There’s something special about Ohio State and Michigan coaches refusing to address each other’s teams by name. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer likes to refer to Michigan as the “school up north.” Wolverines coach Brady Hoke frequently harps on “Ohio” and his respect for the program. It’s that kind of tongue-in-cheek nudging that keeps this Big Ten rivalry heated.
But when Meyer met with reporters on Monday to preview Saturday’s installment of The Game, he let one slip. Asked about his view of the rivalry prior to his stint as a grad assistant with the Buckeyes in the 1980s, Meyer inadvertently name-dropped his opponent.
“Where I grew up in the Ten Year War, I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age,” Meyer said at his Monday press conference, referring to the clashes between former coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
Of course, someone told Meyer that he’d let the dreaded M-word escape. “Did I really?” the coach said, surprised. “I apologize.”
With such bad blood between the programs, it’s easy to forget the rivalry has been one-sided in recent years. The Buckeyes have won eight of the last nine meetings, including last season’s 21-16 victory in Columbus. Ohio State enters this Saturday riding a school-record 23-game winning streak and holds the No. 3 spot in the BCS standings. The Buckeyes haven’t lost under Meyer; they've locked up a spot in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 7 opposite Michigan State.
Meanwhile, Michigan has failed to keep up with its rival’s recent success. Since Brady Hoke arrived to replace Rich Rodriguez before the 2011 campaign, the Wolverines have gone 26-11, including 15-8 in conference play. But that record masks a gradual slide: Michigan went 11-2 in Hoke’s first season in '11 and reached the Sugar Bowl. It went 8-5 in '12 and lost in the Outback Bowl to South Carolina.
If the Wolverines drop Saturday’s meeting with the Buckeyes, they would head into bowl season with an underwhelming 7-5 mark. They'll extend a streak of nine consecutive seasons without a Big Ten championship, which is telling for a program that has won or shared 42 league titles in its history, the third most all-time. It’s also indicative of the growing separation between Michigan and Ohio State, as the Buckeyes eye a second straight undefeated season.
That gap isn’t lost on Hoke, but the coach said the focus remains the same as he works to bring the program back to prominence.
“Is the goal always to win the Big Ten championship? No question about it,” Hoke said at his Monday press conference. “And we won't make excuses nor back down from it. Have we played and coached as well as we've needed to? Obviously not. And those are things that we've got to keep going and keep working at every day because that's all you can do.”
Things looked up for Michigan when it began the season 5-0 and ranked as high as No. 11 in the AP Poll. But the Wolverines couldn’t hide their struggles, especially on offense. Hoke’s squad lost four of its next six games, including last week’s 24-21 defeat to Iowa. The Wolverines managed six points against Michigan State, 13 against Nebraska and six in regulation of an eventual overtime win against Northwestern.
Now, quarterback Devin Gardner and the offense must find a way to keep pace with Ohio State’s attack, which has averaged 55 points over its last four games. But the Wolverines won’t survive a shootout without better play from their offensive line. Hoke has started five different line combinations this season, perhaps the biggest reason for the unit’s inconsistency.
Offensive tackle Taylor Lewan and company have allowed 32 sacks this year, 110th in the country, and that pressure has done little to quell the concerns surrounding Gardner's decision-making. Hoke knows his team needs better protection against Ohio State’s vaunted defensive front. “We’ve rotated some guys through, but we haven't found the right chemistry,” Hoke said on the Big Ten teleconference on Tuesday. “Some of it is just inexperience and youth. But in your 11th, 12th game, those things should be cleaned up more.”
Michigan is even falling behind on the recruiting trail. According to Rivals.com, Meyer’s signing classes in 2012 and '13 ranked fourth and second in the country, respectively. His '14 class of verbal commitments currently ranks sixth. Michigan’s last two signing classes ranked seventh and sixth, but his '14 group currently checks in at No. 16.
The Wolverines already missed out on the top recruit in 2014: defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, who spurned Michigan for Alabama. This week, five-star defensive back Jabrill Peppers -- already a Wolverines commit -- shocked Big Blue faithful by announcing that he’ll take official visits elsewhere. Peppers told ESPN that as rumors circulated regarding Hoke’s job security, “I need to make sure that I have options and have seen other places.”
Buckeyes fan might enjoy the recent discrepancy between the two programs, but it actually bodes well for Ohio State if Michigan returns to championship contention. Right now, the Big Ten simply doesn't hold a candle to the strength of the SEC and Pac-12. The Buckeyes’ victory over Wisconsin in September stands as their best of the year, and a win over unranked Michigan would do little to boost the Buckeyes’ championship aspirations. That notion isn't likely to change when the College Football Playoff takes effect next year.
There is little doubt that Michigan must turn things around if Hoke is to remain the man in Ann Arbor. A monumental upset against his most important rival would be a major play in his favor.
“I’m just going from looking at watching our kids and how they’re preparing and the excitement that you have as a coach,” Hoke said on the Big Ten teleconference. “This, as you know, is a great college football game. It's the best rivalry in sport, in my opinion.”
The other big ones:
• No. 1 Alabama at No. 4 Auburn: This is the first time the Iron Bowl has decided the SEC West in the series history. We’ve already seen the power of Gus Malzahn’s magic in Auburn’s wild win over Georgia. Coming off a bye week, can the Tigers’ BCS hopes continue against the Crimson Tide?
• No. 2 Florida State at Florida: Will Muschamp could have faced an easier bounce-back game after his Gators inexplicably dropped last week’s meeting with FCS Georgia Southern. Don’t expect Jameis Winston and the ‘Noles to go easy on hapless Florida as they eye the BCS title game.
• No. 6 Clemson at No. 10 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier is usually peerless when it comes to verbal sparring, but Clemson coach Dabo Swinney could give South Carolina’s headman a run for his money. That means nothing but fun when these teams meet in Columbia.
• No. 22 UCLA at No. 23 USC: What an interesting situation for USC athletic director Pat Haden. If Ed Orgeron takes out rival UCLA for his seventh win in eight games as the Trojans’ interim coach, support will continue to grow for Haden to hire Orgeron full-time.
• No. 25 Notre Dame at No. 8 Stanford: Last year, Notre Dame stuffed Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor at the goal line for what would have been a game-tying score in overtime. David Shaw’s defense should make sure the game isn’t that close this time around.
• Arizona at No. 13 Arizona State: The Sun Devils already clinched a berth in the Pac-12 title game, but coach Todd Graham calls the matchup with Arizona the biggest game on his team’s schedule. With a win against the Wildcats, Graham and Arizona State would host Stanford in the conference championship. • No. 24 Duke at North Carolina: David Cutcliffe could put the bow on a remarkable season by toppling rival North Carolina. A victory would give Duke a program-record 10 wins and a spot in the ACC title game.