Last Saturday, the Michigan football team didn’t come into Michigan Stadium to win. It came to make a statement.
The Nebraska game was one the Rich Rodriguez Michigan teams lost: a big game against a team that was just as talented. Instead, the Wolverines dominated a ranked team and a traditional power. Junior quarterback Denard Robinson kept scooping imaginary food into his mouth because “this program has been starving for a while … It’s time for us to eat.”
National writers, like Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel were tweeting things like, “Yeah, I think Dave Brandon did all right in that coaching search.”
It all added up to one overriding feeling: Michigan was back.
“I think that there are aspects of Michigan that we there in the past that are showing up now and I think that’s why people get excited about it,” said senior defensive lineman Ryan Van Bergen.
He’s right. The Wolverines ran the ball and played suffocating defense. They are within reach of a BCS Bowl Game. They have returned to protecting the Big House with a perfect home record so far.
Does that mean Michigan is back?
Those who stayed won’t be champions this year. Michigan coach Brady Hoke says his goal is to win the Big Ten Championship this season. He missed that goal. But more so than that, and more so than the Wolverines teams of the last couple years, the Ohio State count looms over this team’s head.
It’s been 2,923 days since Michigan beat Ohio State. The stretch spans a lot longer than the time the Wolverines spent as the disappointment of the conference. Yet, for a team that has exceeded nearly every expectation so far, not clearing the final hurdle would derail the progress made. For Michigan to fully be back, it needs to beat its rivals.
Being back in the top half of the conference is nice. A return to 9-3 might mean a return to a more representative record of Michigan’s past, but when there is talk of being “back” that’s not what people think about.
“Back” means warm and fuzzy feelings. It means singing The Victors in Pasadena. It means Charles Woodson with the rose in his mouth. It’s that one time when you were 10 and some Michigan player everybody else has long forgotten had a ridiculously good game so you remembered his name forever.
After the past three years, those fuzzy feelings won’t return just because Michigan goes to a Capital One Bowl or Outback Bowl. For the entire season, fans braced themselves for the gut-wrenching loss that would derail another season. After 11 games, it hasn’t come. Losing to the worst Ohio State team in recent memory would deliver it.
A loss means little has changed. It means the Class of 2012 leaves as an extreme outlier, never having beaten Michigan State or Ohio State. Michigan would still be a bit of an imposter, wearing the winged helmets, but never really finishing the season like the picture of past teams in Michigan’s minds.
The collapse won’t come because it is the last game of the season, but it would feel the same: high hopes that ultimately concluded in another season of missed opportunity.
“I wouldn’t say the whole season rests on this game as far as Michigan is back or not,” Van Bergen said.
But until Michigan beats Ohio State and breaks the streak, that feeling will never go away. It may not be fair or true for other seasons, but right now, for Michigan to truly be “back,” it has to beat the Buckeyes.
Florek thinks the only rivalry that comes close to Michigan-Ohio State is Gordon Bombay’s Ducks vs. Jack Reilly’s Hawks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter, @michaelflorek