1. I remember a time when The Game was a finale. But that isn't the case anymore, and it probably never will be again.
The ever-changing landscape of college football in a modern, television- (and money-) driven world brings about a rather somber evolution to something that all Ohio State fans and all Michigan fans hold very dear. Because this is the only week of the year that, traditionally, starts on the Saturday before, typically right as the clock gets down to 0:00 in the game before The Game.
Let us look at Ohio State and Michigan in this year for what it probably is, and what it probably will be for the foreseeable future: a prelude.
2. Where were you on Sept. 6, 2014? If you are a Buckeye fan, this won't be the easiest question to answer, whether by virtue of strong drink, or ability to Eternal Sunshine your memories from that evening. That was the night when Ohio State's season effectively ended. That was the night that the Big Ten Conference said "no mas."
The loss to Virginia Tech (and every miserable VaTech loss since) did nothing, and continues to do nothing, but hurt the Buckeyes. It was a disastrous loss, one that had the locals screaming for Chris Ash's head and Luke Fickell's job, and Cardale Jones coming to play football rather than school.
But, as we learned, it wasn't the end. The dominoes tumbled, as they so often do: The SEC favorites beat themselves. The ACC standard-bearer continued to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Pac-12 saw relevance slip south from Eugene down to Arizona and back up to the Beaver State. All of a sudden, road wins against good teams turned the Buckeyes from an also-ran in their own division to the de facto best team in the conference with a legitimate shot at turning a season around the full 180.
Heading into the final game of the 2014 season, a season that has seen doom, gloom, cheer and relief in equal measures, the Buckeyes are already primed to play for a conference title for the second year in a row. Should that go to plan, in the name of all that is sane, that should give Ohio State enough oomph to play in one of the playoff games in January. And should the football gods smile again, then there might be a ticket waiting for J.T. Barrett, Jalin Marshall, Joey Bosa and Eli Apple in the Metroplex, and at Jerry World.
But for all of that to come to fruition, it will take another battle against the most familiar foe on the schedule. Indeed, it will take one more Game and one more win for a shot at playing at least two, if not three more. And the most familiar foe couldn't be in less familiar territory.
3. Where were Michigan fans on Sept. 6, 2014? In a similar state of dread as Buckeye fans, no doubt. This Michigan team was supposed to represent the best of what embattled head coach Brady Hoke could do as a recruiter and as a headset-less leader of Michigan Men. This was supposed to be the year that Dave Brandon could call Michigan football a successful #brand. But this was also the year that Notre Dame hung 31 on Greg Mattison's defense, while new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier (formerly of Alabama -- yes, that Alabama) couldn't manage his unit to a single point on the board in South Bend. This was a low. It wasn't the lowest.
A 26-10 loss to Utah in The Big House. A 30-14 loss to Minnesota, the first for the Wolverines since 2005. Quarterback Shane Morris concussing his way out of the starting lineup, one play too late. Giving away tickets for next to nothing. The
CMO athletic director telling the fans to sit down and rotate. Losing to both Rutgers and Maryland in their first year in the conference, the latter keeping the win count at five, one short of postseason eligibility. The school canning Brandon (though he technically resigned, but, whatever, so did Jim Tressel) before he could do any more damage.
Whereas the Buckeyes changed course and turned their season around after Sept. 6, the Wolverines sailed right into the storm, leaving the team, the staff, and the legions of Michigan Men and Women following this team in varying states of battered, bruised and/or broken. Hoke is most certainly gone. Mattison is probably going with him. Who knows about Nussmeier, who might be the only asset retained, assuming Nick Saban doesn't kill Lane Kiffin to re-open a spot on his staff down in Tuscaloosa, or a lower-profile head coaching job doesn't show itself. A loss ends Michigan's season before December. It's that kind of low.
4. Which brings us to 2014. Unlike the last two years, Ohio State isn't coming into The Game with its sights set on perfection; these Buckeyes tasted defeat, and it was bitter, and awful, and unwelcome. Michigan has been to that same well six times this season (so far). This Game is so uneventful that College GameDay isn't even sniffing it, spurning the best rivalry in the country for a game that won't even air on any of ESPN's family of networks.
And that's understandable. With the Buckeyes already guaranteed a ticket to Indy next week, and with Brady Hoke and company all but guaranteed tickets on the first bus out of Ann Arbor, you can't fault the World Wide Leader in Sports for heading for slightly warmer (and certainly greener) pastures south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Ohio State is even giving 21 points to TTUN. Michigan is done; Ohio State is just starting.
And that's why you should care more about this game than any other Game in recent memory.
5. There have been many memorable showdowns in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry over the last 100 or so years, but there haven't been too many since 2003. Sure, 2006 was The Game of the Century, and yes, last year was the elevation as savior of Tyvis Powell. But other than that, Michigan has been easy sledding for the Buckeyes, winners of nine* in the last 10* games, and 12* of the last 14*.
