Undefeated and fresh off being ranked first in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings, the Ohio State Buckeyes are approaching the finish line of its first unblemished regular season since 2013.
The only remaining team standing in their way is an all-too-familiar foe who represents the other side of a larger-than-life rivalry game that has echoed through the ages.
Ohio State and Michigan will meet for the 116th time today in Ann Arbor in a clash that is affectionately know as “The Game.”
With Ohio State having already clinched the Big Ten East division and its spot in next week’s Big Ten Championship Game, there will be no championship implications riding on the outcome, not that this game needs any added juice anyways.
Ohio State is currently enjoying an unfathomable run of dominance in the rivalry, having won 16 of the last 19 meetings between the two teams dating back to 2000, including seven straight wins.
But the rivalry experienced some shakeup prior to this season as Urban Meyer retired from coaching after last season and Ryan Day assumed the position as Ohio State’s keeper of the lopsided nature of the rivalry.
Meyer was beloved by Ohio State fans for his obsessive approach to the rivalry, a quality he shared with his predecessor, Jim Tressel, and which he learned by watching the legendary Woody Hayes treat beating Michigan as a life or death scenario.
That fact was never lost on the folks who cheer on the opposite side of the rivalry either, and with Meyer’s retirement, a sense of hope emerged up north that, perhaps, the time is now for the tides to change in favor of the maize and blue.
With a win today, Day and the Buckeyes could replace that hope with even further doubt and despair about where the Michigan program stands both against its hated rival and, by extension, the hierarchy of great to elite programs in college football.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, the quintessential “Michigan Man” they so coveted in Ann Arbor and the savior they pegged following his hire in 2015, would move to 0-5 in the only game that really matters. The clamors for his job, although unlikely to lead to any change, would only get louder.
Most importantly, another Ohio State win over Michigan and all the residual effects it would bring would be felt in the recruiting landscape, the lifeblood of any football program, for both teams.
On the flip side, as bad as another loss to Ohio State would be perceived for the Michigan program, an upset today could be exponentially rejuvenating for the Wolverines.
Harbaugh would have earned the signature win he’s been so starved to secure, finally bringing validation to his hire five years later. The cloud of negative energy that perpetually surrounds the Michigan program whenever it is stacked up against Ohio State would finally be lifted.
The national narrative of Michigan making its triumphant return to the upper echelon of college football would surely pay dividends in its recruiting efforts, closing the talent gap that is so often pointed to when trying to make sense of the one-sided results of the series.
Ohio State and Michigan will forever be linked to one another. For two programs where tradition means everything, without one, the other just isn’t the same. It’s why the old adage that Ohio State could lose every other game, but as long as the Buckeyes beat Michigan, the season would be deemed a success, still rings true for so many.
It’s why Ohio State spends 365 days a year preparing and constantly monitoring everything the Michigan program does, from how it practices to who the Wolverines are recruiting.
No, there will be no Big Ten championship on the line today. Yes, Ohio State will still be a favorite to make the College Football Playoff even despite a loss, should the Buckeyes go on to win the Big Ten crown next week.
But the implications of today’s game could be seen and felt for years to come in this rivalry depending on who is celebrating in the Big House at game’s end.
In the absence of any true national ramifications for either team, there’s still so much riding on the outcome. That is the essence of this rivalry and why it’s not just another chapter in a fun-for-all rivalry.
It’s called “The Game,” and this one is every bit as critical as some of the all-time classics the two teams have played over the years.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.