In the days leading up to the 107th renewal of what we refer to around here simply as The Game, I spent a lot of time with friends and family – not to mention appearances on several sports talk shows – defending the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry.
Because I grew up during “The Ten-Year War” between Woody and Bo, I have the utmost respect for what truly has been the greatest rivalry in American sports over the years.
With that respect comes a tremendous amount of reverence for bygone days when both teams were national powers, when a Big Ten championship trophy was more important than the national title, and when the Rose Bowl was truly The Granddaddy of Them All.
Of course, it’s simply not that way anymore and to pretend it is would be foolish. As it says in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Perhaps clinging to what was once the mystique of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is a childish thing. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Mirroring the ups and downs of everyday life itself, the rivalry is cyclical and always has been. With the exception of the first dozen or so games in the series when OSU was nothing more than a glorified club team, the rivalry is nearly a draw. Since Chic Harley finally led the Buckeyes to their first victory over Michigan in 1919, the series shows 44 victories for Ohio State, 45 for the Wolverines and four ties.
Things have tightened considerably over the past decade because Jim Tressel has won nine times in 10 tries against Michigan including the last seven in a row. Anyone with even a passing interest in Ohio State football knows that is an unprecedented run of success, and every Buckeye fan savors each and every one of those victories.
Yet as each year passes, and each win over Michigan seemingly becomes a foregone conclusion, the greatness of the overall rivalry seems to erode bit by bit.
There is a new generation of young Ohio State fans who have never known their favorite team to lose to Michigan. As the OSU winning streak gets longer and longer, who could blame them for never fully understanding why a game against Michigan holds any more weight than a game against Wisconsin? After all, there always seems to be the danger of losing to the Badgers. Not so against the Wolverines.
Likewise, there is an entire generation of Michigan fans being weaned on a legacy of losing to Ohio State. Not that I really care about that because along with a respect for the rivalry that was ingrained into me at an early age, so, too, was a hatred for anything maize and blue.
But that hatred was healthy and it was born from respect for a feared enemy. After all, no team in college football has more all-time wins than Michigan. It has a record 42 Big Ten championships. It counts 11 national titles. It is the home of Fielding Yost and Tom Harmon and Gerald Ford. Beating Michigan always meant you were beating the best. It always meant something special. Now? Houseflies generate more buzz than a victory over the Wolverines.
I realize every college program experiences its ups and downs. For example, this season Texas became the first team in the BCS era to miss out on bowl eligibility just one year after playing for the national championship. Notre Dame counts only one 10-win season since 2002 and hasn’t seriously contended for a national title in nearly 20 years. No matter how good you are for how long, the pendulum eventually swings the other way.
How long it swings against Michigan seems totally up to current university officials. Far be it from me to give any advice to them, but their course seems clear. If what has occurred over the past decade has been enjoyable – especially these past three seasons when your team has been completely outclassed by Ohio State and outscored by a 100-24 margin – then by all means keep your status quo and we can have this same conversation throughout the next decade.
Then again, if you are interested in making this great rivalry competitive again, look yourselves in the mirror and admit the obvious. Rich Rodriguez was the wrong hire at the wrong time for the wrong program, and it is time to make a change.
The argument against Michigan making a coaching change – and I’ve heard it from both Ohio State and Michigan fans – is that Rodriguez is John Cooper incarnate and OSU kept Cooper around for 13 seasons. While that is true, the comparison of the two coaches is a weak one.
There is no getting around the fact that Coop was 2-10-1 against the Wolverines, and many of those 10 losses were epic failures. But where the debate loses credibility is when you match the relative talent of the teams Cooper fielded vs. those so far in the Rodriguez era at Michigan.
Despite losing the rivalry game so many times during Cooper’s tenure from 1988 to 2000, the Buckeyes still managed to finish nine of those 13 seasons in the national rankings including five times as a top-10 team. Three times – in 1993, ’95 and ’96 – the Buckeyes entered The Game with an undefeated record. Eight times during the Cooper era, the OSU-Michigan contest had a direct bearing on how the Big Ten championship was decided.
How many times have the Wolverines finished among the top 25 during Rodriguez’s tenure? How many times have they entered the Ohio State game with an undefeated record? How many times have they played the Buckeyes with the Big Ten title on the line?
