Ohio State is 10–1. Its coach is one of the best in history, and its quarterback will get a chance to start in the NFL. This does not seem to be a program on fire, but in today’s world of college football, where everybody seems to have the attention span of a housecat with a cell phone addiction, Ohio State is caught in a narrative cycle from hell.
The cycle started with the Zach Smith news this summer. It continued through Urban Meyer’s suspension. Then the Buckeyes were blown out by Purdue, and last week against Maryland, Ohio State’s defensive players spent most of the game arguing over who was supposed to give the head coach his headache medicine. Urban Meyer has not looked good this season, and there has been rampant speculation that the brain cyst that has bothered him for decades will force him to retire again.
Ohio State can still beat Michigan this weekend. But Michigan should win, by two definitions of the word should. One is that Michigan has the better team. The other is that a Michigan win is what the rivalry needs.
And you know who knows that, deep down? A lot of Ohio State fans.
I have a friend who went to Ohio State. I will call him “Jim” because that is his name. He is, I think, representative of many (though obviously not all) Buckeyes. He can’t stand the thought of losing any particular game to Michigan. But he knows that, in the long term, the rivalry’s meaning and power depend on each team winning some games.
It doesn’t have to be even. But it has to be closer to even than it has been in the 21st century.
The Michigan–Ohio State rivalry is not like most rivalries. There is no big brother-little brother dynamic, and no in-state animus. Michigan and Ohio State are like mafia dons from rival families that wear unfashionable sweaters in different colors. They spend their fall killing the annoying little dudes from Indiana and Minnesota and Iowa, then turn to each other.
Ohio State sees itself as the school of the people, and Michigan sees itself as the school of the smarter people. It’s a class war of a different kind. It goes back to the Toledo War of the 1830s, when Michigan and Ohio fought for control of Toledo in anticipation that someday it would be a good place to recruit.
They have been on the same competitive plane ever since. Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler faced each other 10 times. Schembechler won five, Hayes won four, they tied once, and people are still arguing about the tie and its aftermath. To be fair, it was only 45 years ago.
That’s how this rivalry should be. One school is not supposed to win 15 times in 17 years, like Ohio State has. That would be like one political party winning every election, and who wants that?
O.K., bad example.
The odd part is that this era of Ohio State dominance did not feel like dominance in the beginning. Jim Tressel took over in Columbus in 2001, determined to put his own unique spin on unfashionable sweaters. He also wanted to beat Michigan, which had gone 10-2-1 against John Cooper.
Tressel beat Michigan’s Lloyd Carr six times in seven years. But only one of those OSU wins was really a blowout. Each game was a tense matchup between very good to great teams. The Buckeyes just made one or two more plays to win.
Carr retired after the 2007 game, and that’s when the rivalry started to get lopsided. Michigan had two of the wrong coaches (Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke), Ohio State had two of the right ones (Tressel and Meyer), and the games were usually ugly. Hoke actually did a very good job of getting his team in the right frame of mind for The Game. His teams just weren’t nearly as good as Ohio State’s.
Out went Hoke. In came Jim Harbaugh. And the rivalry has actually looked like it should again. Yes, Ohio State has won three straight. But the 2016 game was a classic of the rivalry: playoff berth on the line, exceptionally intense overtime game followed by intense complaining afterward. Even last year, when Michigan was having a lousy year and Ohio State would win the Big Ten, Michigan had a late third-quarter lead.
And so here they are. Maybe this will be the last regular-season game of Meyer’s tenure, Ohio State will hire Zach Smith’s attorney to replace him, and the rivalry will flip again. More likely, the next decade will feature two great Midwestern programs on even and extremely flat ground. Michigan should win The Game this year. But nobody should win it every year.