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Rivalry Week: The current state of The Game

Ohio State vs. Michigan is the best rivalry in CFB, but it has been one-sided for the past two decades

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Each and every year, the last day of the regular season marks a meeting between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Michigan Wolverines. The Game, as its affectionately known across the land, is one of the most storied rivalries in college football — and maybe all of sports.

Dating back to 1897, the two schools have met a total of 116 times, with Michigan desperately clinging to the lead in the all-time series with a 58-51-6 record overall against Ohio State. However, fans of both sides know that while the Wolverines have the edge historically, the greater part of the last two decades have been all Buckeyes.

In the year 2000, the last time Michigan defeated Ohio State in Columbus, the maize and blue held a 56-35-6 advantage in the series. Since that date, the Wolverines have come away victorious just twice, and the Buckeyes have significantly closed the gap, currently riding one of the longest winning streaks in the history of The Game after winning the last eight meetings (UM holds the record at nine-straight victories).

With all that being said, where are we now? What is the current state of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry? Well, with this being week one of a two-week stretch designated as Rivalry Week here at SB Nation, what better time to take a look at where these two programs currently stand?

The Coaches

Jim Harbaugh took over a reeling Michigan program in 2015, with the team finishing the 2014 season a paltry 5-7 under Brady Hoke. In his first year at the helm, Harbaugh led the Wolverines to a 10-3 record, losing 42-13 to Ohio State but demolishing Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. While fans in Ann Arbor couldn’t look past a blowout defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes, they had to feel good about the direction of the program after one season under the new head coach.

Harbaugh would lead his team to another 10-3 season in 2016, once more losing to Ohio State (this time in double-OT) and then dropping a 33-32 game to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Again, while not quite there yet, the program was apparently headed in the right direction. Ranked as high as No. 2 in the AP Poll, the team was a spot (which was good) away from playing for a Big Ten title and likely a College Football Playoff berth.

Then the wheels began to fall off. Michigan would finish 8-5 in 2017, losing its last three games of the season including a 31-20 loss to Ohio State in the Big House and a 26-19 loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl. Another 10-3 season in 2018 — and another blowout loss to the Buckeyes — gave way to a 9-4 finish in 2019, and, you guessed it, another blowout loss to the Buckeyes. Unable to get over the hump and beat his team’s biggest rival, Harbaugh now sits at 0-5 against Ohio State, while also losing his last four bowl games.

Ryan Day took over at Ohio State in 2019, but he was technically their head coach before that. With Urban Meyer serving a three-game suspension to begin the season in 2018, it was Day who took over at the helm to coach the Buckeyes through that opening stretch. Easily dispatching Oregon State and Rutgers, Day was able to lead OSU past No. 15 TCU in a 40-28 win in Jerry World, and from there it was clear that he would be the successor to Meyer once he retired at season’s end.

This past year was the first full season with Day at the helm, and many wondered if he could continue the immense success the program had seen under Meyer. There were a ton of questions surrounding Ohio State’s assistant coaching staff from that dreadful 2018 campaign — especially on defense. Day replaced nearly everyone, even bringing in a pair of former Michigan assistants in Greg Mattison and Al Washington. Could a first-year head coach with a brand new staff and a first-year starter at QB compete for a national title? Almost of equal importance, could Day beat Michigan in his introduction to The Game?

The answer on both fronts was unequivocally yes. Ohio State dominated its way through the regular season. After beating up on Wisconsin and edging out Penn State, the Buckeyes went into Ann Arbor and housed the Wolverines 56-27. The Buckeyes would again beat the Badgers, this time for a Big Ten title, and go on to play Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State was the more talented team in that game, and had just one play or one call gone the opposite direction, Day could have found himself in the national title game in year one.