Lumping Cooper and Rodriguez together is an unfair apples-to-oranges comparison. Despite his shortcomings in the season’s final two games, I have always and will always maintain Coop did a creditable job at Ohio State. Likewise, there was no doubting his prowess as a recruiter who populated his teams with a host of future NFL stars – a couple of who are still active contributors in the league. How many players on the current Michigan roster do you believe will one day play in the NFL? For that matter, how many of them do you think could even start for Ohio State right now?
Perhaps you believe if Rodriguez is given the same kind of time that Cooper was afforded, he will bring Michigan back to prominence. After all, he turned West Virginia into a national power, didn’t he? The answer to that question would depend upon your definition of a national power.
Rodriguez’s record for his first four years in Morgantown was a pedestrian 28-21 before he turned it on to post a 32-5 mark during his final three seasons. His best finish came in 2005 when the Mountaineers finished 11-1, won an outright Big East championship and took a 38-35 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Even during that season, however, the sustainability of Rodriguez’s coaching philosophy was being challenged due to his lack of diversity on offense. Behind freshmen Steve Slaton at running back and the mobile Pat White at quarterback, the Mountaineers were the No. 4 rushing team in the nation but ranked a lowly 115th in passing. The following year, with Slaton and White as sophomores, West Virginia finished 11-2 and won the Gator Bowl over Georgia Tech, but the team was still one-dimensional with the nation’s No. 2 rushing attack and No. 100 pass offense.
It was the more of the same in 2007 when the Mountaineers needed only a season-ending victory over Pittsburgh to play for the national title and couldn’t get it done. Despite possessing the nation’s No. 3 running offense, West Virginia was dealt a 13-9 loss by the Panthers, who entered that game with a 4-7 overall record.
The simple truth of the matter is that the Big Ten is a northern conference built on power football.
In this day and age, obviously you need team speed and at least some kind of diversity in your offensive playbook to compete. But to be a year-in and year-out contender for this conference championship, you must be able to run the football and you must be able to play stone-cold defense. On wet, windy, gray November days in the Big Ten, either you run the football and play defense or you’re so much garbage by the side of the road.
The tradition of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is steeped in that smash-mouthed mentality, and you don’t need much football acumen to connect the dots between the Buckeyes’ six consecutive Big Ten championships and the fact they have ranked among the nation’s top 10 defensive units in each of those six seasons.
Where has Michigan’s defense been ranked during Rodriguez’s three-year tenure? The Wolverines were 67th in yardage allowed in 2008 and 82nd last year before bottoming out at 109th this season. In terms of points allowed, they were 84th nationally during his first season, 77th last year and 102nd this year.
In other words, Michigan isn’t getting better – at least on defense. The stark reality of the numbers indicates the Wolverines are getting worse. Much worse.
Rodriguez is fond of the saying “You’re either the hammer or the nail,” but with a one-dimensional offense, a horrible defense, a three-year overall record of 15-21 and a Big Ten mark of 6-18, his program sure as hell isn’t a hammer. It isn’t even a nail. It’s more like a toothpick.
As far as that is concerned, I admit I’m conflicted. Any Ohio State victory over the Wolverines is a wonderful thing to be cherished, but how satisfying are countless victories if they come against a defenseless opponent? I contend a Michigan program that is merely a shadow of its former self is not good for the Big Ten and not good for the OSU-Michigan rivalry.
For better or for worse, the reputation of the conference as a whole – and that of Ohio State to a great degree – is predicated on the Michigan football team being a national power. And if that is ever going to happen again in the near future, the decision in Ann Arbor seems clear. Rodriguez has to go.
THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY
** On Nov. 30, 1940, Washington’s Ernie Steele became the first player in college football history to return two kicks for a touchdown in a single game. Steele returned a kickoff 87 yards and took a punt back 83 yards as his 12th-ranked Huskies to a 33-9 victory over Washington State.
** On Dec. 1, 1951, sixth-ranked Georgia Tech forced an NCAA-record 13 turnovers (five fumbles and eight interceptions) during a 48-6 victory over instate rival Georgia.
