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The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is one of the nation’s best. In fact, in 2000, ESPN viewers voted Michigan-Ohio State the best rivalry in the country – pro or college, any sport.
But for all the great games between them, which started back in 1897, the two teams never entered The Game ranked first and second, until 2006 — The Game of the Century. And despite the fact that the century was only six years old, the game actually delivered, with Ohio State winning a 42-39 classic.
But since 2003, Michigan has beaten Ohio State exactly once, and that was against interim coach Luke Fickel’s bumbling 6-5 squad. Even the Buckeyes were becoming bored, many openly wishing for Michigan to field a better team to “hold up its end of the deal,” as Ohio State legend Chris Spielman said.
Well, be careful what you wish for. This year, for only the second time in the , both teams entered The Game ranked in the top three. The winner was all but guaranteed a spot in the four-team national playoff, while the loser would likely be left on the outside looking in. The Game of the Century II was on.
And once again, it delivered. When you watch The Rivalry at its best, see the effort and feel the tension, all other rivalries look like powder-puff football.
Michigan dominated most of the first three quarters, but the Wolverines couldn’t put the Buckeyes away. Why? They made a lot of mistakes, including a goal-line fumble, and two interceptions that the Buckeyes quickly converted into touchdowns – a 21-point swing, in itself. You could also point to Michigan’s anemic fourth quarter, when its offense couldn’t muster more than five yards, total.
You could also point to the officiating, which was awful even by Big Ten standards. The refs repeatedly penalized the Wolverines for things they were letting Ohio State do all day, like holding and pass interference. Add it up, and the refs charged Michigan for seven penalties totaling 59 yards, while they called Ohio State for two penalties for six yards. Either the Buckeyes played the cleanest big game in the history of college football, or the refs missed a few things.
Making matters worse, it turns out one of the refs had already been fired by the Big Ten back in 2002 for incompetence, while another had been banned from reffing the Michigan-Ohio State game ten years ago due to his apparent bias toward the Buckeyes. Why these guys were allowed to ref the year’s biggest game is a mystery.
Which brings us to a bigger point: while Big Ten schools spend millions on athletic directors, coaches, scholarships, and facilities, the league spends peanuts for part-time officials, and gives them the power to settle the scores on these multi-million dollar contests. You don’t have to wear a tinfoil hat to think that’s kind of crazy.
After Ohio State tied Michigan in the waning minutes, the game went into overtime, the first ever between these two titans – thus guaranteeing that the loser would suffer Maximum Anguish Level 30, out of a possible 10.
In the second overtime, when the Buckeyes needed a first down to avoid losing, the refs ruled that they’d made it by a whisker. It was a hard call to make, and even harder to overturn. Photos of that spot have been broken down from more angles than the Zapruder film. On the next play, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel carried the ball 15 yards to the endzone, to win the game.
Just a few minutes after the fans rushed the field, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh faced the press. He said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the officiating. This echoed the famous line of his mentor, Bo Schembechler, who said he was “Bitterly resentful” after the Big Ten’s athletic directors voted to send Ohio State instead of Michigan to the Rose Bowl – back in 1973. In this rivalry, the big quotes have the half-life of uranium.
Harbaugh’s response has been characterized as a “rant,” and he was typically intense, but he was also measured, calmly breaking down four missed calls. In the process, he vented his spleen, took the pressure off his players, and changed the headline of the game.
So why did the Wolverines lose: their mistakes, or the refs’? The answer is, “Yes.” In a game that close, subtract just one major mistake from Michigan, or the officials, and Michigan wins.
The committee that will select the four playoff teams released its penultimate poll this week. It ranked Ohio State second, and Michigan fifth – so the Buckeyes are almost assuredly in, as they should be, and even Michigan might sneak in if third-ranked Clemson or fourth-ranked Washington stumbles in their conference title games this weekend. When committee chair Kirby Hocutt mentioned that the margin between fourth-ranked Washington and fifth-ranked Michigan is “razor thin,” it’s easy to conclude that the committee apparently agreed with Harbaugh’s assessment, that Michigan suffered a loss, of course, but one with an asterisk.
The selection committee might also have been influenced by the record TV ratings the Michigan-Ohio State game earned last week, especially in light of the abysmal marks the college football playoff games earned last year. What doesn’t seem to matter much any more is winning your conference. Likely league champs Oklahoma, Penn State or Wisconsin will probably not make the cut, and might be joined by others. No matter whom the committee picks, you can count on fans of the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-ranked teams to feel like they were screwed, and not without reason – and they’ll be happy to tell you all about it.
We won’t know who will be in the Final Four until Sunday, but we do know this: The Game is back — big time. That’s good for the rivalry, the Big Ten, and college football. So long as Harbaugh and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer keep coaching, this could be the Game’s greatest era since the Hayes-Schembechler Ten Year War.
Whenever these two teams play again, the nation will be watching – whether it’s in Ann Arbor next fall, or in the playoffs this winter.
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My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong.
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