With the calls for Rich Rodriguez’s firing growing louder each week, and the threat of a second straight losing season, Michigan enters Ohio State week in what could be the most important game for the Wolverines in the history of the rivalry.
Sure, there was the “Game of the Century” in 2006 when both teams entered the game undefeated and ranked first and second in the nation.
Sure, there was 1997 when Michigan needed a win to advance to the national championship game.
Sure, there was the huge upset of No. 1 Ohio State in Bo Schembechler’s first season in 1969, a year after Ohio State drubbed Michigan 50-14, to claim a share of the Big Ten title.
But Saturday could be more important for the future of the Michigan football program than any of those.
No, there isn't a Big Ten title on the line or a BCS berth to play for.
But for a young Michigan team struggling to find its identity in the midst of the most dramatic change to the program in decades, a win over Ohio State on Saturday would have huge ramifications for the future.
First and foremost, a win would make Michigan bowl-eligible. Though not guaranteed a bowl invitation with a 6-6 record, Michigan is almost certain to get one given its prestige and fan following.
Even if it is the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (formerly known as the Motor City Bowl) it would be a tremendous boost to the program for the extra practice time and national exposure.
The regular season ends this Saturday, Nov. 22. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl is held on Dec. 26, so Michigan would essentially have an extra month of practice. For a young and developing team, that extra practice time would be invaluable.
Many of the freshmen only had a month of practice time before the season started. Tate Forcier and a few others left high school early to enroll in January and participate in spring practice.
But most, including quarterback Denard Robinson, arrived just in time for fall camp on Aug. 10 and opened the season against Western Michigan on Sept. 5.
During the season, there isn’t much the team can work on as it prepares for each opponent week-to-week. Much of Rodriguez’s system was installed in fall practice to get ready for the season.
During game weeks, the practices are spent working on getting ready for that week’s opponent and fine-tuning certain details. Various players miss practices every week because of injury, stinting their learning ability and practice time.
New wrinkles may be installed or specific plays that the coaching staff thinks can exploit the opponent can be put in, but the vast majority of what the players learn (the schemes, the playbook, the fundamentals) is learned during fall practice.
That’s why many times a team can look quite different in a bowl game than it did during the regular season, because that month of practice serves as another fall camp.
Injured players get healthy, new plays and schemes are installed and practiced until they become second nature, and confidence is gained while the losses of the season are forgotten.
Look no further than Michigan in 2007, for example. The team, in Lloyd Carr’s final season, sputtered to an 8-4 regular season record. It endured a humiliating home loss to Appalachian State, a blowout at the hands of Oregon, and got shut down by Ohio State.
In the bowl game, the Capital One Bowl against a 9-3 Florida team led by Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Michigan showed a much more dynamic and diverse offense than it had all season, winning 41-35.
It left Michigan fans wondering what could have been had Michigan played that way all season and also excited about the future of that style of offense once Rodriguez was hired.
And while Rodriguez’s offense has shown great promise and flashes of brilliance at times this season, it’s still plagued by inexperience.
A bowl game and the extra month of practice time would do wonders for this young and developing team.
In addition to the extra practice time, making it to a bowl game will give Michigan exposure on a national stage during the holidays at a time when everybody is watching, and a chance to finish on a high note heading into the offseason.
Nobody wants to endure eight months of misery like what followed Michigan’s 3-9 season a year ago. By finishing the season with a win over Ohio State and a bowl game, Michigan fans will be excited about 2010, and the players will be confident heading into the spring and summer.
The second reason Saturday’s game is so important is that beating Ohio State would help with recruiting. Michigan has quite a few visitors coming to Ann Arbor for official visits.
A chance to see Michigan beat its major rival in the Big House on the final week of the season would go a long way toward helping a recruit tip the scales in Michigan’s favor.
Eight of Michigan’s 24 commitments in the 2007 class were in attendance for the Michigan-Ohio State game in the Big House that year.
And while Michigan didn’t win that game, it wasn’t quite in the dire situation it is in now with a need for talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
If Michigan lays an egg against Ohio State and boos rain down from the stands, the attending recruits won’t have as good an experience as if Michigan pulls off the big win.
Some of the visitors expected to be in attendance on Saturday include: Chula Vista, Calif. four-star linebacker/safety Tony Jefferson; Pittsburgh four-star cornerback Cullen Christian; Jacksonville, Fla., four-star safety Rashad Knight; Detroit four-star cornerback Dior Mathis; and Eagle Lake, Fla., four-star safety/linebacker Marvin Robinson.
Robinson is already committed to Michigan, but has talked in the past few months about visiting other schools. A big win and a great experience on Saturday could help solidify his commitment.
Jefferson is currently committed to UCLA, and is visiting Florida next weekend, so showing him what it’s like to beat Ohio State in the Big House could go a long way toward stealing him.
Christian is also a prized recruit, since he’s a cornerback, a position Michigan really needs to fill, due to the dismissal of Boubacar Cissoko and possible departure of Donovan Warren to the NFL.
He has already visited UCLA and West Virginia (and possibly Pittsburgh), so Michigan has a chance wrap up his commitment with a great showing on Saturday.
Michigan needs to make this weekend special with a glimpse of what the future holds for the program and show these kids that despite the recent struggles, the program is heading in the right direction.
The third reason a win over Ohio State on Saturday would be huge for Michigan is for the support of Rodriguez and a reward for the senior class.
A win won’t completely erase the anti-Rodriguez sentiment, but it will at least quiet down until next season and win back some of those who have turned against him.
His 8-15 overall record and 3-12 Big Ten record includes just one win over Michigan’s big three rivals (and that was Notre Dame this season).
That stat alone has caused much of the friction among Michigan fans, since one of their main charges against Carr was that he couldn’t beat Ohio State once Jim Tressel arrived in Columbus in 2001.
Winning on Saturday would make Rodriguez 2-4 in that category, but more importantly, give Michigan its first win over the Buckeyes since 2003.
In addition to helping quell the Rodriguez detractors, a win would give the senior class its first win over Ohio State.
Guys like Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown, Brandon Graham, Stevie Brown, Greg Mathews, and Zoltan Mesko, who hung around through the coaching change, deserve a big win to cap off their careers.
Some of them (Graham and Mesko, at least) have bright futures ahead of them in the NFL and have played hard without complaining all season, despite not being Rodriguez’s recruits.
While "deserve" might not be the right word, since nothing in life is deserved, it would be a major disappointment for those guys to go their entire career without beating Ohio State.
A loss would end Michigan’s season at 5-7 (its second straight losing season) and give Ohio State its sixth straight victory in the rivalry.
It would send Michigan home for the holidays and keep the senior class winless against the Buckeyes.
It would leave feelings of despair and depression among Michigan fans worldwide until next fall.
It could prevent some highly-touted and much-needed recruits from choosing to play football at Michigan, and therefore, stunting the growth process even further.
So while many of the previous 105 games in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry have featured higher stakes in terms of championships, this Saturday’s game could be the most important game in the history of the rivalry for Michigan.
So let’s hope that everyone is all in for Rodriguez and the senior class when toe meets leather at high noon on Saturday.