** On Dec. 2, 1990, Houston quarterback David Klinger set a new Division I-A single-game record by throwing for 716 yards in a 62-45 victory over Arizona State.
** On Dec. 3, 1885, former Ohio State football coach Francis A. Schmidt was born in Downs, Kansas, Schmidt was one of the most accomplished and colorful coaches in college football history. He played at Nebraska, where he earned a law degree, and later rose to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army during World War II. Schmidt began his head coaching career in 1919 and served stints at Tulsa, Arkansas, TCU, Ohio State and Idaho. While with the Buckeyes, he became the first (and still only) head coach to beat Michigan in each of his first four tries and Schmidt also instituted the Gold Pants Club to mark each victory over the Wolverines. Schmidt retired from coaching following the 1942 season and died two years later of a heart attack at the age of 58. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
** On Dec. 3, 1994, the Southeastern Conference championship game was a thriller. Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel threw a 2-yard touchdown pass with five minutes left, and the No. 6 Gators squeezed out a 24-23 victory over undefeated and third-ranked Alabama.
** On Dec. 5, 1993, Wisconsin went all the way to Tokyo to score a 41-20 win over Michigan State, clinching the Badgers’ first Rose Bowl trip in 31 years.
** On Dec. 6, 1873, Yale defeated Eton Players of England by a 2-1 final. It was the first college football game in the U.S. played with 11 men on each side.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** With one week to go in the regular season, Auburn, Oregon and TCU are the only unbeaten Division I-A teams left standing. Special congratulations to TCU, which completed its second straight regular season with perfect a 12-0 record, the first back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons in school history.
** Knowing what we know about conference tie-ins and which bowls pick first in the at-league selection process, it looks like Oregon and Auburn in the BCS National Championship game, Wisconsin and TCU in the Rose Bowl, the Big 12 champion vs. the Big East champion in the Fiesta Bowl, Arkansas vs. Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and the ACC champion vs. Stanford in the Orange Bowl.
** What could throw a monkey wrench in the aforementioned bowl matchups is a South Carolina upset of Auburn in the SEC championship game. That would knock the Tigers out of the national championship game and likely move TCU into their place. Auburn would likely still be a BCS at-large team and would probably meet Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. It would also put South Carolina into the Sugar Bowl and probably knock a 10-2 Arkansas team out of the BCS and into the Capital One Bowl where the Razorbacks could commiserate with Michigan State, which finished 11-1.
** When Boise State went down last Friday night, it stopped the nation’s longest win streak at 24 games. Auburn now holds the longest winning streak at 13.
** The Tigers have been remarkably resilient this season. They are 12-0 but have trailed in eight of those games, four of them by 13 points or more. They trailed by 17-3 at the half before rallying for a 27-24 overtime win over Clemson; fell behind by 13 in the second quarter before taking a 35-27 win over South Carolina; fell into an early 21-7 hole during a 49-31 win over Georgia; and somehow made up a 24-0 deficit last Friday before storming back to take a 28-27 victory over Alabama.
** In addition to the longest winning streak being snapped, so, too, was the nation’s longest losing streak last week. Akron took a 22-14 victory over Buffalo last Friday night, ending the Zips’ 11-game skid. San Jose State and Memphis now share the nation’s longest losing streak. Each has lost nine in a row.
** With his team’s victory over Michigan, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel moved into the all-top 10 in Big Ten coaching wins. The Buckeyes’ 37-7 victory over the Wolverines gave Tressel his 66th conference win, tying him for 10th place on the all-time list with George Perles of Michigan State (1983-94) and Murray Warmath of Minnesota (1954-71). Tressel needs four more league wins next season to catch his predecessor at OSU, who currently holds down the No. 9 spot. John Cooper totaled 70 Big Ten wins with the Buckeyes from 1988-2000.
** When Michigan QB Denard Robinson totaled 105 yards rushing last week against Ohio State, he became the second opposing player to crack the century mark this season vs. the Buckeyes. The other was Wisconsin running back John Clay, who had 104 during his team’s 31-18 win over OSU in mid-October. In the 127 games during the Tressel era, the Ohio State defense has surrendered a 100-yard performance only 18 times and the Buckeyes are 9-9 in those games. Only three of those 100-yard games have been turned in by quarterbacks – Zack Mills of Penn State (138 in 2001), Jake Locker of Washington (102 in 2007) and Robinson.
