Hard to believe, but ‘The Game’ has taken a back seat to the Big Ten’s expansion this week, which is disappointing considering that rivalry games are the backbone of college football.
Few rivalries can match the significance of the annual battle between Ohio State and Michigan.
From the "Ten-Year War" between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler to Jim Tressel owning Michigan over the last decade, the clash between the Buckeyes and Wolverines is as intense as any in the game.
It is no secret that Ohio State and Michigan coaches are measured by their ability to win this game. Besides God, family and a job, nothing else really matters in Ohio and Michigan. The outcome affects the morale of the fans throughout the long offseason.
The 109th version this week is arguably the most important in the series since 1969.
In 1968, Ohio State clobbered Michigan 50-14 and went on to win the national championship by beating USC 27-16 in the Rose Bowl.
Even though the Wolverines lost the game, they may have won the fight. After the game, head coach Bump Elliott resigned, and Schembechler was hired to replace him.
Few knew Woody better than Bo. He played for him and coached with him. He was the perfect man to restore the glory in Ann Arbor. Surprisingly, it took just one year.
During the offseason, Schembechler reminded his players of that loss by hanging the 50-14 score on the bathroom door in the locker room. The motivation worked perfectly.
The No. 1-ranked Buckeyes entered the 1969 game riding a 22-game win streak poised to win a second consecutive national title.
Despite being a heavy underdog, the Wolverines refused to yield, pulling off one of the greatest upsets in college football history by soundly beating the Buckeyes 24-12.
With that win, Schembechler immediately ignited the heated rivalry. Hayes was 12-6 against the Wolverines before the 1969 game and 4-5-1 after it.
Schembechler finished his career with an 11-9-1 record against the Ohio State, and those 21 years have really been the only time when the series was evenly matched.
Similar to 1969, this year’s game has the opportunity to reshape the rivalry and bring back the competitive balance. Like Woody and Bo, both teams appear to have the right men at the helm to make it happen.
Brady Hoke achieved success a little faster than expected last season, guiding the Wolverines to an 11-2 record and winning its first BCS bowl game since a 2000 Orange Bowl win over Alabama.
More importantly, he also ended Michigan’s seven-game losing skid in the series with a 40-34 win in Ann Arbor.
Urban Meyer’s impact on the Buckeyes program has been nothing short of phenomenal. He has a moderately flawed team in position for an undefeated season, which probably says more about the Big Ten than it does about the Buckeyes.
When he finally has all of the pieces in place, there is little doubt that he will achieve the same success that he had at Florida.
If Hoke and Meyer can produce their own modern "Ten-Year War," the football health of the conference will dramatically improve, too, and that might be more significant in the long run.
While revenues for the conference are exploding, the level of play on the football field has been regressing. The Big Ten really needs a resurgence to go along with its financial success.
This process begins with Ohio State and Michigan becoming part of the elite once again.
When the Buckeyes and Wolverines are both great, the rest of the teams will have to dramatically improve to compete for the conference championship.
Think of it this way: The Buckeyes were lousy last year, and they still managed to beat Wisconsin. They also had Nebraska on the ropes until Braxton Miller went down with an injury, lost to Michigan State by three and Michigan by six.
The Wolverines were one year removed from the Rich Rod era and somehow finished 6-2 in the conference and went to a BCS game.
Ohio State is definitely improved this year, but the weaknesses are there to exploit. Despite their shortcomings, the Buckeyes still won the Leaders Division. With a win over Michigan, they will have swept the top two teams from the Legends Division.
This might be good for the Scarlet and Gray faithful, but it reflects the pathetic state of Big Ten football. It is time for every team to get better.
One game will not bring the conference back from the depths of mediocrity, but it can lay the foundation.
"The Game" captures the national attention like Alabama and LSU. When the level of play equals that game, the Big Ten will be back.
The 1990s were great for the Wolverines, and the Buckeyes thrived in the 2000s, but deep down both sides realize that winning is much more gratifying when the teams are similar in level of competition.
Meyer understands the importance of this game. All the wins will be meaningless and the season will be a failure if he cannot finish with a win against the dreaded “Team up North.”
That is what makes rivalries special.
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