The Rivals, Part XVI: Auld Lang Syne

This afternoon, college football returns for its annual post-season extravaganza of bowl games, including the second edition of the College Football Playoff. Neither Ohio State nor Michigan will have a shot at the title this year, but both teams are favored to win in rematches of games from nearly a decade ago.

A lot has changed in Ann Arbor since their Capital One Bowl win over Florida, a team that had won the national title the previous year and would win it again the next. It was a bittersweet cap on longtime coach Lloyd Carr’s Michigan career, as the pre-season #5 Wolverines had their high hopes immediately crushed in a shocking loss to then-FCS Appalachian State. As much as that game stung, the seven years that followed were much more damaging.

Things are also quite a bit different in Columbus since the Buckeyes speedboated the Fighting Irish in the Fiesta Bowl to wrap up the 2005 season. Unlike Michigan, Ohio State hasn’t suffered much on the field in that time, but it certainly has not been smooth sailing.

Michigan replaced Carr with spread guru Rich Rodriguez, who was coming off of three consecutive 10+ win season at West Virginia. Those three great seasons came after four rocky ones, however, including a three-win campaign in year one. Rodriguez would repeat the 3-win debacle at Michigan, and he followed that up with just 12 more victories in two years. While there was some improvement, the Wolverines weren’t willing to wait the way West Virginia was and Rodriguez was canned after year three, leading Michigan to just one bowl game, which they lost 52-14.

Following the win over Notre Dame, Ohio State proceeded to lose two consecutive national title games and a Fiesta Bowl. In 2009, the Buckeyes upset the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl and then beat the SEC’s Arkansas in a Sugar Bowl to finish off a successful 2010 season that would later be vacated for reasons that don’t need to be rehashed here. Coach Tressel was out, and interim coach Luke Fickell did as good a job as could be expected under the circumstances, getting the Buckeyes to the Gator Bowl, which they would lose to Florida.

After the failed Rodriguez experiment, Michigan returned to the “Michigan Man” well and hired former Carr assistant Brady Hoke, whose mediocre overall records at Ball State and San Diego State did not inspire much confidence. Still, Hoke delivered a surprising 11-2 first season, beating that Fickell-coached Ohio State team and winning the Sugar Bowl. The future was suddenly bright again for the Wolverines. Unfortunately, Hoke’s teams would regress each year, until he was finally let go after a 5-7 season in 2014.

Urban Meyer’s 2014 went considerably better. Despite leading a postseason-ineligible Ohio State to a 12-0 season in his first year, Meyer was feeling some heat after a second undefeated regular season fell apart with back-to-back losses in the Big Ten Championship game and the Orange Bowl. A dismal early-season performance against Virginia Tech had fans on edge. But that loss sparked something in the team, who steamrolled their way through the rest of the season and the first-ever playoff to stun the nation and steal the title.

With Hoke—and, more importantly, terrible AD Dave Brandon—gone, Michigan was finally able to lure long-time coaching target Jim Harbaugh back home, and he did not disappoint. Despite an ugly loss to Ohio State at the end of the season, Wolverine fans can hardly complain about the ride Harbaugh gave them this year. They now face Florida in the Citrus Bowl, with the Gators coming off of two straight losses. Michigan is 2-0 all-time against Florida.

Ohio State is 3-2 all-time against Notre Dame, but the Irish’s last win was in 1936. In case you aren’t sure how long ago that was, here are some things invented since: seat belts for cars, the transistor radio, microwave ovens, and photocopying. Four months before the game, “Gone With the Wind” came out. Not the movie, the book.

The Rivals, Part XV: The Wait

The regular season is over, and neither Ohio State nor Michigan will appear in this year’s Big Ten Championship Game. The only left to do now is wait and see where each team lands in the post-season.

For the Wolverines, the Citrus Bowl is the unanimous pick of experts, and the bowl representatives themselves have expressed interest in Michigan if—as expected—Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State are already off the board. The popular choice for an opponent is Florida, which would be a rematch of the 2008 edition of the game, which Michigan won 41-35. That, you may remember, was Lloyd Carr’s last game as Wolverine head coach, and yes, Urban Meyer was on the other sideline.

