The Rivals, Part XIV: The Game

College football is the greatest game on Earth. It’s unlikely that anyone reading this disagrees. Part of what makes college football so exciting, so captivating, so maddening is its unpredictability. The season is so short, the playoff field is so small, and there so many teams vying for a spot that a single misstep can end anyone’s championship hopes in a matter of seconds, or less. Michigan State severely damaged the playoff chances of both Michigan and Ohio State this year, and both times they did it without ever having a lead while there was still time on the clock. And while that is excruciating for fans of the losing team—the epitome of the agony of defeat, in fact—it is exactly what we, as college football fans, should want.

Imagine the alternative. Imagine the world where everything goes exactly the way we expect it to. In that world, we would be watching Ohio State dominate every opponent on their way to a national title. No one would even come close to challenging the Buckeyes all season, except maybe Alabama or TCU in the playoffs. Michigan would be playing better but not really doing anything impressive as new coach Jim Harbaugh tries to manage as best he can in a transition year. Sounds great for Ohio State fans, but it certainly would make today’s game much less exciting than it is right now.

Oh, and let’s not forget that in this alternate, no-surprises reality, we’re not vying for a repeat championship, because we didn’t even make the playoff last year. There was no Kick Six, no Fifth Down, no Because We Couldn’t Go For Three. Appalachian State never beat Michigan. The Holy Buckeye pass glanced off Michael Jenkins’ fingertips, then Miami steamrolled Georgia in the Fiesta Bowl. We never got to see Boise State’s bag-of-tricks upset of Oklahoma. There was no fumblerooski, no Bush Push, no Hello Heisman. The band stayed off the field.

But fortunately, that’s not the world we live in. We live in the world where Ohio State’s offense has underperformed in more games than it’s dazzled. (But it has dazzled.) We live in the world where Michigan is in the top 6 nationally in every defensive category, but can’t crack the top 50 on offense. We live in the world where an upset by Penn State will vault the winner of The Game into the Big Ten championship game and, with a little bit of national help, that team’s national title hopes will be revived too.

Unpredictability. It’s what fuels Ohio State/Michigan, still the greatest rivalry in all of sport. For the first time in a long time, the teams enter the game at a virtual dead heat. As I type this, the Buckeyes are a 1-point favorite, but that’s probably changed now that you’re reading it. Urban Meyer has yet to lose to Michigan as the head coach of Ohio State. Wolverine head coaches are 12-2 against the Buckeyes in their first year. Ohio State is coming off their first loss in 23 games; Michigan has won 9 games for just the third time in the last 10 years.

Today is the dawning of a new era of The Game. It’s a coaching matchup that this rivalry hasn’t seen since Woody/Earle vs. Bo. (Coach Bruce doesn’t usually get billed along with Coach Hayes, but he had a 5-4 record against Schembechler and deserves recognition for that.) John Cooper could never overcome his Michigan bugaboo, and Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez proved to be no match for the ruthless Jim Tressel. Brady Hoke took advantage of the rocky wake of Tressel’s abrupt departure but couldn’t best Urban Meyer in three tries, despite some very competitive games.

But Harbaugh vs. Meyer seems like a slam dunk. Urban is the best active coach in college football, having amassed a 48-4 record at Ohio State so far. Harbaugh has had an illustrious career himself, reinvigorating Stanford and dominating in the NFL with the 49ers. And now, he has Michigan in the top 10 of the playoff rankings. All signs point to a fierce battle between two bitter rivals for many years to come, the kind of edge-of-your-seat back-and-forth that few fans of either team have witnessed in their lifetimes.

The Game is back.

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