Another night up, “burning the midnight oil” as it were, brings me to a number of thoughts about the college football season. But none are more exciting than the prospect of an undefeated Ohio State-Michigan game in November.
I’ll admit, I’m from Ohio, and sometime my regional preferences will come out in my columns. Unfortunately, this one is no different. So, in that vein, here’s an attempt to get the rest of the college football-loving world as excited as individual fans, blogs, and message boards across the Midwest have been about the prospects of a game for the ages in the best rivalry in America.
As the college football season hurtles to a climax, this year may end in the money shot of all money shots: Ohio State v. Michigan, #1 v. #2, for an automatic birth in the BCS National Championship game.
In this storied rivalry (this will be the 103rd meeting) that is widely considered - even on an ESPN poll - as the greatest and most intense rivalry in all of sports, this could prove to be the biggest game the two have ever played. These two dominators of the Big Ten haven't played as undefeated teams since 1973, and even then they weren't ranked 1 and 2 in the polls.
Just to give you a quick idea of how dominant these teams have historically been in the Big Ten, they have combined for a total of 72 Big Ten titles (Michigan 42, OSU 30) since 1896 (Ohio State joined the conference in 1913), 18 National Championships (UM 11, only 2 since 1942 I should mention, OSU 7, all after 1942), and more than 1600 victories.
Since 1935, when the game was officially moved to the final week of the regular season, the Ohio State-Michigan game has either officially decided or affected the Big Ten Conference championship race no less than 41 times. The overall series record is 57-39-6 in favor of the Wolverines who were helped by a 12-0-2 start at the turn of the century. Since 1950, a period most historians call the "modern era of college football," the record between the two is an even 27-27-2.
This game is much bigger than I can ever describe to you all. Everything rides on this game for both teams. Coaches have been fired for not beating the other team enough, and otherwise great seasons have been ruined by crucial losses to the other.
Woody Hayes - who was the greatest of all Ohio State coaches, and had an unrivaled blood-obsession with beating "that school up north" (he refused to say the word "Michigan" at all times) - was famously known for being fired after punching a Clemson University player named Charlie Baumann after he intercepted an Ohio State pass to clinch the 1978 Gator Bowl for the Tigers. But the joke by Ohio State fans was that he wasn't fired because he'd punched an opposing player; it was because he'd lost to Michigan 3 years in a row.
John Cooper, who is famously known for being Michigan's annual whipping-boy during the '90s, posted a 2-10-1 record against Big Blue and was eventually fired for his indiscretions even though his teams finished 2 different seasons ranked #2 in the end-of-season polls. Three times between 1993 and 1996, he took an undefeated Ohio State team into "The Game," and unfortunately, three times they came out with a season-crushing loss.
Cooper's faults are legendary among fans of both teams, but the rivalry became what it is today during a 10-year period between 1969 and 1978 known as "The Ten Year War." During that time, the arms race that had become the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry came to a head, and the two teams were so much better than the rest of the Big Ten it was being referred to as "The Big 2 and Little 8."
It all started after the 1968 season, when Ohio State won the national championship after handing #4 Michigan a 50-14 loss in Columbus, and then beat Heisman Trophy winner O.J. Simpson's second-ranked USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl 25-12. A former OSU top assistant coach named Bo Schembechler, after a successful 5 year stint at Miami (Ohio) University, accepted the head coaching job at Michigan. A year later, his #12 Wolverines snapped the undefeated and top-ranked Buckeye's school record 22-game winning streak with a 24-12 upset for the ages in Ann Arbor, signaling to the Buckeyes, who had control of the rivalry to that point, that the rivalry between them was about to get kicked up a notch.
And did it ever.
For the next nine years, neither team was ranked outside of the top 10 going into the game. In each of the ten years, the game decided the Big Ten Championship there, on the field, that day - and decided which team would be the only team in the conference to go to the Rose Bowl (the Big Ten's only bowl game) that year.
Keeping up with the “Big 2 Little 8” moniker that had been placed on the conference during the years, Ohio State and Michigan lost 4 and 5 games respectively against the rest of the Big Ten while battling to a 5-4-1 record against each other (UM) during that ten-year span.
In 1973 both teams came in undefeated and ranked #1 (OSU) and #4 (UM) respectively and played to a 10-10 tie. Since both schools ended the season with identical 7-0-1 Big Ten records, the Rose Bowl berth was put up to a vote by the Big Ten athletic directors. Ohio State won 6 votes to 4, and they went to the Rose Bowl and beat USC 42-21. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler still feels his team was cheated to this day, and continues to hold a grudge and swear Ohio State has an unfair amount of power in Big Ten athletics.
So as November 18, 2006 steadily approaches, there is already talk on message boards and blogs, throughout the Internet, about this potentially being the greatest game the rivalry has ever seen.
Since 1977 both schools have been ranked in the top 5 only twice, in 1997 and 2003 (both Michigan victories and games I attended, incidentally). If Michigan and Ohio State both win the rest of their games against inferior opponents, the dreams of both fan bases will finally be realized: one game for all the marbles - Big Ten Title, top ranking in the polls, and an invite to Glendale, Arizona for a chance to play for the 2006 National Championship.
In American sports, it doesn’t get any bigger than that.
And of course, there are plenty of games to play, and there will be plenty of time the week prior to hype a game that could be more hyped than any in the history of college football. But with the way these two schools are playing now — and Iowa has a decent chance for an upset this week I should add — it’s fun to think ahead sometimes... Christmas is coming very very soon!
Well, at least it is for me.