As for which sideline Urban Meyer will be stalking this post-season, most experts are projecting the Fiesta Bowl, taking on either Houston or Notre Dame. Either matchup would be intriguing. The former would pit Urban Meyer against Tom Herman, which would poetically tie up one of the year’s biggest storylines: Ohio State’s erratic and often anemic offense. The latter would be a rematch of the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, which Ohio State won 34-20. It would also pit the Buckeyes against former Cincinnati head coach Brian Kelly, who famously commented in August that he preferred his two quarterbacks over Ohio State’s.

But, of course, Ohio State fans are hoping for a different outcome. Currently sitting at #6 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Buckeyes could stand to benefit greatly if a giant chaos storm blows through today’s conference championship games. While I personally think Ohio State’s playoff chances are too slim to consider realistically, there’s no way to know for sure what the committee will do if the upsets start rolling in tonight.

So, what should we be cheering for?

Florida beating Alabama for the SEC title is the least likely outcome of all possibilities. It’s also one of the least dangerous upsets in terms of Ohio State. An 11-2 Gator team, currently #18 after a terrible loss to Florida State, is not going to find themselves in the top four just by beating Alabama. Nor is an 11-2 Crimson Tide team, with no conference championship, going to stay ahead of Ohio State.

Despite having four losses, USC is only a slight underdog to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game. Why does Stanford, with two losses and currently ranked one spot behind Ohio State, matter? Because after tonight’s game, they’ll have played twice as many teams with winning records as the Buckeyes, and that has been identified as one of the primary pieces of information the committee considers. With a win, they’ll also be a conference champion and that combined with a strong résumé, would likely be enough to land them ahead of Ohio State in the final rankings.

There are some who believe that with a win over Clemson, North Carolina would have a case to make the playoff. The Tar Heels also have only one loss, but the committee has made their opinion of UNC’s weak schedule, which features two FCS teams, abundantly clear. They’re ranked behind three two-loss teams, including conference-mate Florida State. Unless they blow the Tigers off the field tonight, North Carolina is not cracking the top four.

An argument could also be made that Iowa, should they lose the Big Ten championship game, would be more deserving of a spot than Ohio State, who didn’t even make the game. And if their loss also came on a final-play field goal, there would be some merit to that. But with the way the committee has ranked Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State in consecutive spots, it appears very likely that the loser tonight will drop out of the running. All things considered, it’s probably still best for Iowa to win, but I really don’t think it will be an issue either way. If the Big Ten puts two teams in this playoff, the Buckeyes will be one of them.

Ultimately, if any two of USC, North Carolina and Florida win today, there is a very strong chance that Ohio State will return to the College Football Playoff for a chance to repeat as national champions. But even if it doesn’t work out for us, it looks like we’ll get an intriguing bowl game anyway.

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.

The Rivals, Part XIII: The End Run

The next two weeks are essentially a playoff for the Big Ten East division crown. All of the top four teams are still technically in the running, although it’s going to take a lot of good fortune for Penn State to make the trip to Indy. It is possible for Ohio State to lock up the title today, with a win over Michigan State and a Penn State win over Michigan. If the Buckeyes lose, they’ll need a win over the Wolverines and a Penn State win over Sparty next week to secure the top spot. If both Ohio State and Michigan win today, next week’s game will be for the East title, and the Meyer-Harbaugh era of The Game will have truly begun.

Making things interesting will be the conference’s top two running backs in terms of yards per carry (Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley) facing off against two of the conference’s top three rushing defenses in that statistic (Michigan and Michigan State).

Today, Ohio State takes its shot at the Spartans, and even though Michigan State has been solid against the run all year, the cracks have been showing lately. Two of the last three primary running backs the Spartans have faced bested their average yards per carry by about a full yard, and the third (Maryland’s Wes Brown) only missed his by less than five inches per attempt. This is not a good trend for a team that needs to stop a legit Heisman candidate possibly playing in his final home game this afternoon.

