The Rivals, Part VI: The Coming Storm

Last week saw the return of Ohio State’s high-powered offense, which produced 500 yards for the first time since week one. The defense remained stout, reining in Western Michigan’s passing game and holding the Broncos to just 12 points. Michigan held steady production-wise, and managed to not turn the ball over at all while their defense manhandled BYU stunning shut out that landed the Wolverines at #22 in the AP poll, the same spot BYU held going into the game. Both defenses now rank in the top 10 nationally in terms of points allowed.

The Big Ten season opens for both teams today, and so begins the journey to The Game. Despite a couple of lackluster games, Ohio State is still in the driver’s seat for the national championship. Michigan’s strong non-conference showing has added a new sense of excitement for the season-ending clash. Michigan State is the primary hurdle for each team on the road to that face-off, but both will get the Spartans at home.

Today, both Ohio State and Michigan head out on the road again after three straight home games, all wins. The Buckeyes take on the somehow-undefeated Indiana Hoosiers, and Michigan pays a visit to the floundering Maryland Terrapins, reeling from last week’s beatdown by West Virginia.

The Michigan/Maryland game has been moved from an 8:00 kickoff to noon to avoid complications from Hurricane Joaquin. This is a significant blow to Maryland, who could have certainly benefitted from the electric atmosphere of a night game. While a Terrapins win would have still been a long shot, it’s almost an impossibility now. The weather will barely even impact Michigan’s game plan, which has settled into about a 60-40 run/pass split, and Jim Harbaugh probably wouldn’t mind leaning even more heavily on his running backs against a Maryland team that ranks 101st nationally in rushing defense.

There shouldn’t be much rain in Bloomington on Saturday, but Urban Meyer would like to unleash a storm of deep throws on the Hoosier’s dismal pass defense (#127 out of 128). That this was a point of practice emphasis following a rash of underthrows last week is a happy coincidence, and one that should be of utmost concern to Indiana. But Ohio State must take the Hoosier attack seriously too: Indiana ranks 18th nationally in total offense, higher than any team the Silver Bullets have faced so far.

If Ohio State and Michigan continue to progress throughout the Big Ten slate, then that meeting at the end of November—the 112th between the two programs and the first between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh—will be the renewal of a rivalry that hasn’t been truly competitive in nearly a decade.

The Rivals, Part V: Confidence Game

Urban Meyer is, according to the only other man anyone would consider for the title, “the best college coach right now in football.” Those are Nick Saban’s exact words. Although to be fair, he said that on GameDay last week before Ohio State turned in what Meyer called “one of the worst-executed performances since we’ve been here.” He wasn’t just talking about the players; Meyer is the type of person who, if you were to invite him to your house and sucker punch him at the front door, would blame himself for not expecting it. He also has an unimpeachable track record of quickly turning setback into progress, so if you think you’re going to get another jab in, he will make you pay.

While there are a number of issues contributing to the uncharacteristic lack of offensive production, the foremost in everyone’s mind is the quarterback situation. To say that it’s been a rollercoaster ride would be both a cliché that I am better than and also an entirely accurate metaphor. Neither starter Cardale Jones nor backup J.T. Barrett has been impressive since week one. It’s enough to furrow the brow of even the most optimistic fan, except: week one. Both QBs looked great against Virginia Tech in the opener and have inexplicably regressed in the following two games.

Jim Harbaugh has no doubts about his quarterback. Jake Rudock has not performed well in any of the three games so far, yet there doesn’t seem to be any significant challenger behind him. One could argue that this is actually a preferable position to be in, and it probably is, if your team isn’t shouldering the expectations that come with returning a large percentage of a national championship team and being the first-ever consensus #1 team in the pre-season AP poll.

