There are two types of college football rivalry games: the ones that matter, and the ones that just so happen to get played every year.
You know all about the games that matter. Some of these, like the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn and the Red River Showdown between Texas and Oklahoma, are brand-name brawls that routinely alter the course of a college football season. Even if one team is having a down year—especially if one team is having a down year—these are fun to watch, because that’s when things get weird, and weird is the best quality in college football. Some of these don’t feature teams in the national title hunt, like Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale. But when there’s one game on the schedule that both teams want to win more than any other, it always matters.
Then there are the games that just so happen to get played every year. The era when the programs involved were equals is decades in the past, if it ever existed. The teams play for some trophy named the Governor’s Bell or the Ol’ Maple Clogs, and it collects cobwebs in the back of the trophy case at the facility of the powerhouse program that sleepwalks through a win every season. It’s not that these teams and fan bases don’t hate each other—you really start to despise the guys who kick your ass every year—but that hate tends to be one-sided. One team simply has other games that it cares about more, and bigger dreams than just beating the team from across the state. These games can still be magical for the once-a-decade upsets they produce. Yet while one of the programs hangs national championship banners, the other mostly reminisces about that one time it took down its rival.
Ohio State–Michigan is definitely a rivalry game that matters. The Buckeyes and Wolverines are two of the premier programs in the sport, and hate each other so thoroughly that their fans refuse to say each other’s names aloud. (Michigan is “that team up north” in Ohio State parlance.) Twenty times, these two have faced off with both ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll. National championships have been won and lost in The Game.
However, it increasingly feels like a game that is merely played every year. Ohio State has won seven in a row over Michigan, and 14 of their last 15 meetings. By the time late November rolls around, Michigan’s season has recently boiled down to the goal of beating Ohio State, while Ohio State often still has national championship aspirations. If the Buckeyes can get past the Wolverines on Saturday, they’ll have plenty left to accomplish.
Since 2004, Ohio State has won one national championship and eight conference titles; Michigan has none and none. Ohio State has been to the Big Ten championship game in five of the nine years since it was introduced in 2011, and to the College Football Playoff in two of the five years since it was introduced in 2014; Michigan has not been to either. This Buckeyes’ run of dominance began when the recruits who will become college football players next season were about 3 years old; it has spanned the careers of three Ohio State head coaches and four Michigan coaches. Times change, but Ohio State keeps winning.
Name a college football rivalry that seems like it’s lopsided, and it is almost certainly less lopsided than Ohio State–Michigan of late. Oregon State has beaten Oregon more recently than Michigan has beaten Ohio State. Oklahoma State has beaten Oklahoma more recently than Michigan has beaten Ohio State. South Carolina has beaten Clemson, Georgia Tech has beaten Georgia, Texas Tech has beaten Texas, and UCLA has beaten USC more recently than Michigan has beaten Ohio State. Vanderbilt has beaten Tennessee more recently than Michigan has beaten Ohio State five times. And, of course, the now-distant nature of Michigan’s last win in this rivalry is only half the embarrassment; the Buckeyes had won seven matchups in a row prior to that result.
Michigan’s lone win over Ohio State during the last 15 years came in 2011, during a strange period for the Buckeyes. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor was suspended for exchanging memorabilia for tattoos—yes, Tattoogate really happened—and decided to leave school to turn pro. Head coach Jim Tressel stepped down, although he might have been fired anyway, and Ohio State was stuck with a bowl ban. Under interim coach Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes went 6-7, including falling 40-34 to Michigan. With Ohio State in disarray, it seemed like the tables had turned. They never did.
There have been close calls since, but the Wolverines’ breakthrough hasn’t happened. In 2013, Michigan lost 42-41 after Devin Gardner’s pass on a last-second two-point conversion attempt was intercepted. In 2016, there was The Spot, an officiating decision that gave J.T. Barrett and Ohio State a successful conversion on fourth down when a turnover on downs would have clinched Michigan the game. (I can’t say that this was an incorrect officiating decision, nor can I confirm it was right—three years later, there remains no conclusive evidence that Barrett did or did not get the first down. Metaphysically, the truth must exist somewhere, but we simply do not know. It’s Schrodinger’s Call.) In 2017, John O’Korn and Michigan raced out to a 14-0 lead before succumbing 31-20. Last year, Michigan played Ohio State close for a half, then allowed 38 second-half points.
