I couldn”t believe what I was watching another coach whose team lost to Michigan was celebrating a Big Ten title.
Early yesterday morning, I was flipping channels when I hit upon ESPNews” analysis of Michigan”s loss to Ohio State.
After showing some highlights of Jonathan Wells running right through Michigan”s defense, the network cut to a shot of Illinois coach Ron Turner addressing the media.
Turner, of course, was discussing Illinois” first Big Ten championship in 18 seasons. The Buckeyes” upset victory handed the conference title and the automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series to the Fighting Illini.
At one point, an elated Turner said: “If someone had said at the beginning of the season that Illinois would be in a BCS game, that person probably would have been laughed at.” Turner isn”t kidding at best, the Fighting Illini were expected to contend for a berth in the Alamo Bowl, maybe the Outback Bowl if they got lucky. Nobody thought Illinois would win the Big Ten, but the Fighting Illini somehow pulled off the unthinkable.
So, as I sat there watching Turner talk the Big Ten championship trophy strategically placed right behind him I couldn”t help but think to myself how lightning has once again struck for a mediocre Big Ten team.
This is now the third time in my four years in Ann Arbor in which Michigan has dominated a seemingly overrated Big Ten squad early in the season, only to see that overrated team end up winning the conference title by virtue of Michigan losses.
Three years ago, Wisconsin marched into Michigan Stadium with an undefeated record. Michigan held the Badgers to 160 yards of total offense en route to crushing Wisconsin, 27-10.
But Wisconsin ended up going to the Rose Bowl that year. Why? The Badgers didn”t have to play Ohio State, which was arguably the best team in the country. Meanwhile, Michigan won its first seven Big Ten games before falling at Ohio State, 31-16, in the season finale. Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin finished tied for the Big Ten title with 7-1 records, but since both Michigan and Ohio State had gone to the Rose Bowl more recently, Wisconsin went to Pasadena.
The following season, Michigan went to Madison and throttled the Badgers once again. But the Wolverines lost to Michigan State and Illinois later in the fall, which gave the Badgers a repeat trip to Pasadena.
Then there”s this season. Illinois kept talking about how much it wanted to beat Michigan, and the Wolverines responded by pummeling the Fighting Illini, 45-20, on Sept. 29 in the Big Ten opener for both teams. As if on cue, Michigan proceeded to lose to Michigan State and Ohio State, while Illinois managed to win the rest of its games. So Illinois gets to go to the BCS and Michigan gets to go to a meaningless bowl game in Florida against some mediocre team from the SEC.
Seeing a Michigan victim backdoor its way to a Big Ten title three years ago had to be bad enough for Michigan fans. But to have this happen three times in four years is probably more than the average Michigan fan can (or should) take. To top things off, last year, Michigan thoroughly dominated Purdue before collapsing in the second half the Boilermakers escaped with a 32-31 victory and ended up going to the Rose Bowl.
It”s one thing to lose out to a clearly superior team (the 1998 loss to Ohio State is a great example). In that situation, you can”t really have any regrets the better team won, and there”s nothing more to say about it.
On the flip side, having to watch a team that you have already defeated reap the benefits of your misfortune has to be one of the most aggravating scenarios in sports, but it”s something that Michigan will have to deal with again this season. While the Fighting Illini play against a high-profile opponent in either the Orange, Sugar or Fiesta Bowl, Michigan has to settle for yet another second-tier bowl bid.
It”s a disturbing trend for the Wolverines, but it”s a trap into which they keep falling Michigan is once again playing the role of the bridesmaid to a very fortunate bride. The theories for why this keeps happening are varied a lack of a killer instinct, questionable play-calling, bad luck but the point is clear: Unless the Wolverines want to make Orlando their permanent winter residence, something has to change.
Arun Gopal is praying that the temperature actually cracks 50 degrees in central Florida this Christmas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.