Harbaugh has the luxury of being a slam-dunk hire at a top-notch program coming off an extended period of poor performance. Every win is another Reese’s in his plastic pumpkin bucket. When you have no expectations, your confidence can’t be shaken. Michigan’s 2-1 record is viewed as an improvement, despite being exactly the same as last year. (In fact, the Wolverines haven’t started worse than 2-1 since 2008, when they only won three games all year.)

And for all the indecision Meyer seems to be having about his quarterbacks, one thing still hasn’t changed: Jones will start again today, for the seventh consecutive game. He is currently 6-0 as a starter, although it’s difficult to credit him for the NIU win. Many fans are disappointed by this decision, and you can’t really blame them. It’s a pretty typical reaction when the starting QB is struggling, even when the backup didn’t finish fifth in Heisman voting the previous year.

But if you can’t have confidence in a three-time national championship coach who has won 93% of the games he’s coached at Ohio State, then who exactly is going to earn your trust? Consider the stats of Barrett, Jones, and Rudock so far this year:

A. 56.5% completion, 7.3 yards/attempt, 118.82 rating
B. 64.8% completion, 6.4 yards/attempt, 118.46 rating
C. 57.1% completion, 5.5 yards/attempt, 116.61 rating

A is Cardale Jones. J.T. Barrett is C. Yet, I’m pretty sure Urban isn’t lying awake at night, cursing the heavens that he doesn’t have Jake Rudock on his roster.

An area where both teams (and fan bases) can find an abundance of confidence is the defensive side of the ball. Northern Illinois’ Drew Hare threw for around 360 yards in each of his first two games, but only managed 80 against Ohio State. Similarly, Michigan stifled the UNLV running game, which had put up respectable if not stellar numbers in their first two games. Through three games, both teams rank in the top 15 in yards allowed per carry, and in the top 25 in yards allowed per pass attempt. Overall, Ohio is #3 and Michigan is #7 is yards allowed per play.

Of course, all that really matters is the score, and again both teams do a phenomenal job of keeping their opponents out of the end zone. Ohio State is giving up just 12.3 points per game, good for #11 in the country (tied with Clemson.) Michigan is right behind, giving up 12.7 and sharing the #13 spot with Wisconsin.

Today, Michigan welcomes #22 BYU, fresh off a disappointing 1-point loss to UCLA. A victory in this game could potentially catapult the Wolverines into the top 25. Statistically, BYU doesn’t really excel at anything except game-winning Hail Mary passes. This is a prime opportunity for Michigan to make a statement in a game against a team that is probably overrated.

Ohio State will be hosting Western Michigan and looking to play with the kind of confidence they displayed on Labor Day night, which seems much longer than just 19 days ago. The Broncos only real strong point is their passing attack; QB Zach Terrell has already thrown for 947 yards this year (that’s over 400 more than Ohio State’s QBs) and his backup is Joe Flacco’s brother, who looked decent in limited action against Murray State last week.

The Rivals, Part IV: Finding A Way

Generally, when someone describes a team as “finding a way to win,” they’re talking about close victories, amazing comebacks, or a seemingly superhuman ability to pull off miracle plays. The 2002 Buckeyes had a string of games like that, and even won a national championship in double overtime, thanks in part to a frequently criticized but completely correct pass interference penalty.

It is not something you would say about a team that just won 38-0 or 35-7. Yet, both Ohio State and Michigan found themselves in the position of winning handily but still unclear on the identity of their offenses.

Ohio State had a quick turnaround from the Labor Day night game on the road at Virginia Tech and a Saturday afternoon kickoff against Hawai’i. Although the players and coaches dismiss the idea, it’s pretty absurd to think this tight schedule didn’t have a hand in the slow-starting offensive performance. The Buckeyes were a massive favorite, but held only a 17-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Michigan actually had more time than usual to prepare for their second consecutive Pac-12 opponent thanks to an opening Thursday game at Utah. But still, they too held just an okay 20-7 lead at the end of the third quarter.

