Ohio State vs. Michigan marks one of the most storied rivalries in college sports. If you live in the Midwest, or more specifically in Michigan or Ohio, this game is even greater in significance at the end of every year.
Over the years, the rivalry has always been hotly contested regardless of each team’s record. Generally, both storied programs are in contention for a Big Ten title and have been successful year in, year out.
The last two decades have called for an interesting twist however.
In the 1990s, no matter how good Ohio State was or how close they were to a guaranteed Rose Bowl birth and a chance at the national title, Michigan always seemed to find a way to beat the Buckeyes and spoiled several magical seasons along the way.
Any Buckeye fan will look back on this era with great sadness and emptiness. This led to the demise of rather successful but under appreciated head coach John Cooper.
This era set the tone for a baffling twist that sent both programs in opposite directions.
When former OSU head coach Jim Tressel was hired to take over the program in 2001, he put intense focus on “The Game” and set the tone by predicting victory at a Ohio State home basketball game prior to his first year as head coach.
Based on OSU’s 2-8-1 record since 1990 against Michigan, this was a bold claim to say the least. Not only did OSU deliver on this promise while fielding a solid but not so great 7-5 team in 2001, but Tressel also went on to lead OSU to an astounding 9-1 record against Michigan during his tenure.
Not only did he blow his goal and performance expectation out of the water against Michigan, but he more or less made the formally unattainable almost an expectation or even somewhat of an afterthought by the end of his tenure in Columbus.
Michigan reacted by growing frustrated with Lloyd Carr, the coach of their last national championship team who was more than successful as a coach in Ann Arbor.
The frustration of these newfound struggles against Ohio State and inability to reclaim national glory in the last part of his tenure was a direct result of coach Tressel’s dominant success in the rivalry.
Since the firing, Michigan has taken a tailspin to unprecedented struggles on the football field, and internal grumbling about its break from the tradition and excellence of Michigan Football under controversial coach Rich Rodriguez.
The rivalry may have taken a twist in 2011. Michigan finally broke down and parted ways with Coach Rodriguez and hired a “Michigan man” in Brady Hoke.
Despite not being the big name that they originally pursued like Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh, he gives the university a fresh breath of air. At the same time, Ohio State’s turbulence in 2011 claimed Coach Tressel’s job thus closing a chapter of Michigan dominance in the same year.
Will this be Michigan’s chance to turn the tables and repeat the 1990s?
I doubt it
Here are some reasons why.
Michigan is not the same
They have no direction, no identity, and they are fighting themselves to return to a tradition and excellence that is no longer relevant. Similar to Notre Dame, Michigan is not going to win anymore just because they are Michigan, and they do it the “Michigan way.”
If they want to win, they need to be adaptable to today’s game and upgrade on speed, talent and scheme like Ohio State has following struggles on the national stage last decade.
Psychologically Ohio State is in Michigan’s head
Any Ohio State fan will tell you that no matter how good OSU was or how shaky Michigan was, they suffered from major anxiety and doubt that OSU could win “The Game” in the 1990s because year in, year out, OSU’s coach Cooper teams found a way to lose.
Now there is no way that Michigan fans, players, and coaches cannot be scared and shaken by a nine losses in a 10-year span against Ohio State. The first thing they must overcome is the mind lock that Ohio State has on them.
It’s an expectation each year that Ohio State wins this game now.
OSU has better players and talent still
Despite the fact that OSU has suffered from several sanctions and will lose four key players to suspension (not including the permanent loss of their star QB Terrelle Pryor) for their transgressions over the last three years in Columbus collecting “perks” and “benefits” of being an Ohio State football player in Columbus where everything is about OSU football, OSU still has a significant talent advantage over Michigan due to the poor direction and recruiting failures of the Rodriguez era.
It is going to take time
Brady Hoke is probably a great guy, and he seems passionate and committed to ending this awful run in the rivalry.
But at the end of the day, in year one of the Hoke era after the mess that Rodriguez created, I seriously doubt that Michigan can close the gap and turn the tables on Ohio State despite the turbulence in Columbus this season.
Beware of the copycat
Ohio State knows this story all too well. In 2001, they hired little known Jim Tressel to buck this trend of losses to Michigan in the big game. Coach John Cooper did nothing but recruit and develop top-level NFL talent and consistently won during the regular season, but that act grew old.
Tressel came in and put intense focus on winning the game and was very successful in his 10 years in Columbus as a result. Do you think OSU has not noticed that Hoke is following this same script?
There is added incentive to shut down this idea that one guy can come in and be the next Tressel at the “school up north”
Added significance to the game
Ohio State has a difficult schedule including a couple games that will be played without key players such as RB Boom Herron and WR DeVier Posey.
This is compounded by the sudden loss of three-year starting quarterback and possible Heisman hopeful Terrelle Pryor. There is a chance that Ohio State could suffer 3-4 losses early in the season that could end their BCS and Big Ten hopes earlier than they have become accustomed to.
If this happens, the emphasis will be placed back on salvaging the season with another big win in “the game.” If this is the case, count on Coach Luke Fickell to rally up the troops to end the season with a bang and win one more time in Ann Arbor to deepen the wound in Michigan’s hearts.
The ghost of Jim Tressel
He may have been ousted in Columbus, but the pride and school spirit that he left in the program today, combined with the blueprint for excellence in Columbus is a larger shadow than Michigan faithful would like to admit.
Adding to the psychological advantage, at this point, it has become an expectation for Ohio State to beat Michigan and now most Michigan fans and faithful have to be wary of when and how they will ever beat Ohio State again.
The legacy of the sweater and the singing of Carmen Ohio are just two of the many lasting traditions and memories that Tressel leaves in this program that will last beyond his this year and extend for years to come.
His emphasis on winning “The Game” every day of the year however is what gives OSU their edge.
Denard Robinson’s health/help
If Michigan expects Denard to carry the load like Coach Rodriguez did last year, he will be worn down and banged up by the end of the season again.
He started last year as arguably the best player in the country and ended it in rather unmemorable fashion. He is relatively light in stature and cannot take the pounding that was expected of him last year.
Assuming Coach Hoke will retreat to tradition, can Denard be successful as a pocket passer and does he have the weapons on offense that will keep him from shouldering a similar load for Michigan to score on offense?
There is little reason to say yes to this question right now. As a result, it is hard to see Denard Robinson playing at an optimum level next November when the big game comes around.