Before I go any further, let me get one thing straight. Michigan does not have a rivalry with any of the following teams: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue or Wisconsin. No matter how much those teams want one, it isn”t going to happen.
Now, Michigan does have a rivalry with Ohio State and sometimes Michigan State.
The Michigan-Ohio State feud is considered by many college football fans this side of the Mason-Dixon line to be the greatest rivalry in all of sports.
But in recent years the rivalry has lost some of its luster as the Wolverines have dominated the series. In the past 13 years the John Cooper era Michigan holds a 10-2-1 record against the Buckeyes. In the two victories Ohio State needed national championship-caliber talent to win but there were years where even that didn”t help.
Needless to say, despite stellar rankings and regular season records, a horrible record against “That School Up North” was enough to get Cooper the axe. He had the resources, but couldn”t get the job done in the biggest game of the season.
For the sake of the rivalry, the move was probably a good one. If one team wins every game, the series fails to be a rivalry (see: Minnesota-Michigan.
Enter Jim Tressel. The former Youngstown State coach was brought in to beat Michigan and restore the rivalry. He made this goal clear on the day he was introduced as Ohio State”s coach. During halftime of a basketball game, Tressel announced that Ohio State fans would be happy come Nov. 24.
Happy about what?
Happy because Ohio State would enter this Saturday”s contest with Michigan with a 4-3 Big Ten record and 6-4 overall record?
Happy because Ohio State has a decent shot at the Alamo Bowl after getting smoked in the Outback Bowl last year?
Happy because Ohio State”s loss to Penn State earlier this season gave legendary coach Joe Paterno his all-time wins record?
Clearly, Ohio State fans are not happy about any of these things, but they could find solace in an Ohio State win in Ann Arbor for the first time in 14 years. It would make up for a season of disappointment for fans who had such high hopes for Tressel.
But it is going to take a lot more than a guarantee for the Buckeyes to win in the Big House. Tressel made a promise in order to separate himself from his predecessor, but so far he has done a poor job of distinguishing himself in any other way.
Tressel used his connections and experience in Ohio to quickly get verbal commitments from most of the top recruits in the state and built a class that was immediately recognized nationally. He proved that he could convince top-flight recruits to come to a program that had lacked success in recent years.
But recruiting was never a problem for Cooper. He could consistently get top-10 recruiting classes that didn”t rely upon stars from the state of Ohio.
Cooper was fired because he couldn”t win the big games.
Tressel has already struggled with the same problem. The Buckeyes blew an opportunity to knock off UCLA in the second game of the season and suffered a horrible letdown at home against Wisconsin after destroying Big Ten favorite Northwestern a week earlier.
Even after all of this, Ohio State still could have won a share of the Big Ten title and qualified for a BCS game, but last week the Buckeyes playing without suspended starting quarterback Steve Bellisari were embarrassed at home by Illinois, 34-22.
Actually, when you think about it, a season of disappointment has made this season just like any other for the Buckeyes a campaign where only one game really matters.
Regardless of Saturday”s outcome, Tressel cannot be judged on one season. We will see how he does when he has a few seasons to get warmed up.
Unfortunately for Tressel, Ohio State fans aren”t going to give him a few seasons to warmup. If they accepted losses to Michigan, Cooper would still be coach. Tressel knows he has to perform or suffer the consequences.
Speaking as a college football fan, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry needs to again become a competitive one Tressel just might not be the right man to make it happen.
We”ll find out Saturday.
Jeff Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.