One school lit the torch that started college football. The other has carried it ever since.
One school has made just one bowl game since 1978. The other has made one in every year since 1975.
At one school, a seven-win season prompts joyous celebration. At the other, it prompts calls for the coach’s head.
Today, both teams remain undefeated and headed for major matchups against also-unbeaten rivals.
The second, as you might have guessed, is Michigan. The first, as you might not have, is Rutgers.
Yes, the Scarlet Knights – the perennial college-football doormats that have endured more jokes than the Ford Edsel – are 8-0.
And as much as I enjoy the tradition, pageantry and success of Michigan sports, there’s one thing I envy about my home state’s school: They’re not just doing well, they – and New Jersey – are having tons of fun doing it.
It hasn’t started hawking vitamins, urging kids to say their prayers or ripping of its shirt, but Rutgersmania is running wild over the Garden State.
Normally saddled with low expectations, Rutgers captured the state’s attention last year when it posted its first winning record since 1992. Now, New Jersey is on full alert.
Something has filled the air in the state (and I’m not talking about the smell of garbage). It’s the talk about Rutgers football.
Is running back Ray Rice a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender? Two tickets for $425, didn’t they used to pay you to take them? Um, we’re sure this isn’t a dream, right?
At Michigan the questions haven’t been nearly as fun.
How big are Adrian Arrington’s legal troubles? Is Ron English leaving for Michigan State? We can’t lose to Indiana – can we?
Even talk after Saturday’s win was depressing. It wasn’t “Wow, we’re 10-0,” or “If we win one more game, we’re going to play in what could be one of the greatest games of all time.” It was “We should’ve beaten Ball State by more than that,” and “We almost lost.”
The sad thing is that, at a school with sky-high expectations like Michigan, that’s always the way it’s going to be.
Even if Rutgers loses Thursday, fans will still be pleased with this season. I can’t say the same for Michigan.
Take for instance last year’s basketball team. I was as discouraged as anybody to see the 16-3 Wolverines patently fall apart at the end before making a disappointing run at the NIT title. I mocked their apparent affinity for the runner-up tournament without mercy. But 200 other teams and their fans would have loved nothing more than just a nibble of that postseason action.
And what about hockey? Most teams would have been thrilled to be one of the 16 teams to make the NCAA tournament. But most fans would admit disappointment when the Wolverines lost 5-1 to North Dakota in the first round last year.
Or even football. Surely, Illinois fans would have been pleased with a 7-5 record and trip to the Alamo Bowl. But do that at Michigan, and fans want to fire Lloyd Carr.
And that brings us back to this year.
As Rutgers nears its historic matchup with Louisville this Thursday, the headlines have screeched across the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest paper. “As Rutgers flirts with glory, the bandwagon nears SRO,” read one. And “Schiano is Jersey’s million-dollar man” topped a story detailing how hitting incentives will reward coach Greg Schiano. He’ll have a paycheck double that of any other employee of the state waiting for him, with the next highest salary going to his boss, the school’s president.
Now to Michigan fans, this might not seem all that spectacular. But until recently, Rutgers football enjoyed treatment from the state that would have made the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield feel well respected.
The Scarlet Knights hail from a state where many high schools commit what amounts to blasphemy in some others places – play football on Saturday afternoons. Just a few years ago, a number of professors and students led a push for Rutgers to get out of the big-time athletics business and give up Division I-A football. On a personal note, I can’t say that I knew one bona fide Rutgers fan when growing up, even though I lived just 40 minutes from campus.
To put it in perspective: 118,910 fans combined attended all of Rutgers’ home games in 2002, which as you know, is just a few thousand more of what the Big House holds on a typical day.
So it makes it just a little more exciting knowing that coming into this season, the expectations weren’t really that high.
At Michigan, that will never be the case. Expectations will always be grand. And it’s just one of the many differences between the two schools.
But in my mind, one thing should be the same. And that’s that during an undefeated season, fans, coaches and players should all be having one thing: fun.
– Herman can be reached at email@example.com.