** Congratulations to my father-in-law’s alma mater. Miami (Ohio) went from 1-11 last season to 8-4 and playing in the Mid-American Conference championship game this year.
** Congratulations are also in order for Stanford, which pitched three shutouts this year for the first time since 1969; South Florida, which had two overtime wins this season to run its all-time record to 9-0 in OT; and Ohio State, which lost only two fumbles all season. By way of comparison, Auburn lost eight fumbles this season and Oregon lost 13.
** The Sun Belt conference has imploded this season with nine teams having at least five losses. Florida International has already clinched at least a share of the league championship, but the Golden Panthers are barely bowl-eligible at 6-5.
** Wisconsin shattered the school record for scoring this season, piling up 520 points. That obliterated the old mark of 446 points set in 2005. The Badgers also scored 70 or more points in three games this season for the first time in their history.
** By all accounts, Randy Shannon cleaned up the mess that was the Miami (Fla.) football program when he took over in 2007. His reward? Shannon was fired one day after his Hurricanes lost to South Florida and finished 7-5. His four-year record at the school was 28-22. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland was named interim coach for the Hurricanes’ bowl preparation.
** The regular season isn’t over yet and already three I-A head coaches have been axed. In addition to Shannon, Bill Lynch is out at Indiana and Louisiana-Lafayette has dismissed Rickey Bustle. Lynch was 19-30 in four seasons with the Hoosiers but only 6-26 in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Bustle had an eight-year record of 41-65 with the Ragin’ Cajuns, including a 28-31 mark in the Sun Belt conference.
** Washington is about to temporarily lose one of college football’s loudest home-field advantages. Renovation of Husky Stadium will begin in November 2011 and the Huskies will move their base of operations to Qwest Field – home of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks – until the project is completed in 2013.
** Here is the schedule for the BCS games: Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, Calif.; Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.; Orange Bowl, Jan. 3, Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.; Sugar Bowl, Jan. 4, Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, La.; BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 10, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
After playing lights-out for most of the season, the Forecast took a small step backward last week with misses in three upset games – Kent State over Ohio, Minnesota over Iowa and Nevada over Boise State. Nevertheless, it was still a 7-3 week straight up to move the season record to 113-22.
Against the spread, we broke a two-week losing streak with a 6-4 finish. That makes us a rock-solid 78-52-5 for the year.
Even though Ohio State’s regular season is over, there are a couple of tasty treats before the final BCS standings are announced Sunday. Here are the ones we like.
Rutgers at No. 24 West Virginia: The Mountaineers are looking to put an exclamation point on a pretty good season by securing a win here and at least a share of the Big Least championship. WVU head coach Bill Stewart really couldn’t have picked a better opponent since his team is 31-4-2 all-time against the Scarlet Knights, including wins in all 16 games that have been played in Morgantown. Tailback Noel Devine (855 yards, 6 TDs) gets most of the West Virginia publicity, but this game will likely be won by the Mountain Men’s defense. They are ranked among the top 10 nationally in sacks while Rutgers freshman QB Chas Dodd has been sacked 16 times in the last two games … West Virginia 27, Rutgers 14. (12 noon ET, ABC)
Utah State at No. 11 Boise State: Here as Forecast World Headquarters, we have beat the drum for the Broncos all season. That said, they knew their margin for error was razor-thin so we have no sympathy for last week’s overtime loss to a pretty good Nevada team. This week, Boise gets to try and start a new winning streak against the Aggies, a team that hasn’t played since a 28-6 loss to Idaho on Nov. 20. Yes, that’s the same Idaho team that got streamrolled by a 52-14 score on Nov. 12 by Boise State. You might also want to know Utah State is working on a 27-game losing streak against ranked opponents … Boise State 49, Utah State 7. (3 p.m. ET, WAC Sports Network)
