The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State is perhaps the greatest rivalry in all of sports - at least it used to be. These days, what was once an annual battle between two college football powerhouse programs has become an annual bludgeoning at the expense of the Wolverines. Michigan has defeated Ohio State just once over the last 16 years and only twice over the last two decades. As far as ‘The Game’ is concerned, it’s been a long and painful stretch for the Michigan Football program to say the least.
While Ohio State spent the last two weeks defeating Clemson in the college football playoff semifinal and preparing for their national championship matchup with Alabama, the Wolverines have spent the last two weeks waiting to see if their current head coach would accept an extension and return for the 2021 season. Two different programs, two very different realities.
Even though the two programs didn’t meet on the field during the 2020 season, the Buckeyes were able to find other ways to embarrass and disrespect the Wolverines off the field. As fall camp was kicking off, Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day reportedly had a heated exchange during a Big Ten coaches conference call. Following the exchange, Day reportedly told his players that Michigan had better hope for a mercy rule and that the Buckeyes were “going to hang 100 on them."
With rivalry week underway, the Buckeyes provided yet another example of how little they respect the Michigan Football program. Ohio State junior safety Josh Proctor uploaded a video of Buckeye players using a Michigan jersey as a floor mat to wipe their shoes on and the video quickly began making its rounds on social media. While an act like this isn’t necessarily something out of the norm for two rival programs, the images of Buckeye players trampling a Michigan jersey served as almost the perfect metaphor for the current state of the rivalry.
Unfortunately, any fuel that the video would have added to the fire on the field was extinguished days later when Michigan announced it would cancel the game with Ohio State due to COVID issues within the football program. Even though this had been the second straight game the Wolverines would cancel due to COVID, it didn’t take long for Buckeye fans and players alike to decide there was an alternative motive behind the cancellation - cowardice. In fact, Kirk Herbstreit - former Buckeye and current College Gameday analyst - went as far as to suggest that the Wolverines would ultimately cancel the game using COVID as an excuse just days earlier.
"I still think Michigan waves the white flag and potentially avoids playing Ohio State next week. Is that fair? Michigan could opt out, basically, and keep Ohio State out of playing six games to qualify for the Big Ten championship. That doesn't make sense to me."
Facing blowback for his comments, Herbstreit would later walk them back and issue a video apology via his twitter account.
"I had no business at all saying that. I have no evidence of that. It was completely unfair to the University of Michigan, to Jim Harbaugh, to his players and his coaches."
In spite of the apology, the comments didn’t sit well with the folks in Michigan - particularly Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel.
"I have to pause because my words, the anger, I was infuriated by the insinuation that Michigan would do anything other than play a football game," Manuel said. "We’ve been playing this game since 1879. We’re the winningest program for a reason, because we play whoever’s in front of us. The only way we want to keep anybody from moving on is to beat them on the field as a player.”
"To insinuate that, to say something other than that, is a statement by a fool. It is something — I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am for the Big Ten conference to have one of their representatives, who played this game, to say that about any team in this conference. And to say it about college football and the student-athletes around this country who are trying to play games, during a pandemic, it’s ridiculous and sad.”
The final act of disrespect (so far) came within the last 24 hours as Michigan made the contract extension with Jim Harbaugh official. Though rival Buckeye fans were quick to take to social media platforms to celebrate the extension, the official twitter account of the Ohio State football program also liked a tweet by Bleacher Report announcing Harbaugh’s return. The Ohio State Football twitter account would also post another subtle jab at Harbaugh’s return later that same day.
I get it, none of these things individually are really anything outside of the norm when it comes to fierce rivalries. Disrespect is to be expected. Even so, the reality is that the Ohio State football program has no respect for the Michigan Football program. They have no concerns whatsoever that Michigan will ever knock them off of their perch atop the Big Ten conference. In addition to the lack of respect, many within the Ohio State football program now view the Wolverines as cowards - believing they used COVID as an excuse to avoid competing on the football field.
The Buckeyes will take the football field on Monday evening and compete with Alabama for a shot at their second national championship in the last seven years. The Wolverines will likely be watching from home, assuming they can stomach it. Two different programs, two very different realities.
Regardless of the outcome on Monday night, we know what the Ohio State Buckeyes will be doing in the hours that follow - preparing for Michigan. If the Wolverines hope to change the narrative of this once great rivalry next fall, the work begins now.