2012 NCAA FOOTBALL PREVIEW
Michigan-Ohio State always gets circle-the-date treatment among players and fans of those schools, but after the Wolverines’ dramatic turnaround and the Buckeyes’ hire of Urban Meyer, the Game matters again in the national picture, too BY STEVE GREENBERG
he last time Urban Meyer was on the field with Ohio State, Buckeyes star Ted Ginn returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. As Meyer, then the coach at Florida, raged apoplectically on the sideline, the 2006 season’s BCS title game off to a worst-case start for the Gators, linebacker Brandon Siler grabbed him by the arm. “He squeezed it real hard and said, ‘Coach, we’re gonna be all right,” Meyer says. “We’re gonna be all right.’ ” Which, as you know, turned out to be completely true. Things haven’t been all right for the Buckeyes since that night in Glendale, Ariz. Not entirely. They tried and failed to win a national championship. They endured a scandal that led to the resignation of coach Jim Tressel, a state hero. Under an interim coach in 2011, they suffered their first losing season since 1988. Fittingly, they closed the season—and, they hope, concluded their troubles—with a postseason loss to Florida. But you know what’s worse for the Buckeyes and their fans than all that?
The winning streak—the dominant edge—in the rivalry vs. Michigan is gone. No more one-way street. Not only did the Wolverines beat Ohio State last November to end a seven-game losing streak, but the victory propelled them into a BCS game, which they won to finish 11-2. And you know what that means. The Game is back. Meyer was hired to restore the Buckeyes’ greatness, but someday history will say he was hired to beat Brady Hoke and Michigan. Even if that isn’t really true, it’s too promising a story line not to get swept up in it. If all goes well, the two coaches will engage in their own Ten Year War, or a close approximation of the rivalry’s 1969-78 heyday, during which Bo edged Woody by a 5-4-1 count and the last Saturday in November became a national holiday. Nearly 50 times, the Big Ten title has hung in the balance when Michigan and Ohio State have met. Twenty-two times, first place has been on the line for both teams. “Incredible history,” Hoke says. “Special history.”
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Michigan’s win against Ohio State last season, Hoke’s first as head coach with the Wolverines, is a big reason the Game is back. Now it’s up to the Buckeyes to respond in the first year under Meyer (right).
It may not be quite incredible on November 24 in Columbus, given the Buckeyes’ one-year postseason ban stemming from NCAA rules violations committed under Tressel. Then again, there almost certainly will be the most buzz the Game has had since 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan 42-39 en route to Glendale. That was the epitome of the Game: the Big Ten championship, and a shot
at the BCS crown, at stake. But Meyer-Hoke I is a big damn deal, too. !"! Every football meeting at Michigan ends with the same two words shouted in unison: “Beat Ohio!” And that’s what Hoke has been telling his players since the former
HOKE: CARLOS OSORIO / AP; MEYER: JAY LAPRETE / AP
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defensive assistant to Lloyd Carr returned to Ann Arbor two winters ago to restore the Wolverines’ greatness. Yes, and to beat the Buckeyes. “We’ve gotta beat Ohio,” he told them within the first moments of his introductory team meeting. Since then, according to junior left tackle Taylor Lewan, “it has been a constant part of his message to the team. We hear it over and over. …
It’s not about one coach, one player, one team. It’s about Michigan-Ohio State.” It simply wasn’t like that in Ann Arbor under Hoke’s predecessor, Rich Rodriguez. He didn’t just lose games at Michigan, he lost sight of— or never had sight of—the importance of the Game. The rivalry never even came up in Michigan’s recruitment of Lewan, the Scottsdale, Ariz., native says. “When I got to college, I didn’t really understand what Michigan was,” he says. “I had no idea about Michigan and Ohio State. I didn’t even know there was a rivalry.” A little more than three years later, after a 40-34 thriller on the last Saturday of November in Ann Arbor, Lewan found himself reveling with former Michigan All-American left tackle and No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Jake Long. “He never beat Ohio State,” Lewan says. “Being able to share that with him, at that moment, was real special.” Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson was sensational that day, passing for three touchdowns and running for 170 yards and two more scores. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, a freshman playing under trying circumstances, had his best performance of the year. It had the look and feel of a rivalry classic—even though the Buckeyes were under .500 in the conference standings and the Wolverines had no shot to get to the Rose Bowl. Even when the game doesn’t matter on a national scale, those involved say, it still matters immensely. “It doesn’t matter what our record is,” OSU senior linebacker Etienne Sabino says, “people’s moods throughout the year depend on whether we win or lose this game.” “It’s always the Game,” Robinson says, “and it’s always been the Game.” But doesn’t the Game mean more when both coaches are rock stars? And when both teams involved are, you know, really, really good? “I don’t know if it can be elevated any more,” Ohio State senior
defensive end John Simon says. “It’s already the biggest game in college football.” !"! So maybe the Game never actually left. If it had, we wouldn’t know stuff like Rodriguez: 0-3 and Tressel: 9-1 just as surely as we know John Cooper: 2-10-1. “Talk to guys who played at Ohio, talk to guys who played at Michigan. They all know their record,” Hoke says. Does Hoke know his? He must—it’s only 1-0. “I do know it. It’s 6-3.” All those games as an assistant to Lloyd Carr (6-7) count, too. “It’s the biggest game we play.” You’ll have to forgive Meyer for not sounding as authentically Gameoriented as his counterpart. This is a man who won two BCS crowns at Florida and was almost unimaginably successful before that at Utah and Bowling Green. A man whose X’sand-O’s have transformed the sport and who, a short time ago, could’ve had any job in football that he wanted. Yeah, he’s a student of history. His
own history. “What makes a rivalry really great is two very good teams playing against each other,” Meyer says. “Two lousy teams, it’s not a rivalry. And I know they have a very good team.” Translation: Meyer—who watched a replay of the 2011 matchup just before training camp—doesn’t know yet about the Buckeyes. “They won the game last year not because of some coach or some motivational saying but because they have a freak at quarterback who made some great plays. He was dynamic. Our guy wasn’t bad, either. “If Braxton Miller’s a great player, the rivalry’s going to be really good. If he’s not very good, then the rivalry won’t be quite as fiery.” Many a current or former Buckeye or Wolverine—and, undoubtedly, a vast number of fans—would disagree with such tepid sentiment about the Game. Some might wonder if Meyer is dangerously Cooper-like—with eyes on the national prize, not on the Team From Up North—or if, given his offensive wizardry and rollicking success last decade, he might even turn out to be Rodriguez-like. But the fact is, there’s truth to what Meyer says. A lot of truth. If Ohio State and Michigan aren’t both really, really good, the Game still matters like crazy to them. Not so much, though, to the rest of the country. And that’s why the presence of Meyer—along with Hoke—could and should bring the Game all the way back. As Ohio State begins the climb back toward the top of the league, and if Michigan’s 11-2 was its own start of something big, then what we’re all in for is something very meaningful. This season will be the fifth straight in which the Buckeyes and Wolverines will not meet with the Big Ten title on the line for both teams. That’s pretty much worst-case for the Game. But Meyer, a year behind Hoke, has arrived. Together, they’ve got the rivalry in an ever-so-needed squeeze. We’re gonna be all right.
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