Years have now passed since Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel led the Michigan and Ohio State football teams, respectively. One fall Saturday during those days, I asked my dad a question: “Dad, when does Michigan play Ohio State?”
“The last game of the season,” he said. “Always the last game of the season, because it’s for the Big Ten championship.”
It has rarely been that way since 2007.
Every single year during the “Ten Year War” from 1969 to 1978, Michigan and Ohio State played in the last game of the season for the Big Ten championship — meaning each could clinch at least a share of the title with a win. For 15 of Bo Schembechler’s 21 years leading the Wolverines — and six of Lloyd Carr’s 12 — the stakes were the same. That was the way they wanted it.
“The only way to go in the (Big Ten) is to come down to Michigan-Ohio State,” Schembechler said after his team beat the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten in 1986. “Anytime you play this game, there are so many things hanging in the balance. I just hope it stays like that.”
Eight years, five head coaches and one national championship (between both teams) after Carr left, it hasn’t happened again.
This weekend, Michigan and Ohio State fans anticipated a return to their old tradition: the annual, smashmouth, Bo-versus-Woody slugfest to decide the Big Ten championship, which they haven’t played for since 2007.
Instead, there were a couple of wrinkles when the Wolverines and Buckeyes battled Saturday at Michigan Stadium. First, the game wasn’t much of a slugfest — Ohio State rolled, 42-13, in the most lopsided matchup not involving Rich Rodriguez since 1968.
Second, there was more to the story: The winner didn’t win the Big Ten title, or even the East division. The winner had to turn on the TV and root for Penn State to upset Michigan State in East Lansing.
The Nittany Lions didn’t, so Michigan and Ohio State will be sitting at home Saturday watching the Spartans play Iowa for the conference championship.
This is the new reality for these teams. As much as they long for a second coming of the “Ten Year War,” the Big Ten doesn’t work that way anymore. Even if the cards align, a win in “The Game” gets you only the right to play in the Big Ten Championship Game.
It’s clear by now that Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State team isn’t going anywhere. The jury is still out on James Franklin at Penn State. Other teams could play spoiler every so often, too.
Michigan’s struggles under Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, as well as Ohio State’s NCAA sanctions, have shaken things up over the past decade. This year, both were near their top form, coming into their matchup both ranked in the top 10 for the first time since the “Game of the Century” in 2006.
Even in spite of that success, the Spartans stole the spotlight. They, too, will finish ahead of Michigan in the standings. In each of the five years the Big Ten Championship Game has existed, the Wolverines have sat at home and watched. To make matters worse, at least one of their rivals has been in four of those games.
This year, two roadblocks stood between Michigan and its first Big Ten title since 2004. After Saturday, one seemed tougher than the other.
Michigan competed with Michigan State this season before losing, of course, on a fluke play at the end. For all the hype surrounding Harbaugh and Meyer throughout the past year, the Spartans emerged at the end, knocking off both on the final plays of both games.
Then there are the Buckeyes, who showed Saturday they’re still further ahead of the Wolverines. Ohio State rolled over Michigan for 376 rushing yards at 6.8 per carry, scoring 42 points for the third straight year.
The Wolverines knew “The Game” would be a measuring stick at the end of the season, whether they came in 0-11, 11-0 or 9-2.
They have made more progress this season than they showed Saturday, but with that comes a letdown from the high expectations they set.
“Very proud of the team, the way they’ve worked, the way they’ve progressed,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “We’ll just stay at that. Closed quite a bit of ground. Still more ground to close on, but knowing our team, they’ll stay with it.”
They’ll have to, because winning the Big Ten has never been tougher. The football world tried all year to boil the conference down to Harbaugh vs. Meyer, but the rest of the league will have something to say about that. It won’t be that easy, as it was with Bo vs. Woody, or even as easy as it was 10 years ago.
I didn’t realize my dad was overstating it when he told me Michigan played Ohio State in the last game of the season for the Big Ten championship. It really did happen that way, pretty much every year.
But those days are long gone, and there’s a long way to go for the two rivals to recapture them.
Lourim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jakelourim.