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Welcome to Michigan Week! College football’s best rivalry is all about the stories

It’s the most important seven days of the year, but it’s about more than just football.

Edit by Patrick Mayhorn
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Game. Just about all college football fans, no matter where they are in the country, know exactly what that means. Hell, just about everyone who lives in the Midwest knows about The Game, even if they have no interest in college football at all. It’s become synonymous with the largest regular season event of just about every college football season after decades of battles between the Midwest’s two most powerful brands.

There’s a reason we call it The Game, capital T, capital G, and everyone with even a passing interest in college football knows why. Calling it anything else would be doing a disservice to the magnitude of Ohio State and Michigan’s annual match-up.

I’d delve deep into the history of what started the rivalry, and explain exactly what it is that makes Ohio State-Michigan such a big deal, but fans already know it. That’s basically the first thing everyone learns growing up in Columbus or Ann Arbor. You hate that team up north, or that team down south, because that’s just what you do. That’s what you’ve always done, and that’s what you’ll always do.

For as long as college sports have existed, no matter what rules have changed, no matter how good the programs have been, Ohio State will hate Michigan, and Michigan will hate Ohio State. That’s just what Ohio State and Michigan do.

Ohio State and Michigan also play some pretty damn good football games and have for quite a long time now. The idea of disregarding records for a rivalry game because anything could happen is a tired media trope and coach rallying cry at best, but in The Game, it really doesn’t seem to matter how good the two teams are. Ohio State and Michigan are going to play each other close, every year, because that’s just what Ohio State and Michigan do.

Sure, Ohio State has won 13 of the last 14 games, by an average of roughly two scores, but nine of those 14 games were still competitive in the fourth quarter. Even when Michigan was struggling through two of the worst coaches in school history, they played the Buckeyes close; five of the seven games coached by either Brady Hoke or Rich Rodriguez against Ohio State were still competitive in the fourth quarter.

That’s a constant in this series, and above all Toledo-area land disputes, the recruiting battles, the Ten-Year War and the decades of history, that’s what keeps Ohio State vs. Michigan so relevant.

There are other rivalries with similar amounts of history and animosity, but you’d be hard pressed to find one that so consistently generates excellent football with national implications. The last time that both Ohio State and Michigan were unranked when facing off was 1987. Even then, Michigan finished the season 19th, and Ohio State spent much of it in the top 20 before falling off late in the season.

That brings me to the point I’m, in a roundabout way, trying to make about the 2018 edition of The Game. It’s special, of course, because every edition of The Game is special, but it’s also special because, well, both teams are really good this season. Not just usual Ohio State and Michigan, competing for the Big Ten level good like they were for much of the 70s, 80s and 90s. No, these are two top-ten teams.

The winner is one win against Northwestern away from a likely earning a playoff berth; that’s a definite for Michigan, and a distinct possibility for OSU. This would be a big deal without the Buckeye leaves and the winged helmets. Adding all of that history and tradition to a top-ten matchup is almost always a recipe for something incredible.

Such matchups have happened 21 times in the history of The Game, and as you’d imagine, they’ve been extremely close, both in the overall record, and in final score differential. Ohio State is 10-9-2 against Michigan in games with both teams in the top ten. On average, Ohio State wins by just a little over one point when both teams are that elite.

That’s astounding, obviously, but I’m not sure if pure numbers do justice to what makes Ohio State-Michigan what it is. The Game is all about stories, all about people, all about everything surrounding the game just as much as it is about the game itself. The great games that the teams play sustain the relevance of the rivalry in the college football world, but the millions of unique Ohio State-Michigan stories that every fan of either team has because of The Game are what makes it so special.

The best way to describe The Game isn’t with stats, it’s with those unique, personal stories. This is mine.

I’ve been to one Ohio State-Michigan game in my entire life. As Buckeye fans certainly know, Ohio State games are expensive generally, and The Game is nearly impossible to get into unless you get the tickets from the school, or you have a tidy sum of money. Those are two pretty large obstacles to overcome for most people, myself included, so I’ve been to one Ohio State-Michigan game, the one in 2016.

As anyone who has ever gotten to go to The Game does, I remember it vividly, and probably will for the rest of my life. It certainly helps that it was just two years ago, and that it was the only rendition of The Game to go to overtime, but that experience of being in the environment of The Game never really leaves you.

That game was extra special to me, not just because it was Ohio State-Michigan, but because I got to experience it with my dad. My dad got me into Ohio State football (and sportswriting) when I wasn’t old enough to know what I was getting into, and I spent pretty much my entire childhood getting progressively angrier at Ohio State football with him by my side, usually about three feet away on the couch. That’s kind of how sports work. Someone passes it on to you, you love it more than almost anything, hate it more than almost anything, and then you pass it on to some other poor fool.

The years of watching Ohio State games from home with my dad (we went to the occasional game, sure, but never The Game, more like The Bowling Green Game, or The Spring Game) made it that much more special to watch The Game with him in Ohio Stadium.

All of the things that actually happened during the course of the game were just extra. Just a bonus. From Ohio State’s terrible offense stumbling through four quarters, to the Michigan fans in the bathroom line at halftime correctly declaring that Ohio State played horribly, to J.T. Barrett getting a first down by roughly one centimeter and Curtis Samuel ending the game a play later.

Ohio State could’ve lost by 100 (which they basically did a month later to Clemson). The point of The Game isn’t just the football, it’s everything else. It’s the crowd. It’s the uniforms. It’s the sheer nervous energy that resonates throughout the stadium until the final second is off the clock.

I didn’t actually see Curtis Samuel cross the goal line. It was such sheer chaos in the stands that I’m not sure anyone actually saw it. What I did see was the thousand or so people in my section collectively realizing that Ohio State had beaten Michigan, somehow, and that the correct course of action when that happens is to lose your goddamn mind, obviously.

I’m as guilty as anyone of losing my goddamn mind. I hugged anyone within reach. I cried like an idiot during “Carmen Ohio.” I cried like an idiot for like 15 consecutive minutes after a game that my favorite team won. That’s The Game. That’s the best way I can possibly think to describe it. Crying for 15 consecutive minutes because your team won.

Roughly 100,000 extremely happy people, and one very sad person in the corner wearing maize and blue.

I don’t know how The Game is going to unfold this season. I certainly don’t feel good about Ohio State’s odds, but then again, I never feel good about Ohio State’s odds when they play Michigan. Michigan could be 0-11 and I wouldn’t feel good about Ohio State’s odds. It doesn’t help that Michigan is better than Ohio State in just about ever statistical category this season.

What I do know is that it’ll almost certainly be painstakingly close. It’ll be stressful, and painful, it’ll probably cause me, and millions of others, a significant amount of anguish.

The winner will feel like they lost because of the physical toll that comes with playing such a physical game in sub-20 degree temperatures, and the loser will feel like they’ll never experience joy again.

And they’ll have to let that feeling simmer, for 365 days, until they get another chance. Ohio State-Michigan generates more happiness — and more misery — than any other rivalry in sports, because that’s just what Ohio State and Michigan do. Welcome to Michigan Week.