2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith. - Gregory Shamus
Why the 2006 version of The Game was the most important, and why it spelled a sea change in the world of college football.
Think back, if you will, to a simpler time in the world of college football. Remember a time when the Big Ten was nationally relevant, when the SEC was the third best conference, and when the Buckeyes were the wire-to-wire number one team in America through 11 games. A time when Troy Smith was the most unstoppable force under center, "sideline" was a better person to punt to than Teddy Ginn, while James Laurinaitis and Malcom Jenkins headlined a young but supremely talented defensive corps.
Think back to the school up north in 2006, easily the best squad Lloyd Carr had assembled since he won an AP National Championship ten years earlier. Remember a team that was utterly dominant on defense, allowing only 51 yards/game rushing, and averaging better than three sacks per game. A team that was loaded with future NFL players like Chad Henne, Steve Breaston, LaMarr Woodley, and eventual number one overall draft pick, Jake Long.
Think back to a time when Ohio State and Michigan met, both undefeated, in the biggest game of the season, ranked #1 and #2, respectively, for the first time in over 100 meetings. On the line, a trip to the BCS National Championship Game, maybe to have a rematch against the team they just beat – something completely unheard of in 2006's college football world. Think back to November 18, 2006:
During the 2006 season, I DVR'd most Buckeye games so I could re-watch them the next day and then delete them. But this game stayed permanently on the hard drive, and if there was a way for me to transfer it from one cable box to another, I would still have it saved today. From every angle, and in everyone's minds, this game was just that important. The above video shows the Brent Musberger-narrated package that aired before the game, a cinematic gem worthy of EGOT status, and a perfect primer for a game like this.
The 2006 version of The Game was a huge event in college football history, and in sports history. In professional sports, you'll see the two best teams playing each other in the regular season frequently, but it is so rarely the case in the regional world of college football, not to mention the fact that the two best teams were in the same conference, scheduled to play on the last day of the regular season, and hate each others' living, breathing guts.
And adding even more to the game was the fact that one of the greats in the history of the Michigan football program, Bo Schembechler, died the day before the game of heart disease. Schembechler, along with Woody Hayes, was one of the pivotal characters in making this game The Game, and would not live to see perhaps its greatest iteration. "Would Michigan get a boost from above from their fallen former coach?" " Could Ohio State overcome this?" These were actual questions being asked before the game.
(Non-sequitur required note during Hate Week: number of Bo Schembechler national titles – 0)
I won't go through a recap of the game, because anyone reading this has probably seen it over and over again in the last six years. The Buckeyes won 42-39, in a game that wasn't really that close. Michigan would be done with their season, and USC would assume the #2 ranking the next week, but drop after a loss to UCLA. Florida would beat Arkansas in the SEC title game. The nation was split over what to do with Michigan and Florida, but the final BCS rankings, aided by favorable nods from the Coaches and Harris Polls, would give Florida the advantage and an invitation to lose to Ohio State in the inaugural BCS Championship Game a few weeks later.
The rest is history.
The 2006 game is important for a number of reasons, most of them relevant to Ohio State and That School Up North detailed above. But it was also an incredibly important game in that it decided how the next several years of college football would unfold. The Game of the Century was the last truly relevant Big Ten football game. Sure, Ohio State would return to the BCSCG following the next season due mostly to an epic implosion of teams over the last three weeks of the year. But in reality, after losing the 2008 BCSCG in similarly uninspiring fashion to LSU, the 2007 game against Florida was really the dawn of a new era in college football.
For the last six years, the SEC has ruled college football's roost, honored on high as kings of the gridiron, winning six consecutive titles (and being runner-up in one of those games as well). Where, in 2006, a rematch for the national title would have been almost unthinkable, it happened last year with LSU beating Alabama in the regular season (almost unwatchable) down south version of the Game of the Century. The teams would meet again in the BCSCG, with Alabama winning the game and the national title in a similarly uninteresting game.
This year was shaping up to finally be the year when the SEC would get shut out of the national title picture, but losses by Oregon and Kansas State have all but assured that an SEC team will get back into the game. And if Notre Dame fails to live up to my prediction and loses to USC this weekend, being a one-loss SEC team will trump being a one-loss any other conference team. And after a year where it looked like the reign would end, we could be back to a 1-2 SEC finish at the end of the year. All thanks, in part, to the 2006 Game of the Century.
But that doesn't matter to the Buckeyes, or to any Buckeye fan this week. Hate Week means we don't have to care about the SEC, about Notre Dame, about AP National Championships. This week, we only care about beating Michigan, like a drum if at all possible. So think back to 2006 during the week and remember just how great it was to sit on top of the college football world. It doesn't happen that often, after all. Just ask Bo Schembechler.
Go Buckeyes. Beat That Team Up North.