My girlfriends from home like to pretend they’re more knowledgeable about sports than they actually are. They’ll often send me texts, like “When do the NFL playoffs start?” or “Which team is supposed to win the World Series?”
On Wednesday, I got my all-time favorite question: “Hey, Nicole, how do you know what ‘the game’ is? Like, when people say, ‘Did you watch the game last night?’ — how do you know what they’re referring to?”
It’s actually a pretty good question from a non-sports fan, but this time it brought my attention directly to The Game, the matchup that needs no descriptors. And always capital letters.
Yes, we still call Michigan-Ohio State that, but is it still The Game? Is it even “the game” of the weekend? Is it “the game” of the day?
Maybe. Probably not (Alabama-Auburn). And maybe not (Oklahoma-Oklahoma State).
OK, I know it’s mostly Michigan’s fault. If the Wolverines were ranked … if the Wolverines had an average defense … if the Wolverines hadn’t lost six straight to the Buckeyes …
I get it. The 18-point spread shoves it in my face, too. It’s not a game. It’s an anticipated blowout. But not every game can be a 1-2 matchup, like in 2006. And periods of dominance within this rivalry are nothing new.
From 1988 to 1997, Ohio State beat Michigan just one time. In the 1960s — perhaps the best decade of the rivalry — the Wolverines won just three times.
Rivalries don’t have to be balanced. Just ask the Red Sox. An uneven stretch doesn’t suddenly make players on each team best friends.
“I think they hate us, we hate them,” Michigan junior nose tackle Mike Martin said on Monday. “That’s just how it is, that’s what it is.”
Because of those feelings, Martin said he didn’t think the Wolverines would get “run off the field.” There’s some support for that. It’s a cliché, but it’s still true that records don’t always matter heading into high-intensity games. Of course, ability plays a factor (as evidenced by the Buckeyes’ two most recent wins — 21-10 and 42-7), but there are intangibles, and emotion is one. Think 1969.
“The one thing we know about the Ohio State-Michigan game is that you’re going to see a whole different team on the field than you’ve seen in the first 10 or 11 games,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said during Tuesday’s Big Ten teleconference. “That’s the way it was when I was an assistant coach, that’s the way it’s been in these 10 years I’ve been the head coach.”
Tressel was being kind. It’s not like a totally different Michigan defense is going to appear this Saturday. And Denard Robinson will still be quarterback.
But maybe we’ll see the Wolverine defense we saw at Purdue. Maybe we’ll see tackles and batted balls, instead of an opposing quarterback picking apart Michigan’s secondary.
Maybe Robinson will have another Notre Dame-esque performance, running all over The Shoe for 200 yards on the ground. Maybe the kickers will make field goals this game.
I know, those are a lot of maybes.
But maybe, just maybe, if some of those areas of the game go Michigan’s way, we’ll have ourselves a game. Maybe not national-championship caliber, but a good contest nonetheless.
That’s all Michigan-Ohio State needs to launch itself back into national prominence and quiet the critics who say this rivalry has lost its luster.
Give ‘em a close game. Give them a classic. I don’t care if Michigan isn’t a top-10 powerhouse. It’s not called The Ranking.
It’s still The Game.
— Auerbach can be reached at email@example.com.