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Column: The Game isn’t what it used to be — and it’s all Michigan’s fault

The prestige that Woody and Bo built the rivalry on has been eroded by the Wolverines’ inability to show up.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

After hanging 50 points on the Michigan Wolverines in 1968, Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes marched onwards to a Rose Bowl, in hopes of a national title. In that 55th edition of the Granddaddy of Them All, OSU toppled USC with the help of the Super Sophomores.

In 1969, the Bucks were on pace for another unbeaten season. Throughout the campaign for back-to-back perfect seasons, OSU went wire-to-wire as No. 1 until a first-year coach at Michigan scored, arguably, the greatest win of his career. Bo Schembechler led his No. 12 Wolverines to a 24-12 win in The Big House, ruining Ohio State’s shot at not only another Rose Bowl opportunity for a national title, but a Big Ten title, too.

That sparked what became known as the Ten Year War between Woody’s Buckeyes and Bo’s Wolverines. Because of those matchups in the 1970s, the rivalry transformed into one of the most intense pairings in all of sports. Even into the 1980s and 1990s, when Woody and Bo yielded to new faces on the sidelines, the rivalry, for the most part, was close. Big Ten titles and bragging rights were constantly on the line. Whether it was Earle Bruce, John Cooper, Gary Moeller or Lloyd Carr, dreams were made and lost — and careers were solidified and shattered.

However, times have changed. Ever since Bo Schembechler died on the eve of 2006’s “Game of the Century” meeting, which featured a No. 1 Ohio State squad and a No. 2 Michigan squad, things have felt — for lack of a better word — different. This rivalry has lost its luster. The cause? Michigan’s inability to come into The Game as a reliable leader in the Big Ten.

Bo, Gary and Lloyd all raised a decent share of conference titles. Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and Jim Harbaugh have combined for zero. To make matters worse, the latter trio has only won a single marquee bowl game between them, with Hoke leading a two-loss 2011 squad to a Sugar Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

Since OSU’s 42-39 win in ‘06, UM has won only one matchup in 11 tries. You could make a case that their one win (2011) was illegitimate, as Ohio State had an interim coach and was a five-loss team at the time. And since that 2006 instant classic, only four meetings have been within one score; of those four games, the Buckeyes have won three. On further inspection: what exactly did Michigan bring to The Game in the last decade? Hopes of a conference divisional title? BCS/New Year’s Six potential? National Title hopes?

The 2016 and 2018 seasons were the only ones in which Michigan showed any real potential at becoming a Big Ten East Division representative, as well as College Football Playoff hopeful. Even though they lost in 2016 in overtime, that game was, well, what The Game should be like — from an environment standpoint. An electrified atmosphere, Game of the Week potential, a great all-around contest, and significant implications on the college football landscape. That’s the criteria Woody and Bo built over a half century ago.

The lead-up to the 2018 matchup was near identical. However, by the end of the third quarter, it was evident what we were seeing: a counterfeit. This year’s Michigan team was exposed and embarrassed, and — worst of all — they showed the nation that they still weren’t who we thought they were. Michigan surrendered 62 points to Ohio State. Not only was that the most points Harbaugh has allowed in a game at UM, but it was a school record for most points surrendered in a non-overtime game.

By definition, Harbaugh is a Michigan Man. He played for Schembechler, and defeated OSU as a player. But if Schembechler was still the school’s athletic director, I think he would’ve fired Michigan’s favorite son as soon as the final whistle blew. Why? Because you don’t allow your arch-rival to hang 62 points on you. Regardless if you’re good or bad, in last place or eyeing a national title, it’s an unforgivable sin.

For the most part, OSU’s John Cooper kept the games close. Even though he went 2-10-1 against Michigan, he never got run out of the stadium, often because he had the better talent. Lloyd Carr’s worst loss to Ohio State was by 16 points in 2004. Both Cooper and Carr are in the College Football Hall of Fame, and both were shown the door because they couldn’t win enough editions of The Game.

What happens to Harbaugh, who is now the first Wolverine coach ever to go 0-4 in the rivalry and just got blown out by 23?

In Meyer’s postgame presser, he was, literally, fighting back the emotions; in Harbaugh’s presser, he seemed emotionally resigned. This wasn’t the same Harbaugh as after the 2016 edition of The Game, where a meltdown — and a good spot — led to the Buckeyes pulling off the victory. This Harbaugh had the feel of an accountant who just filed his 20th tax form of the day.

This Michigan squad had everything they needed for a title run. They had a good quarterback in Shea Patterson. They had leaders on defense in Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich. They had the intrinsic belief of a “Revenge Tour.” This was supposed to be the team. The team. The team. The team.

It wasn’t.

I don’t know where the Wolverines go from here. My bet is that they fall flat in a bowl game; regardless if it’s Washington, Utah, UCF or whomever, I don’t feel like this team can pull it together to win. Honestly, how do you bounce back off the mat after a beat down like this? If the fire wasn’t present against Ohio State, then how do you expect it to show up in an inconsequential bowl game?

This is going to sound like elitist, but Ohio State can’t carry the conference alone. Back in the day, it was a joint venture of OSU and UM leading the way — it was the Big Two and the Little Eight (or however many other teams were in the conference at the time).

Metaphorically, the Buckeyes and Wolverines were always the bride, and everyone else were the bridesmaids. Today, it’s mostly Ohio State walking down the aisle, with a revolving door of Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin fighting to be the maid of honor. The Wolverines aren’t really in the picture.

Is Harbaugh the answer, or was he all hype? After seeing what he’s done in four seasons, I’m convinced that he’s not the guy. And honestly, I wish he were.

The Game is built on both these teams being the best in the country, and for the most part, Harbaugh has failed to raise UM to that level. Even with Meyer taking unbelievably bad losses at Iowa and Purdue in the last two years, he’s found a way to steer the ship in the right direction. Once the ship goes off path with Harbaugh, it almost needs an entire offseason to reposition itself.

Going 10-2 is nothing to sneeze at, but when one of those losses is annually to your arch-rival, that changes things — at least when it comes down to Ohio State-Michigan. Harbaugh will once again find himself on the hot seat, and he’s running out of time to prove the loyalists that he can beat the Buckeyes, Nittany Lions and Spartans in one fell swoop. Granted, it’s a hard thing to do in the best of years, but that’s what you’re supposed to do at Michigan.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State
Where Have the Victors Gone?: Michigan has now dropped 16 of the last 18 meetings to Ohio State
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

At some point in the future, Michigan will find the guy who can put together championship winning seasons. He’s probably out there right now — sitting in a dimly lit office going over film, before taking his 1990s model automobile, one that has a radiator that’s about to explode, back to his poorly furnished, one-room apartment. He’s a guy that’s wondering when— or better yet, if— his break is ever going to arrive. At some point, he’ll trickle onto the Wolverines’ radar, and the rest will be history.

Winning football games is hard. However, when you’re in the spotlight that is Ohio State-Michigan, you’re supposed to be really good at it. What’s held the rivalry in tact for the better part of the last two decades has been OSU’s ability to make it into national title contention. Four title game appearances for the Buckeyes keeps The Game relevant. Without those magical seasons, OSU-UM could’ve easily slipped into the east coast version of the Apple Cup in terms of must-watch football in the final week of November.

Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler raised the stakes for both schools. It’s up to the current generation to make sure that standard stays. But, it’s a team effort to make that a reality. And right now, it’s Ohio State doing all the work.

The self proclaimed “Champions of the West” need to live up to the expectations. For both of our sakes.