Last year before the Michigan-Ohio State football game, I wrote a column that questioned whether Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel could restore the rivalry that had been dominated in recent years by the Wolverines (“Rivalry needs to be competitive, but is Tressel the right man for the job?” Nov. 21, 2001). Entering the game, Ohio State was 6-4 and had simply not won any game of significance. Tressel had not yet separated himself from the failures of his predecessor, John Cooper.
Just before I walked over to Michigan Stadium for the game, confident that I had written a column that both Ohio State fans and Michigan fans could agree with, I confirmed that my inbox was empty and walked out the door.
Five hours later, after watching Jonathan Wells and the Buckeyes run all over the Wolverines and hold on to a 26-20 upset, I returned home a bit stunned over what I had just witnessed. Tressel was right. Ohio State fans would be proud of their team after the Michigan game.
Dejected, I checked my e-mail and found that the Buckeye nation did not agree with my column – they were just waiting until after the game to tell me. Some disagreed with the interpretation of “proud” as also meaning “happy.” Some said that former coach Cooper wasn’t fired because he couldn’t beat Michigan, he was fired because Ohio State wasn’t pleased with his teams consistently finishing in the nation’s top five. Still others told me that they enjoyed reading my article in the Detroit Free Press, which while interesting, is completely inaccurate.
But mostly, Buckeyes fans just told me what I already knew: “Guess what? Tressel is the right man for the job – look forward to years and years of this.”
Fast forward to 2002 and now, faster than anyone expected, Tressel has Ohio State vying for the national title. There is only one roadblock for the Buckeyes between Columbus and Tempe, Ariz. – a Michigan team looking to avenge last season’s loss.
Last year, Tressel was under a tremendous amount of pressure to redeem his team’s season against Michigan. This year, that pressure has increased 10-fold as not only does Ohio State need to defeat Michigan to keep its fans happy, it needs to do it with much more on the line.
In last season’s win, while Tressel all but guaranteed a win, it was Michigan that had the pressure of a Bowl Championship Series berth and Big Ten title to deal with. Now the pressure is on the Buckeyes, something that they haven’t dealt with well in seasons past.
As if anyone needs a history lesson, in eerily similar situations in 1995 and 1996, Ohio State was undefeated and ranked No. 2, only to fall to Michigan 31-23 and 13-9, respectively. In 1997, the Buckeyes couldn’t spoil Michigan’s bid for a national title.
Now with Ohio State again ranked No. 2 and undefeated, the situation is just too perfect for Michigan fans – it is almost as if the Wolverines are expected to win. Many Michigan fans were even rooting for the Buckeyes to defeat Illinois, as if the Wolverines wouldn’t win this week if Ohio State faltered.
As early as three weeks ago, analysts were looking ahead to this game as to where Ohio State would finally fall. A recent ESPN.com poll had 60 percent of voters saying Michigan would prevail in Columbus. To fuel the talk of upset, Ohio State has hardly looked sharp in its past two games, doing just enough to get past Illinois and Purdue. But a win is a win, and an undefeated season with all close victories is obviously better than a one-loss season with all blowouts.
This game is also important for the Big Ten as a whole. After a four-year hiatus, the game again has national implications. In the past few seasons, the conference has come under scrutiny for being unable to compete on the national level. The Big Ten has yet to place a team in the BCS title game and doing that could go a long way in relegitimizing the conference.
Outside the Big Ten, Ohio State has already handled No. 3 Washington State – which sits atop the Pac-10 – and No. 24 Texas Tech, which just upset Texas. Yet, the lack of respect for the Buckeyes is obvious. During a season in which the first-place votes were often distributed amongst the top five teams, Miami (Fla.) controls all 74 first-place votes.
As if that wasn’t enough, the BCS braintrust is no doubt hoping for an Ohio State win in order to avoid another controversy.
This has been the story all season as Ohio State has marched up the rankings as those on top continue to falter. Tressel has guided his team through the unrealistic expectations and has thus far remained clean.
Last season, Tressel proved that his team could deal with the pressure of defeating Michigan. Now that all of the pressure has come to a head, there is no reason to doubt that Tressel cannot perform well again – even if everyone outside of Ohio is.
Jeff Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.