After a few low years, the Big Ten has been riding high. Last year, seven Big Ten schools won their bowl games, with only Michigan on the losing side.
Going into this season, five Big Ten teams were ranked in the nation’s top 14, with four from the Big Ten’s East Division alone: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, and Michigan.
But, as Michigan’s Bo Schembechler liked to say, “A pre-season ranking just means you haven’t done a damn thing yet.”
The season’s first weekend seemed to vindicate him. Even without Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer serving a three-game suspension, the Buckeyes blew out Oregon State, 77-31. But Michigan State struggled to shake a mediocre Utah State team, and Penn State had to come from behind to beat Appalachian State in overtime.
Yes, Appalachian State is the same team that pulled off possibly the greatest upset in football history against Michigan in 2007. Why any school invites Appalachian State to play their home opener is a mystery to me.
But the marquee game pitted 14th-ranked Michigan against 12th-ranked Notre Dame. The rematch received more hype than any since the series resumed in 1978, which was the rivalry’s first match-up in 35 years. ESPN’s College Football Game Day decided to open their season in South Bend for a reason.
The Wolverines are led by star quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred from Mississippi, and they have one of the nation’s best defenses. Some national pundits even predicted Michigan would win the national title.
A week ago, I said if Michigan’s defense could hold off Notre Dame for the first quarter, Michigan’s offense would settle in and score some points.
And that’s exactly what didn’t happen. On Notre Dame’s first two possessions, the Fighting Irish cut through Michigan’s defense like a hot knife through butter to go up 14-0 in the first seven minutes. In the second half, Michigan’s defense allowed only one field goal, but since the offense and special teams could put up only 17 points all game, it wasn’t enough. The Wolverines went down, 24-17.
The loss sent many Michigan fans into a tailspin, convinced this team is no better than last year’s, and fearful that they will never get back to the promised land.
That’s the nature of college football fans, who tend to have much more passion than perspective. When a team wins a close game, all their fans talk about is what their team did right. When the team loses a close, all the fans talk about is what their team did wrong.
But the old coaching maxim still holds: you’re never as good as you think you are, and you’re never as bad.
True, the Wolverines could have played better, especially the first seven minutes. But they actually gained more yards than the Irish – a little stat that could win you some bar bets. Almost everything Michigan got wrong can be readily fixed – and my guess is the coaching staff will fix it.
Bo often said teams improve most from the first game to the second game – and once again, he was right.
Since Michigan and Notre Dame resumed the series in 1978, Notre Dame has won 17, and Michigan 16 – about as close as it gets. But after six of Michigan’s losses to Notre Dame, the Wolverines went on to win the Big Ten title anyway.
The way Ohio State is playing, the Wolverines are long-shots to win the Big Ten this year. But then, they were long shots after those six losses to Notre Dame, too.
There are a lot of games left. In fact, almost all of them.
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