No. 17 Nevada at Louisiana Tech: If you had doubts about the Wolf Pack, you need only look back at last week when they wiped out a 17-point halftime deficit against Boise State and racked up 528 yards on a defense that had been ranked No. 2 in the nation in total defense. The Pack has as potent an offense as you’ll find in college football with the one-two punch of RB Vai Taua (1,372, 17 TDs) and QB Colin Kaepernick (2,671 yards and 20 TDs passing, 1,029 yards and 17 TDs rushing). Not that La Tech is any slouch on offense. The Bulldogs feature RB Lennon Creer, who has totaled 1,132 and 10 TDs, second-best in the WAC behind Taua. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs are deficient on the other side of the ball, ranking 114th nationally in total defense. The Wolf Pack will likely suffer a little letdown following last week’s big win, but not enough for any upset … Nevada 34, Louisiana Tech 14. (3 p.m. ET, WAC Sports Network)
No. 2 Oregon at Oregon State: No rivalry game has more unpredictability than the Civil War. The Ducks are a prohibitive favorite this year because, well, because they have won 11 straight games by an average margin of 32.2 points while the Beavers have lost three of their last four. But Oregon State is playing at home and needs this victory to get bowl-eligible. Meanwhile, Oregon is already talking about the national championship game. Seems to us that the last time the Ducks flapped their bills unceasingly, Ohio State taught them a lesson in humility at the Rose Bowl. Two weeks ago, Cal reminded everyone how to defend against Oregon’s point-a-minute offense. Just a hunch – a big one – but we’re thinking an Upset Special that sends the final BCS standings into a tizzy … Oregon State 26, Oregon 23. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 19 South Carolina: We’re not going to lie. We have seldom rooted for Steve Spurrier because of his gigantic ego. In this one, however, we’ll give the Ol’ Ball Coach a pass since every signpost points to dirty dealings involving Auburn QB Cam Newton and the NCAA refuses to do anything about it. Most people have forgotten that these two teams played already this season, and the Gamecocks held a 20-7 lead in the first half and were still leading 27-21 after three quarters before Newton threw a pair of late TD passes for a 35-27 win. South Carolina has enough offense to match Auburn with QB Stephen Garcia (2,646 yards, 18 TDs) and RB Marcus Lattimore (1,114 yards, 17 TDs), and the Gamecocks also feature the No. 5 rushing defense in the country. So why not pick the upset? Why not indeed? … South Carolina 27, Auburn 24. (4 p.m. ET, CBS)
No. 21 Florida State vs. No. 15 Virginia Tech: While the Hokies have pretty much run roughshod over the rest of the ACC in recent years, they have typically had nightmares about the Seminoles. FSU beat Tech to win the 2000 national championship, beat them in ’05 for the ACC title, and then beat the Hokies again two years ago, 30-20, when Tech was favored. That the Hokies have come off the mat for 10 straight wins after season-opening defeats to Boise State and I-AA James Madison is remarkable, but it is also remarkable the Seminoles have won nine games after the offseason turmoil that accompanied the ouster of longtime head coach Bobby Bowden. We are always reluctant to pick the Hokies in a nationally televised night game because they rarely perform well on the big stage. But since this seems to be the week for playing hunches. Therefore … Virginia Tech 27, Florida State 23. (7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 9 Oklahoma at No. 13 Nebraska: Billion-dollar Cowboys Stadium provides the setting for what will be the Cornhuskers’ swan song as Big 12 members. This time next year, Nebraska hopes it will be preparing for the first-ever Big Ten championship game while the title contest in the Big 12 disappears due to that conference’s shrinking membership. Since Nebraska isn’t exactly leaving on the best of terms, do you think it’s possible that at least some fans around the Dallas area will show up to root for archrival Oklahoma? It is a redemption game for the Sooners, who lost 10-3 to the Huskers last season, and especially for QB Landry Jones, who was intercepted five times in that game. How in the world could you go against someone named Landry playing in Cowboys Stadium? … Oklahoma 23, Nebraska 17. (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Here are the spreads for the above games: Rutgers (+21) at West Virginia; Utah State at Boise State (-37½); Nevada (-9) at Louisiana Tech; Oregon at Oregon State (+16½); Auburn (+6) vs. South Carolina; Florida State vs. Virginia Tech (-3½); Oklahoma (-3½) vs. Nebraska
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