*Note: subtract one from all of those numbers to account for 2010. I'm not going to, but have at it.
In theory -- and on paper -- this game is already over, and the Buckeyes are already in the planning stages for a second dose of David Cobb, or a first of Melvin Gordon. And after that, perhaps a run at Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, or Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota and Oregon.
6. And that could be exactly what Brady Hoke, most certainly coaching in his swan song game, wants the Buckeyes to do: look ahead and forget that it still takes 60 minutes of football to be able to play an extra 180. For Michigan, getting a win this year could be exactly the kind of thing that jump-starts the program with 10,000 volts of life next year. After all, the Wolverines have always enjoyed the role of spoiler in Ohio Stadium more than the role of the favorite. For Michigan, this game is set up to be The Prelude to a return to greatness, becoming of Michigan Men and Women and football players and fans alike.
7. And for the Buckeyes, this is just the first in what could be a long series of history-making and history-changing games in this new college football landscape. To set up the grand finale of the season, Ohio State must win -- and convincingly beat -- a beaten and beaten-down Michigan team. For the Buckeyes, The Game could be The Prelude to the dream all Buckeye fans assumed would come true when Urban Meyer took the helm.
8. Both teams have more skin in the game than ever before. Michigan wants what Ohio State has, and Ohio State wants what it hasn't had in more than 10 years. For both teams to get what they want, one has to win, and the other has to lose. For both teams to advance to their greater goals, one must beat the other. To ensure the best future for either team, one must win this Game.
9. Whose Prelude are we watching? We'll find out on Saturday at noon.
10. Go Bucks. Beat Michigan.
The Michigan team visiting Ohio Stadium this weekend is uncharacteristically bad. With Brady Hoke on the hottest of hot seats, Michigan has lost six games already this season, including four by two scores or more, and was shut out earlier this year by just-OK Notre Dame. The Wolverines need this win simply to get bowl eligible, something they haven't missed out on since 2009.
But no matter how bad Michigan looks the rest of the season, there is always the chance it can ruin Ohio State's playoff aspirations. In the 117-year history of The Game, both Ohio State and Michigan have played the spoiler often, toppling their opponents from the top of rankings and poisoning otherwise promising seasons.
This history, and the danger of overlooking Michigan, is on every Buckeye's mind this week, so let's look back at some of the more historic upsets.
The Buckeyes entered this game undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the country, and were the defending national champions. The 7-2, 12th-ranked Wolverines were technically in a rebuilding year, but under the direction of new coach Bo Schembechler, Michigan was riding a four-game winning streak and looking for a Big Ten championship.
Ohio State was a 17-point favorite, and Woody Hayes was bringing All-American quarterback Rex Kern into Michigan Stadium to try for a chance at a second national championship. All signs pointed to an Ohio State blowout.
But the Buckeyes could never get going at the Big House. Rex Kern and backup QB Ron Maciejowski threw six interceptions, and a late game fumble sealed Ohio State's fate. Michigan ground out a 24-12 victory, and Schembechler was carried out of the stadium on the shoulders of his players. Ohio State's back-to-back championship hopes were dashed.
Note: Ohio State got redemption the next year.
John Cooper did not do well against Michigan. The 1995 Buckeyes walked into Michigan Stadium undefeated and on track for a national championship berth, facing a Michigan team with three losses.
Michigan tailback Tshimanga Biakabutuka ran all over Ohio State, amassing 313 rushing yards. Michigan held Bobby Hoying, Terry Glenn and tailback Eddie George to just 106 rushing yards and 286 passing yards. Leading by a point after the first half, Michigan freshman Charles Woodson had two key picks in the second half that kept Ohio State from mounting a comeback. Ohio State missed the Rose Bowl as a result, and the Big Ten sent Northwestern instead.
In 1996, the Buckeyes again arrived at the last game of the season undefeated with their eye on the national championship game. Michigan entered Ohio Stadium ranked No. 21 and looking to again spoil Ohio State's perfect season. Although it looked good for the Scarlet and Gray initially, Michigan overcame a 9-0 halftime deficit and shut out Ohio State in the second half, scoring 13 unanswered points. Joe Germaine, in his first game as starter, threw for just 148 yards, going 12 for 31. Ohio State fell from second to fourth in the national polls, beat Arizona State in the Rose Bowl, but missed out on a share of the national title when No. 3 Florida routed No. 1 Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
In 2001, Jim Tressel took over for John Cooper as head coach. Shortly after his hiring, Tressel was introduced at an Ohio State basketball game and guaranteed fans would be proud of their team when the Game rolled around "in 310 days." Go ahead, try to watch the video and not get goosebumps.
Ohio State had an up-and-down season, entering the Game just 6-4, unranked after a home loss the week before to Illinois. Michigan was ranked 11th, held a 8-2 record and was looking to jump up in the polls. But the Buckeyes delivered on Tressel's promise.
