Ohio State and Michigan are ready to tangle one more time in one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. There have been rivalry defining games in the past that have turned the momentum of this storied matchup. Is this one of them?
The Game of the Century
The year was 2006 and Ohio State and Michigan played one of the most recognizable and memorable games in the storied history of the rivalry. Both teams weren’t too terribly far removed from a national championship.
The Buckeyes had taken one in January of 2002, and Michigan had done the same in 1997. Jim Tressel had found a way to get in the head of That School Up North since his arrival in 2001, but both teams took turns jockeying for position as the dominant team in the Big Ten on almost a yearly basis.
It all came built to a crescendo less than a decade later in 2006 as both came into the “Game of the Century” undefeated. Ohio State was ranked No. 1, Michigan No. 2.
To the winner went all the spoils, which just happened to be a spot in the BCS Championship Game, and a shot at another national title.
Despite the tide turning a bit with Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr losing to Tressel in four of the five years previously, Michigan was still Michigan. Ohio State in the meantime had become a mainstay in the BCS bowls.
We all know what happened next. In one of the most entertaining games anyone has ever seen, Ohio State out gunned Michigan in a shoot out 42-39, and went on to the BCS Championship Game where it got drilled in the desert by Urban Meyer’s SEC Florida squad.
The loss in the Fiesta Bowl was a shot to the collective psyche of the Buckeye program for sure, but it still found itself in a revolving door in and out of the national spotlight.
A Sink into the Abyss
The story for Michigan is not so rosy.
Somehow, that fateful night in Columbus seemed to be the end of an era for the Wolverines. Lloyd Carr lasted just one more year, largely because of a newfound inability to color the Scarlet and Gray lines Maize and Blue. It all started one of the most dismal periods in Michigan football history.
Over the next seven years, the Wolverine program was like a wandering traveler who didn’t quite know who or what it was — or where it was going. The Rich Rodriguez experiment always felt a little like squeezing a sumo wrestler into a wet-suit, and Brady Hoke said the right things but couldn’t get his teams to produce on the field.
Quite simply put, the Michigan program was fractured and battered, and only a hire of the right coach would bring it back to its rightful place among the elite of college football. Michigan football wasn’t dead, but it was on life support.
That brings us to today. Jim Harbaugh is now stomping around Ann Arbor wearing his khakis and whistle, tweeting 140 characters of nonsense at times and looking about as comfortable as a fly at a frog convention during interviews and press conferences.
But he’s winning games.
And so is Urban Meyer. At a record pace in fact. At a place that has a high standard already.
A rivalry in flux
Truth be known, that 2006 game seemed to keep Ohio State among the blue-bloods of the sport, while it delivered an upper-cut that seemed to knock the Wolverine program back a decade or more. It’s just now realizing a recovery and hoping beyond all hope that it sticks this time.
But 2006 is not the only time this game seemed to usher in a new era for both teams. This rivalry has catapulted certain coaches into stardom, and threw others back into the shadows, never to be seen with the same light again.
The hiring of Woody Hayes saw the Ohio State program take control of this rivalry through the mid-sixties. That lasted until Bo Schembechler began staring across the sideline at his old mentor and swung the balance back Michigan’s way. That year was 1969.
Woody eventually became unhinged after the Ten Year War, got fired and paved the way for Earl Bruce to be a footnote to this classic tussle. He did just fine against Michigan but couldn’t do any better than 9-3 overall yearly, so he was fired, giving way to one of the punch lines of this rivalry, John Cooper.
The hiring of Cooper brought the program back among the elite, but unfortunately he couldn’t beat Michigan, so he too was shown the door. With Cooper steering the ship, Michigan dominated the rivalry to the tune of 7-2-1, leaving the Buckeye program at another fork in the road.
Undaunted and grasping for anything to get back on equal footing with Darth Vader, Ohio State hired a no-name guy named Jim Tressel. He did more than wear a sweater vest and answer questions as indirectly as a senator looking for re-election. He immediately restored order in Columbus by making the Wolverines an annual punching bag in Columbus. He finished with nine wins, and just one-loss against the declawed carnivores.
The opportunity ahead
And that brings us back to Harbaugh.
This game has huge stakes hanging around its neck, much like the 2006 contest. Could this possibly be a moment in time we’ll remember when the tide turned back towards one much more kind to winged helmets?
Harbaugh’s team was embarrassed last year, but the stakes weren’t as high, and the team swashbuckling into Ohio Stadium this year is a much more complete team than the one that got bludgeoned last year.
This time around Urban Meyer is the seasoned coach trying to keep the high tide right where it’s at against a new and energized coach looking to bring balance back to the universe. The Wolverines should a legitimate shot to kill OSU’s dreams on Saturday.
Is the combination of a senior laden team and new coaching staff enough to plant a flag in Ohio Stadium that Michigan is back? For all the goodwill the Wolverines have garnered this year, it’ll all be for not unless it can beat back the team that has owned it over the last decade and a half. Ohio State is still the flag-bearer of the Big Ten until Michigan changes that tune.
You know it’s going to happen at some point. This rivalry has been one where one team will dominate with ebbs and flows. Michigan will get its turn on top again, we’re just not sure when that moment will come.
The catalyst could come Saturday, or it could be more of the same for just one more year.
Either way though, this rivalry — arguably the best in all of sports — is at a crossroads one way or another. Meyer and Harbaugh have all the potential to beat each other up much like Woody and Bo did. At the least, the Michigan program is going to be more competitive against Ohio State as long as Harbaugh and his quirky ways are still living in the 734 area code.
Whether those competitive juices turning in Harbaugh’s stomach turn into more wins against one of the greatest coaches of all time remains to be seen.
All we can do is pull up a chair and enjoy the start of something here. For the foreseeable future, as long as both Urban and Jim are crossing paths in recruiting, crossing paths in the media, and crossing paths on the football field, we’re all going to be treated to more of those iconic and historic moments that define this rivalry.
Yep. We’re at a crossroads in this one. The only difference for us as fans is that either way we go, we can’t lose.
Phil Harrison is the lead Big Ten writer for CollegeFootballNews.com. Catch his analysis and opinion all-season long.