The Players

When it comes to most opponents on Ohio State’s schedule, the talent gap is just far too great for the challenger to come out on top. For teams in the Big Ten like Rutgers and Maryland (which is improving under Mick Locksley), who just don't have the same level of talent across the board as OSU, it would take a perfect storm and a flawless game plan to defeat the Buckeyes — like we saw from Purdue in 2018, albeit against a severely flawed Ohio State team. Michigan, however, should not have this problem to that extent.

The Wolverines have recruited pretty well under Jim Harbaugh. After securing the No. 8 class in the country in 2016, UM finished with the No. 5 group in 2017. Following a blip in the 2018 class where they finished at No. 22, Michigan landed right back in the top-10 in 2019 with the No. 8 class and most recently finished at No. 13 in 2020.

Securing top-15 recruiting classes year in and year out should be enough to get the job done against most opponents, but while we will get to Ohio State’s recruiting in a minute, a big problem for Michigan has been player development. Harbaugh just hasn’t seemed to be able to get the most out of his guys, especially at the skill positions. Look at a player like Donovan Peoples-Jones. The No. 1 WR in the 2017 class, he was clearly one of the most talented guys on the field, but he was not used to his full potential — no thanks to poor QB play — and wound up becoming a sixth round pick in this year’s NFL Draft.

While Michigan’s recruiting looks pretty decent from afar, it cannot hold a candle to what is going on at Ohio State. Over the same stretch we just went through for the Wolverines, starting in 2016 the Buckeyes have hauled in recruiting classes ranked No. 4, No. 2, No. 2, No. 14, and finally No. 5 in 2020. While the gap is not nearly as great as a lot of other teams in the Big Ten, OSU is still clearly ahead of UM in the recruiting game. It doesn’t look to be stopping with a new head man in charge either, as Day is currently working on the nation’s No. 1 class in 2021.

While the efforts on the recruiting trail are impressive by the numbers, Ohio State is also lightyears ahead when it comes to player development. Not only are the five-star prospects flooding to Columbus, but the team has found ways to make even some of the lowest-rated guys in their respective classes into superstars. Players like Davon Hamilton (the No. 998 player in 2015), Malik Harrison (No. 683 in 2016) and Chris Olave (No. 399 in 2018) have all become studs in the Scarlet and Gray.

It also doesn’t hurt when you have former No. 2 overall five-star players like Justin Fields transferring into the program, either.

The Preparation

The coaches and the players are obviously the ones who dictate the outcome of the games, but it is the preparation leading up to those matchups that can ultimately sway a game in ones favor. It is no secret that Ohio State and Michigan have completely different mindsets when it comes to preparing for The Game, and it has shown on the field.

That became no more apparent than the talk surrounding last year’s meeting. The Buckeyes had just defeated UM in the Big House 56-27 — their second-straight victory over the Wolverines by more than three scores. A first-year starter at QB who only just joined the program at the start of that season took to the podium, and told everyone that the rivalry just means more at Ohio State.

“I just think we take it more seriously than they do, I think. We prepare for it all year,” Fields said. “We’re preparing for them next year right now. I think it just means more at Ohio State. That’s pretty much, I think, the bigger reason why we have more success than they do.”

Fields is not alone in feeling that way, either. Following the loss, former Michigan great Charles Woodson echoed that sentiment.

“It’s evident that it’s a way of life for that team. I don’t know how we get back to it, but we have to get back to it,” Woodson said.

They say hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Well, when it comes to the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, it becomes nearly impossible to come out victorious if one team has both the better talent and the better preparation. Harbaugh seems to want to treat the matchup as just another game, but when the opposition has the matchup in mind 365 days a year, that mindset is not going to cut it.

Can the Wolverines finally defeat the Buckeyes sometime in this new decade? Absolutely. However, can they do it maintaining the status quo and not making any changes to their preparation or game plan like they’ve done specifically in the last two seasons? Absolutely not. Harbaugh could very well be on the hot seat with another loss to Ohio State in 2020, and if he has any hopes of avoiding that, his preparation should have began on Nov. 30, 2019.