Yes, Michigan is the underdog, but stats, rankings and previous games don’t matter much in this series.
I wonder how many Michigan fans realize an undefeated Ohio State season would have some costly karma attached to it. Given their bowl ineligibility for NCAA violations, this season would go down in Buckeye history as the greatest season that didn’t count for anything. They can’t win a national championship. They can’t even compete for a national championship. It would simply be a footnote in the final season of the current BCS system of determining a champion. It would TORTURE Buckeye fans!
Of course, I want Michigan to win. But the petulant, bratty Michigan fan in me would quietly giggle at a 12-0 Ohio State season that is nothing more than a reminder of how costly it was to harbor and protect Jim Tressel while he lied to the NCAA.
What does that tell you about this rivalry? Yes, it’s about winning. But it’s also about watching the other side hurt. This is why I love college football.