COLUMBUS — One stat defines a Michigan football player’s career in Ann Arbor. The overall number of wins you accumulate doesn’t matter. The personal statistics and accolades ultimately don’t matter, either. Those are nice shiny resume points to add to a list, but one stat is held above anything else:
Your record against Ohio State.
Prior to last season, hundreds of players had cycled through the program with a zero in that column. The Game, for the entire 21st century, has been a stepping stone for Ohio State toward its postseason aspirations, each time sinking the Wolverines a little further into the ground.
Winning last year proved that beating Ohio State was possible. It was a moment of jubilation, a chance for euphoric fans to pour out onto the field, an opportunity for Michigan to prove that it could still compete with the Buckeyes — that it wasn’t residing on a completely different playing field.
But it also was just that. A ‘one’ in the win column instead of a ‘zero.’
“Everyone keeps track of their personal records,” senior receiver Cornelius Johnson said. “We had old Michigan players come in and talk to us during training camp and all that people ask is, ‘What’s your record against (Ohio) State?’… That’s what matters most.”
On Saturday, after marching into Columbus and achieving an even bigger margin of victory than they conjured last year, many Wolverine players now have something that no one in the program could claim since 2000.
A winning record against Ohio State.
A second win changes everything for Michigan’s program. No longer can pundits point to otherworldly circumstances being necessary for the Wolverines to beat the Buckeyes. Even at 11-0, even after winning last year, few seemed to give Michigan a chance to win Saturday. The Wolverines were 7.5-point underdogs and some were already looking at scenarios for them to back their way into the playoffs with a loss.
But Michigan didn’t need any chaos scenarios. The Wolverines went out for sixty minutes and proved they were the better football team. Again.
And now the perception has shifted.
“Winning two in a row, it just gives us as a program that confidence,” graduate linebacker Mike Barrett said. “Just as a whole Michigan family, it just kind of gives everybody that confidence of being able to go and do it again.”
The Wolverines can be talked about as a team that can beat anyone in the country, the same treatment that has existed for Ohio State for much of the past decade. Michigan can start thinking about its National Championship chances. When the Wolverines dominate an opponent, they deserve the respect that great teams get, not the scrutiny they often faced for the quality of the team they played.
Going into future seasons, these talking points should be part of the regular conversation surrounding Michigan. And as for the Big Ten? It’s no longer a league boasting Ohio State and everybody else. That narrative died as Buckeye fans headed for the exits far before the game’s conclusion.
“We’re not so much of a team that looks to the past and worries about it,” sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy said. “We’re always about the present and worried about changing the future.”
For months, the Wolverines have been on a “happy mission,” as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh calls it. They play with joy, with a belief that they can win in any scenario they’re thrown into. That energy was lacking two years ago, as the Wolverines went 2-4 in the abysmal Covid-shortened season and sank to their most downtrodden point in years.
The 2020 offseason was an inflection point — a moment when the Wolverines realized they needed to change when Harbaugh decided he needed to instill some new habits in his floundering program.
That started by building a habit of winning. Close games. Pesky road environments. It didn’t matter. They were a program that was out of excuses. And since then, they’re 24-2.
“It’s been a very happy mission,” McCarthy said. “No matter what the road is, no matter what the route is, if you’re winning every single week, I couldn’t be happier.”
Michigan needed this mindset for every game to be able to compete against Ohio State, to re-introduce itself on a national stage. As the Wolverines kneeled out the clock in Columbus, the speckles of maize and blue fans dominating the quickly emptying bleachers of Ohio Stadium, it became clear that mindset had been enshrined.
Beating Ohio State again marks the dawn of a new era in Michigan football. Taking down the Buckeyes is no longer impossible; it’s no longer a talking point; it’s no longer a once-in-a-lifetime win.
It’s just Michigan’s latest habit.