Thursday, May 23, 2024


ANN ARBOR, Mich.

With a pang of nostalgia, traditionalists have noted this year’s Michigan-Ohio State game might have been the last of its kind. Stretching back to the 1970s, no rivalry in college football has been played with more at stake. This game determines legacies, alters coaching careers and, more often than not, decides the Big Ten race. This season, the stars aligned for one of the biggest Michigan–Ohio State games ever played, a 30-24 Michigan victory that put the Wolverines on track for a third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff and left Ohio State on the outside looking in.

With the Big Ten scrapping its divisions and expanding to 18 teams next season, a Michigan-Ohio State rematch in the conference championship game could become a reality. The new 12-team College Football Playoff will have room for both teams, making the regular-season matchup less decisive. In that new world, it’s hard to imagine a Michigan-Ohio State game mattering as much as this one did. Are we sure that’s such a bad thing?

GO DEEPER

Meek: Michigan gets final word against Ohio State in what may be the end of an era Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked Monday about the furor surrounding the rivalry and said, in essence, he thinks it’s gotten out of hand. The problem isn’t the rivalry itself, Harbaugh said, but everything around it: the hype, the vitriol, the media attention and the unending pressure.

“I think that is very manufactured for the TV show that people want to watch and see,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not healthy for the student-athletes on either side when you’re trying to put that much (pressure) and somebody’s practically thinking it’s life or death.” This year’s game was particularly fraught, in no small part because Harbaugh had to watch it at home on his couch. A buildup of hostilities between the two programs, magnified by a relentless media spotlight, came to a head when Harbaugh was suspended three games by the Big Ten for Michigan’s scouting and sign-stealing scandal.

There’s no need to rehash the drama that surrounded both programs leading up to the game. Anybody who spent a few minutes reading the message boards or the comment sections should be aware. This season was a perfect storm of ridiculously high stakes, incendiary storylines and moral indignation on both sides. It’s hard to tell fans to keep the game in perspective when the daily existence of each program revolves around beating the other.

Michigan and Ohio State battle each other 365 days a year and aren’t afraid to admit it. When a rivalry is that all-consuming, anything that happens at either school becomes fodder for the feud. The mutual obsession leaves little room for de-escalation, only constant gamesmanship. No coach or player from either side would dream of showing up at Big Ten media days and saying, “This year I plan to take the rivalry a bit less seriously.”

GO DEEPER

Michigan-Ohio State final thoughts: Zak Zinter’s injury, Sherrone Moore’s playbook and more Some players, like Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, avoided social media altogether. A few others probably took a peek. It’s hard to believe any player on either team could have been unaware of anger building on both sides. Both teams have contributed to that through the years. Harbaugh’s “standing on third base” comment after Michigan’s victory in 2021 isn’t the meanest thing anyone’s said about Day — it’s probably not in the top 500 — but it wasn’t exactly gracious. Day’s apocryphal comment about hanging 100 points on Michigan didn’t help the tone of rivalry, either.

Neither coach had much to say last week when they were asked about the level of respect between the two coaching staffs. Nobody needs a bunch of empty platitudes, but players on each side at least acknowledged their respect for the players who wear the other uniform. For all the noise and drama surrounding the rivalry, The Game itself is still pretty great. The 110,000 fans who attended Saturday’s game will remember it for the rest of their lives, as will millions who watched at home on TV — including one TV viewer in particular.

“I understand the attention,” Harbaugh said. “Me not being there was a big deal. I want to spend my time recognizing what was actually accomplished a couple days ago by our team. Maybe they will get the credit that they’re due.” Michigan players have had a lot thrown at them the past month. Too much, perhaps. To withstand all of that and win one of the biggest games in the program’s history was an impressive feat.

The stakes of Saturday’s game were part of what made it special, and traditionalists are right to worry that the matchup will lose some of its luster next year. Saturday’s win wouldn’t feel nearly as momentous if the Wolverines were preparing for a rematch against Ohio State instead of a date with Iowa in the conference championship game. I doubt Day or anybody at Ohio State would find solace in thinking about the expanded CFP or the end of the Big Ten East. No matter what’s at stake, the rivalry is always going to matter. Starting next season, The Game might feel a little more like a game and less like a life-or-death affair.


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