What would it take to make this the golden age of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry?
Somewhere between the Amara Darboh touchdown on fourth down and the Curtis Samuel gallop into the end zone in double overtime, it hit me.
This might be the best game we’ve ever seen in the history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. The 2016 showdown had everything.
It had two top-three teams. It had a road team silencing the home crowd. It had a ferocious comeback by the home team. It had coaches slamming headsets and collapsing to their knees on the sidelines. It had not one but TWO overtimes. It had controversy. It had all-or-nothing implications for both teams.
From a neutral standpoint, one couldn’t have drawn up a more entertaining chapter of “The Game.”
But if that was just a chapter, then the entire Jim Harbaugh-Urban Meyer era is a book, albeit an incomplete one. When it’s all said and done, how will this book compare to others in the Michigan-Ohio State series? Will this be an even better page-turner than the Ten Year War?
That question is somewhat subjective. For those who remember the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler battles from 1969-78, there might not be anything that can happen in the Harbaugh-Meyer that can top that.
For others, the Jim Tressel-Lloyd Carr era from 2001-07 can’t be beat. The 2006 clash might always be remembered as the biggest game in the history of college football’s best rivalry.
Let’s say — sentimental connections aside — that Harbaugh-Meyer could become the new golden age of Michigan-Ohio State. Here’s what it would take for that to happen.
BACK AND FORTH?
Let’s start with the obvious. Michigan has to start winning. Simple as that.
In order for this chapter of the rivalry to be seriously compared to the Ten Year War, it can’t be a one-sided affair. It isn’t a historic chapter in a rivalry if Ohio State wins 12 of 13 games, which is the stretch it is currently riding.
I’m not just talking one Michigan win here, one Michigan there. This rivalry would develop even more intrigue if Harbaugh led a two- or three-year winning streak against OSU. There’s no rule that says teams must alternate years winning for it to be considered a back-and-forth battle.
If you’ll recall, Ohio State went four years without losing to Michigan in the Ten Year War. The Wolverines then capped off that era by winning three straight games.
And as for the Carr-Tressel era, the reason that often gets left out of the “golden age” conversation was because Ohio State won six of the seven games in that stretch.
Sure, the 2006 matchup might’ve been the “Game of the Century,” but as I mentioned before, one game doesn’t define a golden age.
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Michigan, to its credit, has done its part under Harbaugh to hold up its end of the bargain outside of the Ohio State games. Technically, the Wolverines had B1G Championship and College Football Playoff hopes alive for both of their two OSU matchups with Harbaugh.
That leads us to our next question.
HOW BIG OF HEAVYWEIGHTS DO THEY HAVE TO BE?
As you can see, eight of the Ten Year War matchups were won by a top-10 team. The only ones that weren’t were the tie in 1973 and Schembechler’s first year, when No. 12 Michigan stunned No. 1 Ohio State and prevented the Buckeyes from winning a national championship.
It’s hard to make the comparison with different postseason structures, but there’s one way that would ensure the Harbaugh-Meyer era is at least in the discussion.
A B1G East crown and potentially a playoff spot has to be on the line every time they meet.
Ideally, it’s make-or-break for both teams. We already had two games like that in the first two years. Can you imagine what 10 would be like?
Even with all of those top-10 matchups in the Ten Year War, the structure didn’t allow for both teams to still have national title aspirations. Still the numbers were pretty incredible:
- 14 of the 20 teams (70%) were ranked in the top five
- Only one matchup (1971) featured an unranked team
- All 10 matchups featured at least one team ranked in the top six
Yeah, that’s a high standard to live up to in the 21st century, especially with a 12-game schedule that includes nine B1G matchups and a conference championship. With an expanded schedule, it’s hard to replicate the magnitude associated with playing a nine-game schedule.
But there are some marks that Michigan and Ohio State could hit in the Harbaugh-Meyer era that would at least make the comparison fair:
- Have 75% of matchups feature top-five teams
- Never have matchup featuring an unranked team
- Have direct playoff implications for at least one team in every matchup
- One No. 1 vs. No. 2 game
- Combine for at least two national titles
That last bullet point is the biggest thing that, in my opinion, the Harbaugh-Meyer era can do to be dubbed “the golden age.” The Ten Year War only produced one national title. People might forget that because the Buckeyes won it all in 1968, which was the year before Schembechler took over at Michigan.
Ironically enough, the Buckeyes won the national title the season before Harbaugh took over at Michigan.
What earned the Ten Year War its title was the fact that those games were treated like national championships. That’s what last year’s double-overtime thriller felt like. That’s what the 2006 “game of the century” felt like.
Speaking of the Carr-Tressel era, only one national came of that, as well. In other words, one title is the mark to tie and two titles is the mark to beat.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER STUFF?
There are other things to consider when it comes to evaluating a rivalry. Everything that was mentioned up to this point was between the lines. The personalities involved in this rivalry make it what it is today.
Things like Meyer’s refusal to allow anyone in his presence to wear the color blue or Harbaugh’s smashing a buckeye on Schembechler’s grave are what make this rivalry what it is. Personalities drive rivalries, and in case you haven’t noticed, Harbaugh and Meyer aren’t lacking in that department.
The Harbaugh-Meyer dynamic already captivates the nation and it’s only two years deep. There’s no better coaching rivalry in the country right now. Period.
That’s what will keep interest in this rivalry even if there is a year in which one team is down. I mean, they played nine months ago, and both of these GIFs are everywhere.
When you realize SEC media days are only at the midway point. pic.twitter.com/Oqew5rXe9w
— Saturday Tradition (@Tradition) July 12, 2017
It's August 1st…
…THAT MEANS THERE WILL BE FOOTBALL THIS MONTH. pic.twitter.com/99n77hA5QB
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) August 1, 2017
There will always be cameras on Harbaugh and Meyer. They already have larger-than-life popularity that Hayes and Schembechler couldn’t possibly reach in the pre-cable/pre-internet era.
Will more GIF-worthy moments from Harbaugh and Meyer make their era the best? Of course not. But the point is that this rivalry hasn’t had big personalities from two successful coaches since Hayes and Schembechler. Tressel and Carr were great coaches in their own right, but they weren’t the draw that Harbaugh and Meyer are.
And to be clear, this rivalry doesn’t need Harbaugh and Meyer spouting off bulletin-board material before every matchup. Harbaugh actually came out and said that he regretted making this guarantee 30 years ago before the OSU game:
If J.T. Barrett said anything like that in this day and age, everyone and their mother would hear about it. The same would be true if Wilton Speight guaranteed a victory over the Buckeyes.
That’s the beauty of what Michigan-Ohio State has become. It can still be considered “the golden age” without on-air guarantees. These fanbases talk too much trash between each other for that animosity to ever die down. That we know.
What we don’t know is how this rivalry would be viewed nationally if Ohio State won again in 2017. Two of those three victories would be in Ann Arbor, too. Would that temper some of the national hype associated with The Game? It could, especially when there are so many other good rivalry games across the country that week.
To me, though, the more interesting discussion is long term.
When Harbaugh or Meyer decides to move on — eventually it’s gonna happen, guys — what will we say about this chapter of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry? Will there be more controversial finishes like we had in 2016? Will there be another overtime game or two? Will we have another No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup for a new “game of the century?” How many potential national title seasons will hinge on the result of The Game?
We can’t answer any of those questions quite yet. All we know is that so far, the book of Harbaugh-Meyer has been too good to put down.
Fortunately, we’ve got several chapters left.