So there I was yesterday (Sunday), a Cleveland Browns fan watching my beloved team get pummeled by the Pittsburgh Steelers for what felt like the 1,000th time in as many meetings (the one exception being when the Browns actually beat the Steelers last fall, but it felt like a loss because the end result was the rest of the season without star defensive end Myles Garrett).
The wheels which Kevin Stefanski and others had worked so hard to tighten in the past few weeks just came off. All the talk of Stefanski being coach of the year and of Odell Beckham Jr.’s resurgence and Garrett’s defensive domination felt empty. The offensive line, which had been opening up holes for Kareem Hunt, looked more like a sieve, allowing TJ Watt unabated access to Baker Mayfield. In other words, it was the same old story — it feels like we are still seasons away from being able to beat Pittsburgh.
Why is this experience relevant? Because despite being a long-suffering Browns fan, I can’t say that I’m immune to being on the other side of this coin, and I have to imagine that the feelings I have watching the Steelers destroy the Browns twice a year are akin to what Michigan fans see every time the Wolverines take the field against Ohio State.
Let’s back up, because this stat line never gets old. The Ohio State Buckeyes are currently riding an eight-game win streak over Michigan dating back to Urban Meyer’s inaugural season as head coach in 2012. The Buckeyes have also won 15 of the last 16, the sole loss coming during the 2011 season when Luke Fickell sat in as interim head coach for Ohio State.
If the Wolverines expected any relief when Ryan Day took the helm in Columbus, they were certainly mistaken. In Day’s first outing against his chief rival, he led the Buckeyes to a 56-27 rout in Ann Arbor.
Michigan has certainly fallen on relative hard times in the last two decades — relative, because finishing second in a division with multiple 10-win seasons can’t be considered all that bad. However, let’s take a look at the relative instability Michigan has faced when it’s come to it’s coaching situation. From 1969 to 2007, the Wolverines had just three coaches as they transitioned from Bo Schembechler to Gary Moeller and, finally, to Lloyd Carr. In the 13 years since, Michigan has had three more coaches: Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and, now, Jim Harbaugh.
It would seem the Wolverines are in it for the long haul with Harbaugh, especially since the Buckeyes have so, so dramatically overtaken them in recruiting, championships and head-on contests. Who else could Michigan get who could boost the Wolverines to the next level? The list is short and starts and ends with Urban Meyer.
The reality is that, in a given season, I have a general anxiety ahead of the Michigan game, but it’s nothing compared to how I feel, say, ahead of Penn State. Year in and year out, I know we’ll be in for a long night when we have to face what will always be a well-coached Nittany Lions squad under James Franklin. That angst tends to double when Ohio State goes on the road to Happy Valley and has to play under the lights in a white out.
The reality is that, while Ohio State counts themselves winners of the last three over Penn State, two of those wins came by just a point apiece. The difference in the third (2019) was just a field goal. Oh, and it wasn’t that long ago - 2016 - when Penn State brought home a narrow, 24-21 victory in State College.
The bottom line is that, when it comes to on-field rivals, it feels like Ohio State has much more competitive options than Michigan. It’s probably the same way the Steelers feel about the Baltimore Ravens.
Which leads to the next, more tragic question: Is beating Michigan even fun anymore? Or is it just an expectation?
Back to the paradigm of the long-suffering Browns fan. If the Browns were to have beaten Pittsburgh, I would be far more ecstatic than, say, if the Browns had beaten Tennessee. Realistically, Pittsburgh and Tennessee are on roughly the same level when it comes to power rankings, but the excitement I would feel about overcoming a division rival would be significantly greater than any margin of error in measuring the Titans versus the Steelers.
However, that feeling probably doesn’t extend the other way for the Steelers. I would imagine that a typical Pittsburgh fan would be far more delighted about beating a good Titans squad than defeating even a 4-1 Browns team.
One of my friends often likes to remind me that the key to happiness is low expectations. As an Ohio State fan, it’s become hard to imagine a world in which Michigan might beat the Buckeyes — because it just hasn’t happened at a high enough rate for it to seem super plausible. In other words, my expectations have become higher for Ohio State versus Michigan than they have for, as an example, Ohio State versus Penn State. Sure, I’m happy when the Buckeyes beat Michigan, end the regular season on a high note and head to Indy for the Big Ten Championship Game as rightful heirs of the Big Ten East, but while success breeds more success, it also breeds a numbing to the excitement that success can bring.
So perhaps a reframe is in order. Imagine being on the other side of the rivalry. Imagine being one of the 126 teams in the FBS not named Alabama, Clemson, LSU or Ohio State, who have never won a College Football Playoff. Imagine being a team who has not even made a conference title game.
Ohio State fans get a lot of flack for being arrogant for our high expectations, and I can’t really deny that feeling. It definitely felt like a disappointment that Ohio State lost to Clemson in the CFP semi-final, rather than an exciting thing that the Buckeyes made the field of the four best teams in the country and played a highly-competitive game against the Tigers.
Perhaps, as we prepare to enter the opening week of Big Ten football, it would be helpful to reframe expectations and identify what success actually means, because there are some unfortunate teams out there that haven’t even managed to beat their rivals since 2011.