Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (defibrillators sold separately in Boone, N.C., where Appalachian State has played 13 one-score games that went down to the wire in the past two seasons—most recently the overtime upset of undefeated James Madison):
Second Quarter: The Great Midwestern Morality Play
Ohio State plays Michigan this week. That sentence alone is enough to escalate blood pressures and start arguments. In terms of import, it may not be the biggest in rivalry history. In terms of heat and bitterness (11), this might be the new high. Or low.
To this point, there are two Ohio State–Michigan games that generally are regarded as the biggest in a series that dates to the 19th century. The first was in 1973, Bo vs. Woody (12), the Buckeyes undefeated and ranked No. 1, the Wolverines undefeated and ranked No. 4. The game ended in a 10—10 tie, and the ensuing controversy probably has inflated the game’s impact over the years—the Big Ten voted the day after the game for Ohio State to go to the Rose Bowl, while Michigan stayed home. (This was back in the day when the Big Ten only sent its champion to a postseason bowl game.) Notre Dame beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in another clash of unbeatens and was crowned national champion, so the 10—10 tie ultimately served to disqualify both teams from winning it all.
In 2006, Ohio State and Michigan played in Columbus while ranked No. 1 and No. 2, both unbeaten. Bo Schembechler had died the day before. The Buckeyes won a wild shootout, 42—39, cementing the Heisman Trophy for quarterback Troy Smith (13). There was some lobbying for a rematch in the BCS Championship Game, but Florida got in ahead of Michigan and soundly defeated the Buckeyes for the national title. That Florida team was coached by Urban Meyer.
Last year was a whopper as well, with the teams undefeated and ranked No. 2 (Ohio State) and No. 3 (Michigan). The Wolverines punished the Buckeyes 45—23, their second straight win in the series, but the outcome lacked the finality of ‘73 and ‘06—both advanced to the College Football Playoff. They both lost in the semifinals.
This year’s game? It’s an intoxicating cocktail of stakes (the two teams are again undefeated, again ranked second and third) and scandal. The emotions might be running higher than they ever have when these two collide Saturday at noon ET in the Big House.
This game pits Coach Third Base (14) against the Coach Who Stole Second and Third* (15). Except the latter coach, Jim Harbaugh, will not be in attendance on game day. He’s serving his second three-game suspension of the season amid separate NCAA investigations.
(*No, Harbaugh is not alleged to have stolen anything himself, opponent play signals or otherwise. But his program is on the hook for former analyst, former vacuum salesman and eternal master of disguise Connor Stalions allegedly doing so.)
The former coach, Ryan Day, was alleged to have landed the coveted Ohio State job without sufficiently working his way there by none other than Harbaugh. After ending a 0-for-5 start to his Michigan coaching tenure against the Buckeyes in 2021, Harbaugh said, “Sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.”
Since that barb, Michigan has won every non-playoff game it has played. The run has elevated Harbaugh’s standing to the point that the school and fans have gone to the wall to support and protect him as scandals have raged around his program. The public lamentation and protestation of his suspensions has been overwrought to the point of unintentional comedy.
That took a sharp turn late last week, though, when the staunch party line that Stalions acted in a complete vacuum came into doubt. Michigan abruptly dropped a legal challenge to Harbaugh’s second three-game suspension, then announced it had fired linebackers coach Chris Partridge. And then came media reports that the NCAA is looking into whether a booster identified as “Uncle T (16)” funded Stalions’s scheme to buy tickets and send associates into opposing stadiums to videotape their play signals.
That stopped the outrage. It also might have started the clock on the end of the Harbaugh Era at Michigan.
Things might already have been trending that direction, given Harbaugh’s interest in the NFL and the weight of scandal following him around. But with another staffer being dismissed and alleged booster involvement in what will certainly be considered a major breach of NCAA rules, this could break contain. If the Stalions Acted Alone defense breaks down, the 2024 sanctions could be significant enough to force major changes.
So Michigan is trying to cram as much glory as it can before the curtain falls on this season. The Wolverines believe they’re good enough to win their first national championship since 1997, and Harbaugh can return to game coaching after Saturday. They just have to get past the desperate man standing between them and the Big Ten title game.
That’s Day, whose record is brilliant (56—6) with the exception of this rivalry. He is 1–2 against Michigan. While there’s no shame in that at any other school, losing badly twice in a row at Ohio State creates apoplexy—especially when Meyer was 7–0 against The Team Up North. It’s completely irrational to say Day is on the hot seat, but if he loses a third straight in a game when Michigan is without its head coach, there will be a lot of fans who want to put him there.
The weight of being pushed around by the Wolverines the previous two seasons might well have been what triggered Day to unload on Lou Holtz (17) in September after dramatically beating Notre Dame. Instead of ignoring the musings of an 86-year-old retiree, Day took great offense to Holtz saying the day before that game that Ohio State lacked toughness. Day’s over-the-top reaction gave the impression he’s still hearing the echo of criticism from the previous November, and deeply bothered by it.
In its entirety, the rivalry has been brought to a toxic boil by the Stalions Affair. Michigan is alleged to have cheated in a manner that directly affects the actual playing of the game. Ohio State is believed to be the Big Ten leader in outrage on this front, pushing for commissioner Tony Petitti (18) to act. And The Ohio State University has never been shy about using its influence with the conference office. (See: The entire 2020 pandemic season; the 2011 Sugar Bowl; even the ’73 Rose Bowl vote.)
Michigan fans, long accustomed to looking down on Buckeye Nation as the more willing group to surrender values in pursuit of football glory, have found themselves on the defensive. They’ve argued with great vigor against any and all sanctions that have been applied this season, assailing the NCAA and the Big Ten and the media and blaming it all on Ohio State snitches. What’s left unspoken: they just want their chance to win it all and don’t really care whether their football program is a repeat rules violator.
As for the actual game? The Buckeyes are improving in recent weeks. The close call at Maryland raises some questions about whether the Wolverines are buckling a bit under the strain. But unless Sherrone Moore (19) somehow makes bad decisions on the sideline while serving as Substitute Harbaugh, Michigan is the better team and has been all season.
Dash pick (20): Michigan 21, Ohio State 17. Watching in remote locations (but presumably not together), Harbaugh and Stalions both exult. The postseason storm clouds are growing darker, but the Wolverines will get their chance to go to the playoff and strive for a national championship. (At least until they play Georgia.)