In college football, it’s the month where opportunities are missed, heroes are made and hearts are broken. Two months of success are nullified by catastrophic late-season failures. A season of mediocrity can be forgotten by a Rivalry Week upset. Or, in those rare and special years, a great team can be immortalized as legendary.
In his first season in our NCAA 14 simulation of Michigan football, fictional coach Stanford Lipsey can do just that. Entering the regular season’s home stretch with a 10-0 record, the upcoming fateful showdown with Ohio State looms large.
But first, a trip to Iowa City presents a smaller, more remote hurdle: Overcome the notorious “Kinnick Curse” and clinch the Wolverines’ first-ever berth in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Game 11: No. 1 Michigan at Iowa
Big Ten football fans know that if your team still has national championship hopes in November, the last place you want to be is Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium. The fearsome venue made victims of perfect seasons from Penn State and Michigan in November 2008 and 2016, respectively, before dashing Ohio State’s College Football playoff hopes with a crushing upset in 2017. And, because NCAA 14 still uses the old BCS system to determine who plays for the national championship, a loss at this stage could completely derail Lipsey’s honeymoon season.
But the Hawkeyes’ late-season voodoo held no match for the Wolverines’ diverse passing attack. In the game’s first minute, a 62-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey to junior wide receiver Ronnie Bell set the tone for a 35-19 Michigan victory. Iowa could do little to stop McCaffrey, whose 18 completions for 253 yards and two touchdowns demonstrated why the Wolverines boast the nation’s top passing offense. A punt return touchdown from sophomore safety Daxton Hill put the butter on the cornbread.
With the win, Michigan booked its trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. Still, the achievement is but background noise to the monumental task directly ahead.
Game 12: No. 1 Michigan vs No. 15 Ohio State
Ohio State is in the midst of an identity crisis as losses to Cincinnati, No. 24 Michigan State, and No. 7 Indiana secured the Buckeyes’ worst record since 2011. As a result, the Wolverines entered Rivalry Week as heavy favorites.
Given the recent history of The Game, it was the perfect scenario for a heartbreak. Again.
With two minutes remaining, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields stepped under center with the chance to complete that heartbreak. Michigan had just scored its second touchdown of the game to cut the Buckeyes’ lead to six, but a couple first downs would render that score irrelevant, sending the Wolverines home, tail between legs.
Fields took the first down snap, faked to his running back and bounced outside on the read option. What little daylight he saw was quickly swallowed up by junior cornerback Gemon Green. Fields had trouble with the tuck, the ball hit the turf, and Green fell on it.
Three plays later, the Wolverines took the lead. A Big House that had been emptying out moments earlier suddenly pulsed at the thought that the most brutal stretch in the history of the rivalry could finally be ending.
But then, as if the game itself realized the absurdity of a first-year coach ending two decades of sheer dominance, Justin Fields rose like a demon summoned from the depths of Columbus. He had been given 1:33 to save Ohio State’s season, and he used every second of it. Five straight completions set up the easiest game-winning field goal in the history of the rivalry and kicker Blake Haubeil buried it. Final score: 23-21, Ohio State. Even the simulation knows.
Around the country
Michigan’s Rivalry Week loss dropped it to No. 5 in the country, behind the two remaining undefeated teams — Alabama and Louisville — and two fellow one-loss teams, Clemson and … Indiana. This means there is a slim, but real, chance we see Tom Allen coaching in a National Championship. Unsettling.
The Wolverines will take on Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship, setting the stage for more corn jokes. In the SEC, top-ranked Alabama will face No. 6 Florida, while the Pac-12 Championship features No. 25 California and No. 16 UCLA. No. 3 Clemson will, shockingly, face a somewhat formidable opponent in No. 10 Virginia Tech for this year’s ACC Championship. The Big 12, meanwhile, did not have a championship game when NCAA 14 was released, but Oklahoma would win anyway.
Despite the heartbreak against the Buckeyes, Michigan’s season is not over. It has a chance to win its first Big Ten title since 2004, and, although there’s almost no chance of a national championship berth, the Rose Bowl is a hell of a consolation prize.
Still, this Wolverines team — like many that came before it — will be left wondering, “what if?” The numbers say this team is elite, but in Ann Arbor, performance against Ohio State is one of the most important measures of success.
And this year, Michigan failed.