Michigan has been having some issues with running backs themselves, with defensive line injuries disrupting the lineup at the worst possible time. Last week, Indiana’s Jordan Howard carved the Wolverines up with 238 yards on 35 carries, over half a yard better than his season average. In the previous two weeks, Rutgers’ Robert Martin and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith each topped their average by over two yards a carry. Much like their in-state rivals, this is a bad sign with two of the Big Ten’s best backs on the horizon.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s rushing offense has been dismal all year. They rank 97th in the nation (tied with 6-loss Rice) in yards per carry and have only topped 200 yards on the ground once this year (against Purdue). As a team, the Spartans have only rushed for 99 more yards and 3 more touchdowns than Ezekiel Elliott has alone. And it took them 171 more carries to do it.

Michigan State will instead hope to lean on quarterback Connor Cook for their offensive production, although it remains to be seen how effective Cook will be after injuring his throwing shoulder against Maryland last week. I’ll give Cook a pass for that terrible game since he was hurt for most of it, but the last time the Spartans faced a passing defense comparable to Ohio State’s was their miracle win at Michigan. Cook completed less than half of his passes in that game with just one touchdown. He has a tough task ahead of him even if his shoulder is fine. If it’s not as “good to go” as he says it is, Michigan State could be in trouble.

The Wolverines have spent the last two weeks carving up the Big Ten’s two worst defenses for their most productive performances of the season. Penn State has a much better defense than Rutgers or Indiana, and Michigan needed double overtime to beat the Hoosiers. The most interesting thing to watch in today’s game—and probably the determining factor in the outcome—will be whether or not Jake Rudock’s recent explosion is actual improvement or just a result of playing some pretty horrible defenses.

The Rivals, Part XII: The End is Near

It wasn’t as dominating of a win as fans would have liked it to be, but that’s true of pretty much every game Ohio State has played this year. Regardless, the Buckeyes are still undefeated after holding off the pesky Minnesota. Today, OSU visits an Illinois team that while not great, isn’t terrible either. They tend to blow out much worse teams and get blown out by much better teams. There was a stretch where the Illini won close games against Middle Tennessee and Nebraska, then lost close games against Iowa and Wisconsin.

J.T. Barrett will be back in the starting QB spot today after his one-game suspension, and—barring injury or further disciplinary action—that’s unlikely to change for the rest of the year. Even though it took way longer than anyone expected, the Ohio State Quarterback SituationTM appears to finally be resolved. The Illinois defense is surprisingly not awful, so don’t be shocked if the Buckeyes take another quarter or so to get going this week.

Michigan had little trouble dispatching the woeful Rutgers last week, and are likely feeling good heading into their road match up against Indiana. Like Illinois, the Hoosiers saw a promising early season derailed once they got into conference play. In fact, Indiana is 4-0 this year against non-Big Ten teams and 0-5 against Big Ten teams. Those records can be a bit misleading, however. Only one of their non-conference wins was by more than a touchdown, and their losses to conference front-runners Ohio State and Iowa were only by a combined 15 points.

Jake Rudock finally had a showcase game last week throwing for 337 yards and 2 touchdowns, as well as adding another touchdown (and a completely unnecessary 2-point conversion) on the ground. That this explosion came against Rutgers, one of the worst passing defenses in the country makes it a little less impressive, but for the first time this season, Rudock has proven that he can contribute significantly to the offense, and that’s going to be important going forward.

The key for both Ohio State and Michigan today is to not get caught looking ahead. The Buckeyes’ next two games are against Michigan State and Michigan, while the Wolverines take on Penn State before this year’s edition of The Game. Those three games are going to decide the Big Ten East. Penn State is out of the running. Ohio State and Michigan State can win the division by winning out. Michigan needs to win out and another Michigan State loss, which means they’ll be cheering hard for Maryland today, so they don’t have to cheer for Ohio State next week.

The Rivals, Part XI: Returns

Ohio State returns to action tonight against the Minnesota Gophers, fresh off a heart-breaking (and somewhat controversial) loss to Michigan. As you know, the Buckeyes will be without newly-installed starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, who is serving a suspension stemming from an OVI citation. There’s no need to sermonize about Barrett’s mistake or Urban Meyer’s handling of the situation; I’ll leave that to the professionally sanctimonious click-baiters.

