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Michigan’s Big Year Was Good Enough to Break Its Heart

It seemed like things would be different this year. But for the seventh year in a row, the Buckeyes defeated the Wolverines on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving, which means Ohio State beat the crap out of Michigan. For the seventh year in a row and the 15th time in 16 years, the Buckeyes won a supposedly competitive rivalry game. Jim Harbaugh is turning into the highest-paid coach in Washington Generals history.

And Ohio State didn’t just win. The Buckeyes scored 62 points. That’s five passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and two field goals. That’s the most points Michigan has ever allowed in a loss, which breaks a record set in 1891 when the Wolverines lost 58-12 to Cornell. Michigan hasn’t been torched like this since the damn Benjamin Harrison administration. It was literally the worst Michigan defensive performance since sliced bread, which wasn’t invented until 1912.

It seemed like things would be different this year. Coming into the season, I had questions about Harbaugh, whose Michigan tenure had resulted in more memes than wins against quality opponents. And during the season, he answered those questions. Michigan went 10-1, with the one loss coming by seven points against a Notre Dame team that is currently undefeated. The 10-1 record didn’t even do Michigan justice, as nine of those wins were by double digits. In a three-week span, the Wolverines beat ranked Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State teams by a combined score of 101-27. The defense was arguably the best in the nation—fewest yards per game allowed, second-fewest yards per play allowed, fewest yards per passing play allowed. And Shea Patterson played like the quarterback Harbaugh has become famous for building. Just one more win, and Michigan would go to the Big Ten championship for the first time under Harbaugh, and probably coast against Northwestern to a spot in the College Football Playoff. We’d made jokes about Michigan, but those fell short this year as the Wolverines put together a legitimate championship résumé.

Meanwhile, this Ohio State team didn’t seem particularly great. The Buckeyes lost by 29 to Purdue in a stunningly poor defensive effort. They almost lost to Maryland, but escaped with a 52-51 win in overtime when Maryland’s quarterback sailed a pass over a wide-open receiver. They beat Penn State by one—that’s 34 points fewer than Michigan’s margin of victory—and struggled against a Nebraska team that began the year 0-6. This was the year for Michigan to beat Ohio State.

Michigan did not beat Ohio State. I can’t write anything this GIF doesn’t already say:

And now, everything that made this season special for Michigan is gone. Shot at the playoff? Gone. Shot at the Big Ten Championship? Gone. Now, Ohio State is the one with a chance of winning the national championship. All that’s left for Michigan are the unceasing, cacophonous voices saying everything Michigan doesn’t want to hear: That Harbaugh can’t win the big game, that Ohio State owns the rivalry. And those voices have more evidence than ever.

Michigan will have to wait another year. But there’s no guarantee that next year will be as good as this one. And even if everything does go right for the Wolverines next season, their fans will know not to get too excited about it. After all, they will still have to beat Ohio State at the end of the year. And The Game is just different. Even when the better team seems obvious, Ohio State still beats Michigan.

This is what college football does. It makes sure that the biggest game of the year is also the game against the opponent you hate the most, ensuring that this one SuperGame is the most important one on the calendar for both your brain and your heart. And that game is always scheduled all the way at the end of the year, which gives you 364 days to hope and believe that things will be different.

And then college football crushes you. It happened to Michigan. It also happened to Washington State: The 10-1 Cougars were the last remaining hope for the Pac-12 to make the Playoff, and could have qualified for the Pac-12 Championship Game with a win against Washington Friday night. But for the sixth time in a row, Wazzu lost to Washington, and it all went away. It happened on a smaller scale to Virginia, which put together its best season in a decade but could not beat a Virginia Tech having its worst season in 25 years. The Cavaliers blew a late lead and lost in overtime for a 15th consecutive loss in the series. Time after time, these teams that wanted nothing more than to beat their bitter rivals suffered losses as tragic as they were predictable.

There are bad losses every week in college football. Huge favorites fall to massive underdogs; teams lose on improbable game-ending touchdowns as the clock expires. But you can forget about a regular bad loss. It’s the rivalries that stick with you, eating at your soul and psyche for a full calendar year and beyond.

Ohio State-Michigan hasn’t seemed like much of a rivalry lately in terms of results, and certainly didn’t look like one on the field Saturday. But it remains one in the most important aspect: Any loss can sting, but only hate can break your heart.