While both defenses were stout—both held their opponents to fewer than 200 total yards—the quarterback position remained an area of concern. For Michigan, Jake Rudock threw one interception and no touchdowns, giving him a two-game total of 2 TDs and 4 INTs, despite completing a decent 65.2% of his passes. For Ohio State, neither Cardale Jones nor J.T. Barrett could find the end zone either, and for that matter, Braxton Miller—who works from the QB spot regularly—was also shut out.

Instead, the two teams had to rely on their traditional running backs for points. Ezekiel Elliott delivered three scores for the Buckeyes, and De’Veon Smith did the same for the Wolverines. Going forward, Ohio State simply needs to get its two dynamic QBs back to the level of play they showed last season and against Virginia Tech this year. Getting the running game back in full swing will go a long way to help that cause, so in that sense, the Hawai’i game could be considered a step in the right direction.

In Michigan’s case, things a little trickier. It still isn’t evident what Jake Rudock brings to the table. Harbaugh’s refusal to replace him at any point in the first two games suggests either that he has confidence in Rudock’s ability to become a solid QB, or that he has no other legitimate options available.

Today, Michigan hosts the 0-2 UNLV Rebels, a bottom-10 defensive team thus far, and a good opportunity for Rudock (or someone else) to finally shine. Ohio State welcomes the 2-0 Northern Illinois Huskies, a team that has won at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons but currently ranks 105th in the nation in passing defense, something that the Buckeye QBs need to exploit early and often.

The Rivals, Part III: Answers and Questions

It was the most-asked question of the off-season: Who will start at quarterback for Ohio State? The decision was discussed, dissected, and debated on a daily basis, and every conclusion sounded reasonable: Braxton is so explosive, J.T. is so surgical, Cardale is so strong. No one could ever come up with a good reason for any of them to not win the job. Braxton Miller took himself out of the running with his decision to move to H-back.

Although not scrutinized nearly as much, Jim Harbaugh had a quarterback battle of his own to settle. Junior Shane Morris had only played in eight games in two years, completing just under half of his passes and never throwing for a touchdown. Jake Rudock, a fifth-year senior transfer from Iowa, was being passed over by the Hawkeyes in favor of C.J. Beathard, but at least he had a couple of years of starting experience and a decent—if not earth-shaking—stat line.

On Monday, Urban Meyer finally gave the world an answer: Cardale Jones is the starter, but Barrett will also play, and the situation remains fluid: Both QBs are listed as possible starters for today’s game against Hawai’i. Against Virginia Tech, four different players took snaps, and Meyer has never been afraid to defy conventional wisdom if he thinks it will help his team win. It’s still possible that we don’t—and won’t—have an answer to the OSU QB question, and it could easily turn out that it never mattered at all.

Harbaugh opted to go with Rudock against Utah, but a disappointing result has observers wondering if he’s a viable long-term solution. Overall, Rudock didn’t have a terrible outing in the 24-17 loss to the Utes. He completed about 63% of his passes for 279 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Unfortunately, he also threw three picks, one of which was returned for what would be the winning score.

The biggest question for Ohio State’s offense now is where is the ceiling? The performance against Virginia Tech was thrilling, and that was without three significant contributors and against the best defense the team will face until November. The Buckeyes showed that they are exactly what we thought they’d be: an offensive machine capable of scoring at any time from anywhere on the field.

Today, the Wolverines are playing Oregon State in the less interesting half of a battle between the states of Michigan and Oregon. Interestingly, Oregon State coach Gary Andersen used to head up Wisconsin, but this will be his first game against Michigan. Can the Wolverines handle athletic QB Seth Collins, who is just as likely to run as he is to throw? Will Rudock turn in another multiple turnover performance? And where does Harbaugh turn if he does?

Sometimes the answers are really just more questions.

The Rivals, Part II: Vengeance

The 2014 season was already off to a questionable start when the Wolverines welcomed the Utah Utes to the Big House on September 20th. Sure, they were 2-1, but those two wins were against Appalachian State and Miami (OH). The loss, on the other hand, was a 31-0 shutout by Notre Dame, and fans were already dreading what that game signaled for their other upcoming rivalry matchups against Michigan State and Ohio State.