What is notable about Barrett’s unavailability is that it brings a unique intangible to the game. Cardale Jones returns as the starting QB, and it will be the first time since last year’s National Championship game that he does so without the potential of being pulled for performance issues. It will be interesting to see if this dynamic affects Jones’ psyche, and if his play remains as uneven as it was earlier this season or if we see a return to something more like last year’s Big Ten Championship Game.

After a string of dominant wins, Michigan’s last two games have gone down to the wire in the most dramatic ways. Last week’s win over Minnesota was aided by a called-back touchdown and an uncalled neutral zone infraction that would have given the Gophers the ball about as close to the goal line as possible without actually putting it in the end zone for them. Ultimately, poor end-of-game clock management was the main culprit for Minnesota, and the Wolverines dodged a bullet that would have effectively put them out of the Big Ten title race.

Braxton Miller will return to the quarterback position tonight, having been installed as the backup in Barrett’s absence. There has been a purposeful silence from Meyer and the team about the nature of Miller’s role in this game, which has many speculating that he may actually throw a true pass (he has executed the fly sweep “pop pass” which is little more than a handoff) for the first time in nearly two years.

As for Jim Harbaugh, he seems content to continue to minimize the impact of his quarterback in either direction. Since the opening loss to Utah, Jake Rudock has not thrown for more than 200 yards in any game. He also has only thrown 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. It’s easy to argue that this has been a good thing for Michigan, as they’ve won six of those seven games, with the only loss coming on the fluke play of the season. Still, I firmly believe that at some point this season, the Wolverines are going to need Rudock to win a game for them, and I’m not sure he’ll be prepared when the time comes. That time probably won’t be today, as Michigan returns to the Big House to take on a Rutgers team who lost its last two games by a combined score of 97-17.

Ohio State welcomes the Gophers to the Shoe, and the Buckeyes haven’t lost following a bye week since a 2005 road game at Penn State. The last time OSU dropped a home game after a bye was to the 1990 USC Trojans. Despite the clock issues late in the game, Minnesota’s interim head coach Tracy Claeys performed admirably in his first stint as a college head coach, and he will really be put to the test tonight.

The Rivals, Part X: Byes

Ohio State is on a bye this week, but Urban Meyer, the team, and most fans would rather keep rolling after last week’s utter destruction of Rutgers. It’s also the last weekend before the first College Football Playoff standings come out, and it’s probably better to have a solid performance fresh in the committee’s mind than not, but fortunately for the Buckeyes, most of the other top teams are off this week too. There’s also the issue of injuries, and like most teams this time of the season, Ohio State is pretty banged up. A week off before the most important month of the season is probably for the best, even if it slows momentum a little.

Michigan is coming off their bye week today, and the break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Wolverines. With an extra week to move past the shocking, devastating loss to Michigan State, they can focus on the future and a Big Ten title that is still within their reach (although they’ll need help to get there).

Michigan travels to Minnesota to take on a struggling Gopher team coming off not only a bye week, but also a tearful goodbye from head coach Jerry Kill, who retired Wednesday on the advice of his doctor. I’m a big believer in the impact of intangibles on college football games, and it will be interesting to see how the competing intangibles manifest themselves on the field tonight.

For Michigan, there’s desperation. Realistically, the Wolverines need to win out to still have a shot at the Big Ten title and potentially a spot in the playoff (although that ship may have already sailed.) Michigan is also looking for redemption. The bizarre, instantly-viral way the Michigan State game ended has the potential to be a season-defining moment. It’s Coach Harbaugh’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. Losing tonight could be severely damaging, with two more road trips coming up in the next three games.

From Minnesota’s perspective, there’s the obvious intangible of winning for a beloved, outgoing coach. Emotions will be running high, especially considering the circumstances of Coach Kill’s departure. He isn’t being fired for lack of performance or some scandal. He was already inspirational just for being able to coach at a high level in his condition, and now he becomes the kind of inspirational that can fuel a player or two (or an entire team) to a lights-out performance. Playing at home and under the lights only adds to that potential.

