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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 09/05/2012 4:24 PM
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Football
Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Ohio State-Michigan, No Apology Necessary
By Jeff Rapp

(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).

Let’s go back in time, but not too far.

Less than one short year ago, in late September 2011, Michigan’s football program was still trying to dig itself out of a prolonged slump as it was breaking in a new coach.

Meanwhile, that hated neighbor to the south, Ohio State, was dealing with massive off-the-field adversity coupled with a lackluster start to the season.

The Buckeyes were so underwhelming under first-year coach Luke Fickell that it took them just three weeks – and a 24-6 setback at Miami (Fla.) – to fall out of the top 25 in the national polls for the first time since November 2004.

Even with the onset of the Legends and Leaders divisions in the Big Ten Conference, which sets up the annual possibility of those perennial powers meeting in back-to-back weeks, the perception was that the league is down – that Ohio State and Michigan just don’t matter as much anymore.

That allowed the talking heads at ESPN to proclaim the OSU-UM rivalry had been bypassed atop the college football landscape and that all energies could be channeled to Alabama-Auburn, Florida-LSU or any other SEC dream match that comes along.

As one of that cable giant’s analysts is wont to say, “Not so fast my friends.”

Last summer, an impressively exhaustive study that was outlined and morphed into an impressively thorough article by Nate Silver and ran in the New York Times theorized with computation which program’s have the most following.

That list showed Ohio State leads the nation with more than 3 million fans, followed by – you guessed it – Michigan with roughly 2.9 million.

How strong is Buckeye Nation? That would be 3,167,263 strong, according to the NYT.

Silver writes that surveys find 75 to 80 million people in the United States regularly follow college football. In an attempt to pinpoint the one team each of those fans favor, Silver used a formula that considered factors such as television media markets, Google search traffic, revenues created by each football program, and an online survey called the CommonCensus Sports Map Project.

Silver ranked the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams of 2011 in order of the number of fans they have, according to his study.

For comparison sake, Akron ranked 89th and Kent State was 113th.

The top 10:
        Rank  School                Conference   Fans
           1.  Ohio State             Big Ten                     3,167,263
           2.  Michigan                 Big Ten                     2,921,066
           3.  Penn State              Big Ten                      2,642,275
           4.  Notre Dame            Independent              2,261,738
           5.  Texas                      Big 12                       2,250,310
           6.  Texas A&M            Big 12                       2,030,188
           7.  Auburn                   SEC                           1,900,389
           8.  Alabama                 SEC                          1,879,881
           9.  Florida                    SEC                           1,811,922
          10. Clemson                 ACC                           1,761,162

The study is also  intriguing because of the ongoing movement by high-profile schools from one conference to another, a subject that Silver addresses.

Silver writes, if the Big Ten intends to expand, the conference “can afford to be picky.”

Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State are the three most popular college football teams in the country, according to our study. Seven Big Ten teams, including new addition Nebraska, rank in the top 20 nationally. And all but one Big Ten school is in the top 50, the lone exception being Northwestern, which has the Chicago market and strong academics going for it.

“The only plausible additions that would allow the Big Ten to improve upon its average of about 1.5 million fans per team are Notre Dame (2.3 million fans) and Texas (also 2.3 million). But good luck adding those schools.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped Jim Delany from trying.

We know the conference has huge schools. In fact, the only one in the country with a larger enrollment than Ohio State is Arizona State (if you don’t count the University of Phoenix’s online program). However, perhaps the largest school in the country is Minnesota, which had a listed enrollment for all academics of just a hair below 64,000 in the spring of this year.

Big Ten brethren Penn State and Michigan State also are in the top 10 of most such statistics.

But Michigan is way up there, too, and the Wolverines are back on the national map when it comes to football thanks to Brady Hoke – you know, the guy who likes to refer to Ohio State as “Ohio.” He was named the national Coach of the Year by the Maxwell Football Club after leading UM to an eye-opening 11-3 season and win in the Sugar Bowl.

He seems to be the right fit in Ann Arbor, and his instant popularity only multiplied when Michigan got the seven-year monkey off its back and clipped OSU in a 40-34 thriller. The UM defense came back to respectability and quarterback Denard Robinson developed into a marketable and bona fide star.

Yes, the Wolverines lost running back Fitz Toussaint and a defender to a one-game suspension for the 2012 opener, and the were outclassed by Alabama Saturday night, but Michigan is still considered a heavyweight this season. Plus, the primetime showcase with ’Bama did very well in the television ratings. How well? ABC gobbled up virtually half of the viewers in the evening time slots.

Michigan should be back to full force and in the national conversation again when the Wolverines travel to Notre Dame on Sept. 22 and again when they host Michigan State on Oct. 20. Victories in those games would ensure UM as a perceived contender all the way to the Nov. 24 showdown with the Buckeyes.

Ohio State has surged into its own startling recovery, plucking Urban Meyer out of retirement and regaining instant credibility as an elite team – even after last year’s 6-7 showing under Fickell.

The Buckeyes, despite being postseason ineligible and coming off their first losing season since 1988, jumped to 14th in The Associated Press poll released Tuesday after destroying Miami University 56-10 on Saturday. And they will get lots more national face time.

Central Florida, a dangerous Conference USA squad few know anything about, is visiting the Horseshoe this Saturday and ESPN2 will be on hand to broadcast the matchup. ABC has snagged the Week 3 game with Cal and the Disney folks (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2) will be leg wrestling to show Ohio State at Michigan State on Sept. 29, vs. Nebraska on Oct. 6 and, believe it or not, at Penn State on Oct. 27.

The networks still plan to pump up USC, Oregon, the powers-that-be in the SEC, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State and several others. Plus, ESPN seems to already have its meat hooks embedded in the Penn State soap opera in hopes the Lions are good theater this fall.

But Ohio State and Michigan will not be ignored – and should not be ignored.

After all, their late-November battle figures to be epic as well as a ratings bonanza, most likely for ABC.

And the future is even brighter.

By all accounts, Ohio State and Michigan ranked 1 and 2 in the Big Ten – and in the top 10 nationally – in terms of recruiting hauls signed in February. The coaches are in place, the talent is returning, and so is a belief the Midwest could be on the verge of a new ‘Ten Year War.’

Add the two largest fan bases in the country to that equation and you’ve got, well, exactly what we all envision when we think of Ohio State vs. Michigan.

I don’t know if we’ll see Homeland Security on campus, as we did for the 2006 1 vs. 2 game at the ’Shoe, this year. Still, the game will be big, the game will matter, deeply, to both sides – this year and well beyond.

The fans, pundits and media moguls puffing on cigars are going to love every minute of it.

*This is the fifth installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.

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