SportsMonday Column: This is what Michigan is
When it all ended, when the blowout was codified and the Michigan football team was taking a never-ending walk up the tunnel, Ohio State ran to the nearest end zone. They linked arms and swayed, the band giving the music, a sea of fans clad in red — the only ones still left in Michigan Stadium — supplying the vocals to “Carmen Ohio.”
It all felt like a repeat, because it was. A repeat of last year, when “Harbaugh sucks” chants rattled around the Horseshoe after a 62-39 Ohio State blowout win. A repeat of the year before that, when the Wolverines let Dwayne Haskins take control after coming into the game as a backup and walk out with a 31-20 win. A repeat of the last eight years, over which Ohio State has outscored Michigan a combined 331-216 without dropping a single edition of this now-annual ruination. A repeat of the last 16 years, over which the Buckeyes have won 15 of these, the only loss coming in a transition year between scarlet and gray dynasties.
This is what this rivalry is. This is what Ohio State is, and this is what Michigan is. A 56-27 drubbing. Jim Harbaugh sitting at one podium saying, “They played better today.” Ryan Day sitting at the other saying, “In games like this, it comes down to players. Our big-time players played well.” The Wolverines slowly walking off the field. The Buckeyes linking arms and singing their alma mater.
If you think it’s any different, you haven’t been paying attention.
This isn’t a Jim Harbaugh problem, a Shea Patterson problem or a Don Brown problem. Harbaugh brought Michigan to 10 wins in three of his first four years and still has a chance to do it for a fourth time — more than on par with what the Wolverines did regularly before a six-year Rich Rodriguez/Brady Hoke odyssey sunk the program to new depths. Patterson set a record on Saturday for the most passing yards a Michigan quarterback has ever had over three games. Brown’s defense has been top-10 in SP+ every year since he’s come to Ann Arbor, and even after Saturday, it’s on pace to do so again.
Since 1969, the start of the Bo Schembechler era, Michigan has averaged 9.44 wins per year. Harbaugh has 47 in five years — 9.4 per year. You want him to restore this program to what it was under Bo? Check. Harbaugh has the Wolverines right where they’ve always been.
It’s not Michigan that’s changed. It’s Ohio State.
In that same 50-year span, the Buckeyes have averaged 9.78 wins per year. Since Jim Tressel took over the program in 2001, that number has rocketed up to an even 11. Since Harbaugh took over Michigan in 2015, that number is at 11.8. It’s a whole different stratosphere than Michigan, and it’s been borne out on the field.
“It’s just kind of the same thing every year,” senior tight end Sean McKeon said. “Gotta execute better, and yeah it gets old, but just gotta play better against them.”
But the gap goes beyond execution and just playing better. In the Harbaugh era, the Buckeyes have out-recruited Michigan in all but one year, per 247Sports’ composite rankings. They’ve landed four top-five classes (including 2020). The Wolverines have landed one, in 2017, and failed to get the production they could have out of it. Want to find the difference on the field Saturday? Look there.
On defense, the Buckeyes landed five-stars Chase Young and Jeff Okudah, two future top-10 picks in the NFL Draft. Young didn’t fill the statsheet on Saturday, but set an Ohio State record with 16.5 sacks this year and will likely be a Heisman Trophy finalist. Okudah held Nico Collins, Michigan’s best receiver, to two catches for 42 yards. On offense, the Buckeyes also landed J.K. Dobbins, who ran for 211 yards, and three starters on an offensive line that paved the Wolverines all day long.
Michigan got two five-stars in that class: Donovan Peoples-Jones, who caught three balls for 69 yards and accounted for a number of second-half drops on Saturday, and Aubrey Solomon, who transferred to Tennessee before the season. Of its 19 four-stars in 2017, just three — Collins, cornerback Ambry Thomas and center Cesar Ruiz — started and made a tangible impact on Saturday. Eight are no longer with the program.
The 2016 season and that next recruiting class was the Wolverines’ chance to narrow the gap, to capitalize on two years of building hype around Harbaugh and position themselves as real contenders to the Buckeyes. Instead, they were inches from beating Ohio State, failed to get everything they could from the next recruiting class, and now, this is just reality.
Ohio State is one of the best three or four programs in the country every year. Michigan is one of the best 14 or 15 every year. Harbaugh is a very good football coach who got the Wolverines back to this level. But there’s only so many Jim Tressels and Urban Meyers.
Before them, both programs could count themselves in that tier of programs good enough to get nine or 10 wins annually and compete for a title every so often. Then the Buckeyes took a leap. The Wolverines couldn’t make the same jump.
Saturday is just what generally happens when a top-four team plays a top-15 team. So is nearly every iteration of this game in the 21st century.
“We knew we had the athletes and the players to get the job done,” former Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell told The Daily a month ago.
He was talking about the 2018 game, when the Buckeyes gashed Brown’s corners with crossing routes for 396 passing yards. He might as well have been talking about most of the 15 games prior, or predicting the future.
This isn’t a gap that gets bridged in one year. It’s one that takes a recruiting cycle, and maybe more than one, to mend. And to get that kind of recruiting cycle, the kind it takes to beat Ohio State, Harbaugh needs to … beat Ohio State. Thus is borne the never-ending cycle Michigan finds itself facing. Get lucky once, or find itself unable to meet an impossible expectation.
“We didn’t really put them in a position to be of pressure on them,” Harbaugh said. “And they played really well. They made those plays, they made those drives, they got those stops.”
If he wants to fix that, it’ll take far more than a few adjustments on a whiteboard.
Sears can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethan_sears.