Football The Rivalry

Saturday’s Stakes Reach Beyond Potential Playoff Berth

Jim Harbaugh Big Ten Football

By T. Orr

There is football of a bit of consequence being played Saturday near the Olentangy River, as you possibly have already heard.  

It has been a decade since both Ohio State and their rivals up north entered the regular season finale with legit chances at the national title still intact. When the rivalry last had these stakes, the Buckeyes won 42-39 and earned a shot at the national title. Rather than getting too bogged down in the specifics of what happened subsequently in Arizona, let’s just say that OSU’s beloved current head coach won his first crystal football that night and leave it at that.   

Since that 2006 showdown, the two squads have taken very different paths to get back to this point. Ohio State has nine double-digit win seasons in those 10 years, five Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl win, two Sugar Bowl wins, a Fiesta Bowl win, three national title appearances and one undisputed national crown.

The Wolverines opened the next season by suffering one of college football history’s funniest upsets, hired Rich Rodriguez, failed to reach bowls in back-to-back seasons, hired Brady Hoke, watched his fluky 11-win first season spiral into a spectacular collapse that ended with yet another bowl-less winter and had to resort to giving away tickets with the purchase of soft drinks.

Things finally started to turn around when they hired a fellow with a flair for attracting attention on Twitter, a taste for boogers and the national title-less pedigree worthy of a Bo disciple. The Wolverine fanbase instantly whipped itself into a frenzy, anticipating a reprise that fall of the shocking 1969 upset that kick-started the legendary battles of Woody vs. Bo. Instead they got handed a four-touchdown beatdown, and exited early to the soundtrack of a loud O-H-I-O chant echoing around the Big House yet again.

Even including the disastrous 6-7 record of 2011, the Buckeyes have only 20 losses total since the start of the 2007 season. Just one of those was against the Wolverines. For perspective, the boys in blue lost 20 out of their first 35 outings under Rodriguez.  

If you feel the need to try to link the unevenness of the rivalry’s past decade to, say, OSU’s record against Purdue, recognize that that doesn’t truly capture reality. After all, the Boilers have beaten the Buckeyes twice over that span to the Wolverines’ once, and in three fewer tries to boot.

The point of this retrospective, other than the chance to relive a particularly glorious and hilarious span of the rivalry, is to point out that for younger Buckeye fans, it likely feels like the Wolverines have always played the role of the Washington Generals to OSU’s Globetrotters.

This year’s first-year college students were in third grade during that 2006 season. This year’s seniors were in kindergarten when a new OSU coach walked onto the court at the Schott and let everyone know what would happen 310 days in the future.

At that point, Jabrill Peppers was the single greatest juice box drinker, finger-painter and “Wheels on the Bus” singer in the history of preschoolers worldwide, and you’re clearly just ignorant if you disagree about any of those.

For fans in their early-20s and younger, the dark days of the John Cooper era are nothing but a bizarre historical oddity. Every OSU senior class since 2004 has graduated with at least three pairs of Gold Pants. The 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2015 classes went 4-for-4, and the 2016 class could join the list this weekend. No OSU seniors between 1988-2000 won even two.

This also leads to the conclusion that there is an entire generation of Buckeye fans who have never had the full-blown experience of dealing with The Fan Up North.

Largely in hiding for the past 16 years, like cicadas they will suddenly appear, clad in gear festooned with the logo of a failed AA baseball player, and instantly overrun everything around at the slightest provocation. They are never shy about letting you know that your institution of higher learning is far inferior to their own and that their athletic squads are run only with the highest of integrity, unlike those outfits at lesser schools.

All Sun and Blue wins are due to the superior character and ethical fiber inherent in all true believers who stride the Diag, which lead the Wolverines to glorious victory over their inferiors through their naturally-occurring excellence in all things.

Conversely, all losses are due to the superior character and ethical fiber inherent in all true believers who stride the Diag, which do not allow true Wolverines to take advantage of the rules violations and shortcuts abused by whatever glorified junior college has stolen their rightly-earned victory on this day.

“Hang on!” you could say. “Wasn’t their football squad on probation for significant NCAA violations as recently as 2012? How do you explain being the site of the largest pay-for-play scandal in college basketball history? And how likely is it that Chris Webber was able to rake in six figures undetected for years, but the school’s sport of greatest popularity, with far larger quantities of athletes to keep track of, has supposedly stayed pure as the driven snow?”

Rest assured, you only think these thoughts because you are a silly little child educated (if you can even really describe it as “educated”) at a lesser institution who does not understand the nature of your superiors.

In order: These so-called “infractions” in the end were nothing worse than “extra stretching.” The Fab Five was years ago, and those involved were, by definition, clearly not true adherents of the Sun and Blue faith. And “Lalalala can’t hear you.”

Certainly, there have been brief hints of this group’s return rather recently. In 2011, after Brady Hoke’s inaugural season which included a 2016-esque eight dates in Ann Arbor, zero wins over schools rated higher than 21st in the final AP poll, the highest turnover luck in the nation, a narrow escape in the Big House against a historically-bad OSU and an OT bowl win against a kind-of-lousy Virginia Tech, Wolverine fans heralded the arrival of Urban in Ohio as the dawn of Ten Year War 2.

Urban (the then-owner of two national crowns) would be playing the role of Woody, while Bo was to be represented by Hoke (2008 divisional title winner at Ball State). Seriously. This was an actual thing that infected even the usually erudite and rational quarters of the school’s internet supporters.

Needless to say, a Wolverine win on Saturday would bring this back in force. To The Fan Up North, it would herald unquestionably the dawning of a new day for all the earth, one reigned solely by the benevolent but powerful hand of their khaki-clad deity.

You, clearly just a hater, could point out that this weekend will feature a Harbaugh squad loaded with seniors, including virtually the entire starting defense, facing off against the school with the least returning experience in the nation, so even a win could very likely represent just a one-year blip.

Or that Urban’s 2017 recruiting class rates as one of the greatest in history by average player rating, and that the Wolverines’ (89.20) own heralded class is closer to Iowa State’s (83.53) by than it is to the Buckeyes’ (95.50), so OSU is likely only going to get better.

Or that if they do get into the playoff, schools running offenses analogous to theirs have typically gone feet-first into Nick Saban’s woodchipper and oh, hey, look who’s basically already locked into the bracket.

However, none of this has any bearing on the result of a Sun and Blue win. Harbaugh will have led the forces of all that is good and right in the world to a glorious victory over pure evil, and his future successes in all things will be guaranteed by the heavens. And you will hear about it endlessly for 365 days.

But should the Buckeyes lie, cheat and steal their way to an unjust win on Saturday? HOOOOOOOO, BOY.

The folks up north will have blown what appeared as recently as three weeks ago to be the best possible shot they could have to knock off an Urban-coached unit. And they will have done so a year after getting eviscerated in Ann Arbor by Buckeye squad that entered as underdogs. And they will have done so a year before a loaded OSU goes back north to square off against a wildly inexperienced group of Wolverines.

While a good bit of the buildup to Saturday will certainly focus on its potential playoff scenarios, younger fans will have to trust the older generation on this – the real stakes are even higher. A Buckeye win would keep the full-blown Fan Up North under wraps for another year.  

P.S. Apologies for any spots of awkward prose or failure to strictly follow traditional guidelines on writing style. Such is the price one pays for using only 25/26ths of the alphabet.