Ohio State came out hot, posting a 23-0 first-half lead thanks to three rushing touchdowns from Jonathan Wells. The Wolverines answered in the second half with three touchdowns of their own, but Ohio State held strong, winning 26-20. After years of losing to The Team Up North (John Cooper was just 2-10-1 during his tenure), the promised win was a breath of fresh air for fans. Tressel would go on to deliver eight wins and just one loss during his term at Ohio State.
In perhaps the biggest game of the rivalry, 2006 was a showdown of top-ranked teams, with the winner going to the national championship game. Both teams were unbeaten. Both teams were vying for the Big Ten title. This was the first time Ohio State and Michigan had played each other while ranked No. 1 and No. 2. It was the rare double-dream-smasher-upset-thunderdome. Two championship-contending teams would enter, only one would leave. The Shoe was rocking.
The game was an offensive shootout. Ohio State's eventual Heisman winner Troy Smith threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns on 29-of-41 passing. Ted Ginn Jr. racked up 104 yards receiving, tailed closely by Brian Robiskie, who had 89 yards. Chad Henne, for his part, completed 21 of 35 passes for 267 yards and two scores. Mike Hart gashed the Buckeyes for 142 yards, but Antonio Pittman came right back with 139 yards of his own. The scoring went back and forth for 60 minutes, but Ohio State eventually gritted out a 42-39 win, earning a trip to the BCS National Championship Game. For a moment it looked like the national championship might be a rematch with Michigan, who stayed at No. 2 in the BCS despite the loss. But Florida, under the lead of Urban Meyer, won the SEC Championship Game and jumped up to No. 2 in the polls, going on to embarrass Ohio State 41-14.
This rivalry is always primed for an upset. Let's hope this week isn't one of them.
A few years ago, I made the long drive from Columbus to Chapel Hill, N.C. I was visiting the University of North Carolina to see if I wanted to attend grad school there. (I didn't.) I didn't want to make the seven-plus hour drive all by myself, so I convinced my sister to come with me to keep me company on the trip. Thanks, Emily.
The drive was uneventful. We made it down, grabbed some Southern barbecue, and went to bed. The next day would consist of a campus tour and a program-specific informational meeting. The tour wasn't necessary, but I wanted to get a feel for the campus, since I'd never been there before.
If you've ever taken part in a college campus tour (or seen one wandering around The Oval), then you know that they aren't the most exciting things in the world. They show you the big sites around campus and share with you school-related trivia that you'll never remember. One moment on this particular tour stood out to me, though.
For those of you who don't know, UNC has a pretty intense rivalry with Duke that's been going on for nearly a century. The feud is fueled in part by their proximity; they're only about 10 miles apart. You can drive from one campus to the other in about half an hour. Imagine if we were locked in a rivalry with Otterbein. Now, heading down to UNC, I knew about this rivalry, and I knew that it was supposedly an intense one. So I was pretty surprised to hear our tour guide telling us all about the different sharing programs that they had between the two universities. As part of their Interinstitutional Programs, UNC-Chapel Hill students could take courses for credit at Duke. As our tour guide explained, "We're rivals, but, at the end of the day, who do you always compete the hardest against? Your friends!"
I couldn't believe it. Here I was, believing that I'd found a lovely grad school where people understood what it means to have a rivalry game. I thought I'd found a place that would understand why we sing "We don't give a damn ..." or why the student section yells "... AND MICHIGAN STILL SUCKS!" at pretty much every Ohio State sporting event when the announcer says that there's less than a minute remaining. After all, in 2000 an ESPN poll said that the basketball rivalry between these two schools was the third-greatest North American sports rivalry. (Their number one choice? Ohio State vs. Michigan, naturally.)
When the tour guide asked the question, my sister responded before he could answer his own question, and she did it without hesitation. "Michigan."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the truth. As Urban Meyer is quick to remind us, this isn't just another game. This is The Game. It's the greatest rivalry that there is in sports. Yes, some of us like to see the Wolverines do well during the season, but that's just because it's more fun to push them off a higher pedestal. This isn't a friendly competition between neighbors. This isn't two schools with a bit of history. This is Ohio State vs. Michigan. This is the big leagues. UNC recently got in trouble for a bit of vandalism following a win over Duke. When we went to Ann Arbor last November, we had fights and the infamous Marcus Hall salute. UNC spray-painted their initials in the locker room. Ohio State flipped off the entire Big House.
So remember, when you hear players and coaches say that there's no other game like this one, they're not exaggerating. This is a rivalry that has no equal. UNC gives a damn for Duke. Auburn probably gives at least a bit of a damn for Alabama. We don't give a damn for the whole state of Michigan.
It's Thanksgiving weekend, and Michigan still sucks.