There’s something that the Wolverines won’t tell you. There’s a yearning that’s tucked away in the inner recesses of the program.
Deep down, Michigan wants to be like Ohio State.
Of course, the Wolverines will never say it, but it’s been like this for years now. They’ve seen their arch-rival contend on a national stage season after season, hapless as the Buckeyes roll over them time after time on their way to countless accolades. Michigan wants the success that its rival enjoys, and for the better part of two decades, that lust has been seemingly unsatisfiable.
Then 2021 happened.
After breaking through the barrier against its greatest rival in emphatic fashion, Michigan has an opportunity to reestablish itself as a true competitor in the rivalry — proving that last year was not an anomaly, but the start of a new era.
Immediately after that game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh emphatically proclaimed that it was the latter.
“It feels like the beginning, everything about the team,” Harbaugh said back on Nov. 27, 2021, following his first win over Ohio State. “Every day, every week, every month. This has always felt like the beginning.”
That’s only the case, though, if the Wolverines keep it up.
Last year was the perfect storm, both literally and figuratively. Snowflakes whistled through the air, setting the stage for Michigan’s biggest win of the millennium. Then-senior running back Hassan Haskins had five touchdowns and then-senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson had three sacks. And while weather and individual brilliance weren’t the sole reasons the Wolverines won, they certainly helped.
Which poses the question: How do they reach that apex again?
After last year’s game, then-junior quarterback Cade McNamara, having led Michigan to victory, made a declaration:
“Long term, we’ve set the expectation now,” he said. “It’s been so long since we beat Ohio State, but we did that today. For the guys coming back, now we’ve got to do that every single year. We know what it took.”
McNamara won’t be the quarterback when The Game comes around this year, but that doesn’t mean his point is moot. The foundations of a precedent have been set and the Wolverines can make good on what McNamara declared. But in order to do that, they’ll have to break years of anguish.
An anguish that is, at this point, generational.
As someone who grew up in Ypsilanti, MI, just 15 minutes down I-94 east of Ann Arbor, I have witnessed firsthand Michigan’s annual end of season loss on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
I, along with many of the players on the Michigan football team, was not alive the last time that the Wolverines beat Ohio State in Columbus in 2000. That year also marked the last time that Michigan beat the Buckeyes twice in a row — 1999 and 2000.
This season, the Wolverines have the chance to break both of those droughts. If they do, they will cement themselves as one of the favorites to win the national title. They can bring the rivalry’s on-field product — and the stakes surrounding the matchup — up to the standard that so many have wanted for years.
Last November, as Michigan fans rushed the field and then onto the snowy streets of Ann Arbor, it was clear that, despite what many said, the rivalry never left. The inevitability and almost mythological stature of Ohio State just clouded that fact, but The Game is still here, and it’s still elevated above every other game on the schedule.
But it’s also still the barbed-wire fence that separates the Wolverines from the rest of college football’s elite.
There’s a blueprint for taking that barrier down, but it’s precariously perched upon a ledge that’s just barely in reach. If they revert back to the precedent set by recent history, all of that progress will evaporate in just 60 minutes.
It’s for that reason that this year’s contest means so much more for Michigan than almost any other game.
There’s a gateway for the Wolverines to reach college football’s promised land, a path to all of their goals that they have so unabashedly worn on their sleeve:
“Our goals would be to beat Ohio State and Michigan State in the same year, win the Big Ten Championship, and win the National Championship,” Harbaugh told reporters at Big Ten Media Days on July 26. “Those are our four goals.”
They already beat the Spartans. The only true obstacle that’s left in the way of a second consecutive college football playoff is Ohio State.
Who would have it any other way?
This year just feels different than others, at least that I can recall. It doesn’t feel like a David versus Goliath story, as it was last year or countless ones before. Michigan’s chances at victory are once again tangible.
If I was a betting man, I’d still probably pick the Buckeyes to win — it’s hard to predict that something is going to happen when you’ve quite literally never been alive to see it. But Michigan does have a shot at fully reasserting itself back into the rivalry on the field, and that was barely believable in itself until recently.
With a win, the Wolverines can finally satiate their decades-long hunger. They’ll finally be like the Buckeyes.
They just need to do something that recent history tells us is nearly impossible.