Over the summer, it looked like Michigan could reverse the trend this year—the Wolverines entered the season as betting favorites to finally win The Game, according to sportsbooks that released “Game of the Year” odds in the preseason. But nope. Ohio State looks like the best team in college football; Michigan looks like maybe the fourth-best team in the Big Ten. Ohio State boasts a record of 11-0, with quarterback Justin Fields torching defenses and pass rusher Chase Young emerging as the possible no. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Michigan sits at 9-2, with Ohio State confidently beating both of the teams to which it lost: Wisconsin beat Michigan 35-14, but lost 38-7 to the Buckeyes; Penn State took a 21-0 lead on Michigan, but fell behind 21-0 against Ohio State.
Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines have five-star quarterback transfers: Ohio State has Justin Fields, who transferred from Georgia, while Michigan has Shea Patterson, who transferred from Ole Miss. But while Fields has excelled from the moment he set foot in Columbus, Patterson has been just fine, rather than the all-world passer Michigan hoped he would transform into. The Wolverines are nine-point home underdogs Saturday, and even that feels generous. More often than not, the Buckeyes haven’t just beaten Michigan—they’ve covered, going 10-5 against the spread and covering double-digit spreads three times.
Even in lopsided rivalries, blips occur. A good coach leaves and a bad one replaces him; a rash of injuries hits one team at an inopportune time; a successful class graduates and depletes the talent on a roster. Things are rarely consistent when dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds, the least consistent people on the planet.
The strange thing is, game results aside, it would be hard to look at Ohio State and Michigan and call the Buckeyes the more consistent program. Since 2015, Michigan has been coached by Jim Harbaugh, its prodigal son, a former Wolverines quarterback who went on to play in the NFL and find success as both a college and pro head coach. When Michigan brought in Harbaugh, he was probably the most sought-after coach in the nation. He came one play away from winning a Super Bowl! After Michigan fans grew fed up with the underwhelming tenures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Harbaugh represented a beacon of hope.
Meanwhile, Urban Meyer announced that he was resigning as Ohio State’s head coach last December, on the heels of a 2018 regular season during which he was suspended for mishandling multiple accounts of domestic violence involving a longtime staffer. The Buckeyes concurrently promoted Ryan Day from offensive coordinator to head coach, even though he’s never worked as a head coach at any level. None of this seems to have affected Ohio State’s on-field product in any way.
Ohio State has had a stunning amount of turnover at the coordinator positions, with offensive coordinators Tom Herman, Tim Beck, and Ed Warriner and defensive coordinators Everett Withers, Chris Ash, Luke Fickell, Greg Schiano, and Alex Grinch all leaving the program since 2013. Meanwhile, Michigan has employed the same defensive coordinator, Don Brown, for the past four years.
The Buckeyes have had 12 players forgo at least one season of NCAA eligibility to become first-round NFL draft picks since 2013. Over that span, Michigan has had just three players leave early for the draft. But Ohio State never suffers from its losses. If superstar defensive end Joey Bosa leaves early, in comes his brother Nick, who is equally capable of destroying QBs. If Nick leaves early a few years later, in enters Chase Young. Quarterback Dwayne Haskins left early to become a first-round draft pick in April, so Ohio State brought in Fields, who is performing just as well as Haskins, if not better. If a key player is suspended by the NCAA (like Young earlier this year), gets injured (like quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett in 2014), or decides to leave school midseason to focus on his professional prospects (like Nick Bosa last year), the Buckeyes keep winning anyway.
Ohio State has built a football machine. Its players and coaches are constantly being called upon for bigger opportunities, and like sharks’ teeth, their departures only open opportunities for those behind them. Meanwhile, Michigan has spent years trying to assemble a comparable machine. In this century, it hasn’t gotten there.
Harbaugh was hired to transform Michigan from the moribund program that went 15-22 under RichRod and 5-7 in Hoke’s final season, and he has. The Wolverines are 47-16 under his watch, and they’ve yet to finish worse than 8-5. But historically Michigan is a program that wins championships, and it can’t win championships unless it first beats Ohio State. Harbaugh remains 0-4 against the Buckeyes, marginally worse than the guys who went 1-10 in the 10 years before he was hired at Michigan. With two losses already this season, the team is out of title contention, but a win over Ohio State Saturday—possible, if unlikely—would change Michigan’s program. It would mark the biggest victory of Harbaugh’s tenure, unless we count headlines and hype as triumphs.
If this year doesn’t pan out, though, the Wolverines will get another chance. After all, Ohio State–Michigan is a game that’s always on the schedule. Until Michigan wins one, we’ll just have to call Ohio State the victors valiant.