It’s Monday morning of the week Michigan is scheduled to play Ohio State and there won’t be an unruly mess of TV cameras swarming Jim Harbaugh’s press conference. Even in this Zoom year, there won’t be four screens of reporters pining for that perfect soundbyte.

On Twitter, there won’t be fans performing the requisite mental gymnastics to convince themselves that this is the year the Wolverines finally win. There won’t be players saying they came to Michigan to beat Ohio State or seniors praying their last shot comes to fruition.

The reason, of course, is a COVID-19 outbreak in the Michigan program that has put in-person practices on pause since last Monday and forced the cancelation of the Wolverines’ game against Maryland. Now, it’s threatening to cancel The Game.

“It is disheartening that we’re not gonna be able to play Maryland,” athletic director Warde Manuel said last week in a video released to media. “And our hope is that we can play Ohio State and finish the season in the final week.”

Consider that for a second and let it sink in. For the first time in 103 years, Michigan might not play Ohio State. The last time it happened, there was the small matter of a World War. A year later, despite the Spanish flu pandemic limiting the Wolverines to five games, the two teams faced off at Ohio Field, with Michigan winning, 14-0.

Let’s not have any misconceptions: That result is incredibly unlikely to happen this year, even if The Game is played. As of Sunday night, the Buckeyes are favored by 29.5 — a fair line considering one team is bound for the College Football Playoff and the other is 2-4.

But despite this horrendous year for Harbaugh and Michigan, there’s something inconceivable about The Game being canceled — an outcome that seems more likely with each passing day.

From a purely fact-based analysis of the rivalry’s last 15 years, a cancelation would seem to be no great loss. Since 2004, the Wolverines have won just once. Under Harbaugh, Michigan is 0-5. For nearly two decades, it hasn’t mattered whether the Wolverines are a national title contender or bottom-feeding fodder. They do nothing but alternate losses in Columbus with losses in Ann Arbor.

And yet, there’s something impossibly hopeful about The Game. Think about the age-old debate amongst fans: Would Michigan rather finish 11-1 with a loss to Ohio State or 1-11 with a win over Ohio State? As foolish as the question is (and yes, 11-1 is the answer), it highlights the meaning of this game. A few lucky bounces and questionable calls can reverse a season’s lasting feeling.

Consider, for example, the Buckeyes’ 2018 upset of Michigan. Ranked 10th in the country, they weren’t going to the College Football Playoff. By their sky-high standards, the season should have already been a disappointment. But they spoiled the Wolverines’ Revenge Tour party. That, not its eventual Rose Bowl win, is Ohio State’s lasting impression of its 2018 season.

And if you think the same can’t happen for Michigan, think back a year further. With three losses before The Game and John O’Korn under center, the Wolverines were 12-point underdogs and had precious little to play for. Yet, they scored the game’s first 14 points, and led midway through the third quarter. Had Josh Metellus held onto a dropped second-quarter interception, Michigan likely would have won.

Do I think that would happen this year if The Game is played? No. If I had to pick one side of Vegas’ 29.5-point spread, it’d be the Buckeyes’. But for these next five days, hope could at least emanate.

“We still have the big team, OSU, at the end of the year,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said, when asked what Michigan had left to play for after a 27-17 loss to Penn State dropped the Wolverines to 2-4. “We just need to click on all cylinders and we’re in contention for that game.”

Call that a fairy tale impression of Michigan’s chances. I won’t blame you, because I agree. But the pure presence of that word — chance — matters. It matters to these players and it matters to Harbaugh.

And if nothing else positive could have come out of this wretched year, they deserved those five days of annual optimism. It might be all they have.

Mackie can be reached at or on Twitter @theo_mackie.

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