The Rivals, Part IX: Endings

Is the Big Ten East the best division in college football? Its four best teams include two unbeatens (Ohio State, Michigan State) and two teams (Penn State, Michigan) with two losses each. Penn State’s two losses are to Temple (7-0) and Ohio State (7-0). Michigan’s two losses are to Utah (6-0) and Michigan State (7-0). That’s right: None of the division’s top four teams have lost to anything other than an undefeated team. No other division comes close to matching that feat.

Michigan’s streak of shut outs came to end last week in the most unimaginable way. The bizarre botched punt and ensuing touchdown return defies description. But its impact goes beyond the collective jaw-drop of a sports fan nation. The Big Ten East race has been significantly altered by that single, mind-boggling play. While I won’t pretend that there weren’t other ways Michigan State could’ve won that game, they were all just as unlikely to happen as the thing that did. So take away that or some other equally absurd ending, and we’d be looking at this:

1t. Ohio State (3-0)
1t. Michigan (3-0)
3t. Michigan State (2-1)
3t. Penn State (2-1)

At this point, Penn State seems to be at least a step behind the other three, although it’s never safe to count anyone out. But let’s assume that both Michigan and Michigan State beat the Lions and win their games against all other non-OSU Big Ten teams. That leaves us with two potential end-game scenarios: Ohio State beats Michigan State and heads into a battle with Michigan for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and probably the playoff, or Ohio State loses to Michigan State and can not make the conference title game. Beating Michigan would only put us into a tie with Sparty, who already owns the tie-breaker. And not making the conference championship game most likely means not making the playoff.

But that didn’t happen. Michigan isn’t out of the running yet, but it’s likely going to take Michigan State losing twice and Michigan running the table for the Wolverines to get to Indianapolis. With virtually no reasonable road blocks ahead of them except for each other, the top four Big Ten East teams are headed for a heck of an ending.

Since it has been the dominant topic of this space for most of the season thus far, I have to address the change at the quarterback position for Ohio State. When the Buckeyes take the field tonight, J.T. Barrett will be the starter for the first time since last November. His performance on third down and in the red zone in recent weeks (and particularly against Penn State) has earned him the spot. Ultimately, the inability of Ohio State to develop a deep-passing game was Cardale Jones’ downfall. It’s bizarre that a quarterback who’s 10-0 as a starter, was MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game and won a national title is going to be the backup, but it was just as bizarre that a quarterback who owns most of the school’s passing records and finished in the top 5 in Heisman voting the previous year was a backup. We always knew it was a strange situation we were in, and I hope that fans don’t forget how much Jones has contributed to this team.

The Rivals, Part VIII: Midterms

It’s the halfway point of the regular season for most Big Ten teams, and the East division has settled into two tiers, comprised of exactly the teams everyone expected when the new format was introduced prior to last season. Ohio State and Michigan are joined by Michigan State and Penn State at the top of what could turn out to be the toughest single division in college football. Today is the first of three weekends this season where these four teams will be playing each other. The second and third rounds will close out the regular season, so while today’s winners will get an early jump on the division title, there will be plenty of time for the losers to get back into the race.

The big story of the first half of the season has been Michigan’s defense. The unit has posted three consecutive shutouts and is in the top 3 nationally in every defensive category, including #1 in scoring. The Wolverines seem to be putting all of their eggs in the defensive basket, as their offense doesn’t even crack the top 30 in any category. Since a disastrous three-interception performance in the opener at Utah, QB Jake Rudock throwing the ball has essentially been erased from the offensive game plan. Rudock has scored just 3 of the team’s 18 offensive touchdowns since the Utah game through the air, while he’s added another 3 on the ground.

For Ohio State, the storyline of the first six games was unsurprising: the quarterback situation. Urban Meyer faced constant criticism over his handling of the Buckeyes’ two top-notch talents, but finally seemed to settle into a solution last Saturday against Maryland. By inserting J. T. Barrett as a red-zone specialist, Meyer simultaneously found a suitable way to feature both QBs and shore up Ohio State’s ineffectiveness inside the 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns on all six opportunities. It would be surprising if this approach didn’t continue for the remainder of the season, and it may be the key to returning the offense to the explosive level they achieved last year.

