The Michigan-Ohio State game tomorrow will decide the Big Ten Champion for the 42nd time in the series’ history.
Something that has happened 42 times in 104 years shouldn’t surprise anyone.
But the way the teams got here has been all but predictable.
Before the season, the Wolverines were ranked fifth in the AP poll, projected as the conference favorite and considered a serious contender for the National Championship. A season-opening loss to FCS team Appalachian State immediately changed all that, and a loss to Oregon the following week appeared to kill this season soon after it had began.
The Wolverines rolled off eight straight wins, though, and put themselves in the driver’s seat for the conference championship. A trip to the Rose Bowl is in order if they can beat Ohio State – something this record-setting senior class has yet to accomplish.
“You really can’t be the best (class) if you don’t beat Ohio State at least once,” Hart said back at Big Ten Media Day in August. “A lot of people beat them two or three times. We’re only going to beat them once. To not beat them once – it would definitely take away from our careers a lot.”
While most experts would have picked Hart and Co. to beat the Buckeyes at the start of the year, few think they will now.
This was expected to be a rebuilding year of sorts for Ohio State. After losing Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith along with their top two receivers and their No. 1 running back, the Buckeyes were supposed to retool this year before challenging for the Big Ten crown next season.
But Ohio State surpassed expectations this year. It went undefeated through 10 games before being upset by Illinois last week. Even with the loss, the Buckeyes are favored by four entering tomorrow’s game.
One factor in those odds is the unknown availability of Hart and senior quarterback Chad Henne.
Hart didn’t play a single down against Wisconsin last week, and Henne played just two series before sitting out the rest of the game with a nagging shoulder injury. Both have expressed their desire to play tomorrow, but their status remains unclear.
If there weren’t enough storylines in tomorrow’s game already, rumors surfaced this week that Michigan coach Lloyd Carr might retire following the game. Many had already expected Carr to step down following the season, but this new wave of speculation could easily affect the game.
A reporter even asked Carr about his future at Monday’s press conference. Predictably, Carr dodged the question.
“The only thing on my mind is this game,” Carr said.
But the players have been dealing with this all season, and said Monday they “definitely” wanted to win this game for Carr.
“There would be no better feeling (than) if this was his last year and we won the Big Ten,” Henne said at Media Day. “That would (send) him off in the right way.”
The Wolverines can still win the conference for Carr. Before the season, three goals were laid out by Hart, Henne, and tackle Jake Long, the three seniors who bypassed the NFL Draft to come back for a final season. They wanted to beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten and win a bowl game.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to do all year, and that’s our goal,” Long said. “It’s right there for us. Beating Ohio State and winning the championship.”
And although the National Championship is out of reach, Carr couldn’t be happier playing for a trip to Pasadena, Calif.
“If there’s a greater bowl than the Rose Bowl, then I’d like to see it,” Carr said. “I’d love to be there.”
Despite the way the season started, it’ll take just one more win to get there.