By Ben Holcomb
This Saturday the sun will rise on the heart of America, and the slow rush of another college football Saturday will begin to descend on their long standing final regular season Mecca. Honest, hard working Americans will pack up their trucks and RVs and set off on their journeys to Columbus, Ohio, where tailgating will be especially somber this year. There will be revelry, yes, and more raised glasses to the Scarlet & Grey than need suffice. Chants will rise up from the belly of the Horseshoe parking lot, and those in Maize & Blue will be treated like combatants in a foreign land. The Ohio State v. Michigan rivalry is college football at its finest, except this year, none of it will matter.
Die hard fans from both schools may vehemently disagree with the sentiment, but for all intents and purposes, this notion is true. Michigan, at 8-3, needs the same Iowa team they just pounded into a fine, SPAM sized cube, to pull off a miracle upset against Nebraska just to have a shot at the Big Ten title. The far more likely story is that they’re well on their way to a meaningless appearance in The Outback Bowl1 – though their potential match-up with Heisman hopeful Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M is juicy. Ohio State, on the other hand, is the least talked about school in the country, despite the fact that they’re one of only two unbeatens left. This comes in large part to their NCAA sanctions that included a one-year bowl ban following the improper benefits received by players under Jim Tressel. And so, Urban Meyer began his tenure at Ohio State already cloaked in a sea of irrelevancy; they couldn’t be ranked, they couldn’t win a Big Ten Title, and they weren’t going bowling.
The saddest part of all is, it never had to be this way.
Some say the Ohio State bowl ban was a little harsh. The university tried to sanction themselves before the NCAA could get to them in order to lessen the blow. It didn’t work. Players like Terrell Pryor and DeVier Posey and Dan Harron received compensation in the form of tattoos and money in exchange for Ohio State football memorabilia. Tressell knew about it, and tried to cover it up. Somebody had to pay, the only problem was, the culprits had all split long before the guillotine came crashing down.
as fans we’re left to ponder, what could’ve been, what should’ve been, and if the NCAA Football Playoff is coming one year too late.
On the other side is Michigan, coming into the hostile territory of Columbus, OH in hopes of reigniting one of sport’s greatest rivalries, that just so happens to have been on life support for the last 5 years or so. The days of Braylon Edwards and Chad Henne, of Chris Gamble and Maurice Clarett seem to be a distant memory at this point. Rich Rodriguez put a huge stain on the competitive, ultra-historic match-up. His team’s never competed at a level close enough to even demand the term rivalry, as Ohio State consistently hammed the Wolverines and turned the nation’s admiration of the rivalry sour. Michigan was poised to have a magical season of their own, following the defibrillator fast turnaround job by Brady Hoke and his staff. The Wolverines took out Virginia Tech in last year’s Sugar Bowl to add another BCS notch in their belts, and with the return of senior Denard Robinson, all eyes in Ann Arbor were on a National Title, and at the very least a Big Ten championship.
What stood in their way just happened to be the two best teams in the country. Michigan took an expected drubbing at the hands of Alabama in the kickoff game of 2012-13 season, then followed that loss up with another poor performance against newly #1 Notre Dame on September 22nd. Things turned around from there, and the Hoke’s squad began to take care of the team’s they were expected to take care of; things really began to look up for Michigan, as their two non-conference losses didn’t seem to detract from their chances at a Big Ten title. All that came crashing down October 27th, though, when Denard Robinson left the game against Nebraska and Hoke was forced to throw Russell Bellomy to the wolves, a QB out of his element that ended up with just as many interceptions as he did completions. The main reason for this catch-22 was that Devin Gardner, the back-up to Robinson last year, was too talented to go to waste this season and was moved to receiver early on. So when Robinson went down, their best quarterback was lining up on the outside hash running pass patterns.
In sport there is no place for speculation on what could have been. What’s left of the 2012 Michigan football season is nothing but a solemn understanding that this squad is better than their record; far better, in fact. In the past three weeks, there hasn’t been a more dynamic, exciting quarterback in the country than Devon Gardner. He’s filled Robinson’s shoes with a flawless ease, and rallied his team to three straight wins. This all means that Michigan, now ranked 19th in the BCS, has lost to the #1, #2 and #14 team2. Some might say that a top ten team finds a way to win one of those games, but isn’t the definition of a hierarchy system like the BCS that each team is better than the ones below it? This notion makes one wonder about Michigan’s true standing in the college football universe this year. Are they a top 10 team that hit a brick wall in Notre Dame and Alabama? Are they plagued by unfortunate bad luck, or are they truly the 20th best team in the country?
It’s a rhetorical question without an answer. But this Saturday will tell us a lot; it won’t change anything within the college football landscape. Nebraska will win, and play for a Big Ten title, and Michigan will go to a worthless bowl3 and Ohio State will simply go home. But we’ll get a glimpse of each team’s true value when they run up against each other. Ohio State could really validate their claims to being the best team in America with a win. Michigan, if they take out Ohio State, makes a strong case for them deserving top 10 consideration, and opens up more inquiries into what they could’ve been. I’ve read the saddest words in the English language are If Only.
This game could’ve been huge. It should’ve been huge. But, because the ball bounced a few different ways, and because of the transgressions of players that are now specters within the Ohio State program, Saturday in Columbus will mean little more than bragging rights. And as fans we’re left to ponder, what could’ve been, what should’ve been, and if the NCAA Football Playoff is coming one year too late.