This afternoon, Michigan hosts Michigan State, a rivalry that has been just as lopsided as The Game over the past seven years, with the Wolverines snagging just one victory in that span. The Spartans are undefeated but also play the underdog role in this game, which gives the match up an interesting twist. To this point in the season, Michigan has been playing with house money, but now they will see how things feel on the other side of the table. One of the reasons Michigan State was able to wrest control of the rivalry from the Wolverines in the first place was Coach Dantonio’s ability to fuel his players’ fire with the shoulder-chip of disrespect (whether real or manufactured). It must bring a smile to his stone face to be able to play that same card while still on top.

Tonight, Penn State visits Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions’ story has been similar to (albeit not as impressive as) Michigan’s. After an opening road loss to the currently undefeated Temple Owls, Penn State has rallied to win their last five games. All of those wins were in the comfort of their home stadium, however, and they won’t have that luxury tonight. The last time the Lions beat an Ohio State team ranked higher than them was in 2005 in State College. They have never won when the Buckeyes were ranked #1.

The Rivals, Part VII: Happiness

It’s been said that the formula for happiness is H = R/E, where R is reality and E is expectation. Every once in a while I’m reminded of this equation, and it seems to apply to sports fandom particularly well.

Consider Ohio State and Michigan. Entering the season, the Buckeyes were the prohibitive favorite to repeat as national champions. Loaded with talent, no other team looked quite as good on paper. There was some excitement for the Wolverines with a new head coach, a hire that actually felt like they weren’t just settling for a change. But no one really had them pegged for greatness; the roster was still kind of a mess and the Big Ten looked to have more bite than usual following a stellar bowl season.

Using the “happiness formula” and the Vegas gambling numbers as a representation of expectation (which is precisely what they are), we can see that the math backs up what we already know: Ohio State’s offense is making fans unhappy. Only once did the Buckeyes put up more points than expected, scoring 42 against Virginia Tech when Vegas was calling for 33. In every other game, Ohio State was projected to score over 42 and they haven’t cracked 40 since blasting the Hokies. On average, the Buckeye offense’s reality is 79% of expectation.

Michigan fans, on the other hand, are elated. Their defense has yet to underperform and has delivered two consecutive shutouts when their opponents were supposed to score at least 17 points. The offense hasn’t been quite as pleasing, but is still averaging 96% of expectation.

What will make us happy today? Ohio State is again projected to score 42+ points against a hopefully-outmatched opponent. Michigan is favored as well, and if they can do better than a 7-point win, fans should rejoice. But regardless of what happens for either team, fans would do well to think back to just last October.

After five games last year, Ohio State was 4-1 and ranked #15 in the AP poll. The Buckeyes had just beaten Maryland on the road by 28 points, and hopes of getting back into the playoff race were beginning to surface.

After five games this year, Michigan is 4-1 and ranked #18 in the AP poll. The Wolverines just beat Maryland on the road by 28 points, and hopes of getting into the playoff race are beginning to surface.

I’m pointing out that parallel not to startle you with visions of a Michigan national title, but to show that there is still a lot more football left to be played. It’s tempting to start drawing conclusions about how good teams are right now, and the popular sports media is the primary culprit of that, with incessant predictions of a playoff picture that hasn’t even begun to take shape. Last year, the first playoff rankings (the ones that matter) were released at the end of October, after most teams had played 7 or 8 games and still only featured one of the eventual participants in the top four.

We’ll learn a little more about how good Michigan is today, when they take on undefeated Northwestern. The two teams sit atop the nation in scoring defense, each allowing approximately a single touchdown per game. Neither has beaten a team with a high-powered offense, but the good news (if you want to call it that) is that neither has a high-powered offense either. If either team scores more than a couple offensive touchdowns, it would be remarkable.

Last year, Ohio State rebuilt its reputation following the Virginia Tech loss with a string of blowout wins. While the team hasn’t actually lost yet—and is still ranked #1—there has been a bit of a blow to the national perception of the Buckeyes since being voted the first-ever unanimous preseason #1 team in the history of the AP poll. Another avalanche of big wins would go a long way to remedy that, and where better to start than against a Maryland team that is already planning to fire its coach after the game?