The Buckeyes weren’t in a great place themselves when the Hokies of Virginia Tech came calling on September 6th. A season-ending training camp injury to Heisman-hopeful QB Braxton Miller had fans on edge, and a lackluster win on the road against Navy the week before wasn’t easing their nerves. Ohio State had dropped three spots in the AP poll, which is pretty much unheard of following a Buckeye victory.

Michigan sputtered: dropping passes, taking sacks, turning the ball over and giving up a 66-yard punt return. The fan reaction was so negative that coach Brady Hoke was compelled to comment on the booing after the game. But the boos were only the beginning. Following a 90-minute lightning delay, the teams return to the soaked field in the middle of a nearly-empty stadium. Michigan’s fans had taken the universe’s hint and bailed out. Utah’s fans—many of whom likely traveled 1600 miles to the game—were suddenly the majority in the largest college football stadium in the country. They congregated behind their team’s bench and left the Wolverines bewildered as they cheered their team to a 26-10 win.

“That was the weirdest thing,” Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan noted after the game, “playing at home with no one in the stadium.”

It wasn’t the weather or fairweather fans that baffled the Buckeyes against Virginia Tech. It was a bear. Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster broke out a version of the 46 (or “Bear”) defense, an aggressive scheme that sacrifices deep pass support in favor of intense pocket pressure. Foster reasoned that Ohio State’s inexperience on the offensive line coupled with a young QB thrust into action would make the Buckeyes susceptible to such an attack. He was right. OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett completed just 9 of his 29 passes, threw 3 picks, and was sacked 7 times on the way to a 35-21 Virginia Tech victory.

Tonight, Michigan will step into Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City looking to start a new era off on the right foot. Monday night, Ohio State begins a campaign for a repeat national title at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg. The two teams’ expectations for the season couldn’t be more different: The Wolverines just want to see improvement, and maybe some flashes of brilliance from one of their favorite sons. A decent season will go a long to validating the Michigan Man philosophy. Meanwhile, anything less than that repeat is going to feel like a disappointment to Ohio State fans.
But first, both need a little taste of vengeance.

The Rivals, Part I: Full Circle

On December 23, 1963, James Joseph Harbaugh was born at Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio. Just 201 days later, Urban Frank Meyer III took his first breath in the same building. Today, they are the head coaches in The Greatest Rivalry in All of Sport, the opposite sides of a coin. Equal, but not the same.

Urban Meyer played defensive back for the University of Cincinnati, although I use the word “played” in the loosest sense. Barely seeing the field as a walk on, Meyer’s entire playing career is contained in a small paragraph in the 1985 Cincy media guide: “A reserve at safety … holder for PAT and FG attempts.” His time on the team wasn’t wasted, however; he used it to observe coaching techniques. (SPOILER ALERT: That comes in handy.)

Jim Harbaugh’s path was different to say the least. A star quarterback at Michigan, he was 24-5-1 as a starter. He finished second in the nation in pass efficiency and third in Heisman trophy voting in 1986. That season, he famously guaranteed a victory over Ohio State and a Rose Bowl appearance, a promise he delivered with a 26-24 win in Columbus.

On the other sideline that day was a young graduate assistant just starting out a coaching career that would take him from Earle Bruce’s Buckeye staff to Illinois State, Colorado State and Notre Dame before landing his first head coaching gig at Bowling Green in 2001.

That year also marked the end of Jim Harbaugh’s NFL career in which he started 140 games for four different teams and threw for 26,288 yards and 129 touchdowns. During the last eight years of that run, he worked as an unpaid assistant for his father, Jack Harbaugh, at Western Kentucky, where he helped recruit 17 of the players on WKU’s 2002 Division I-AA (now FCS) national championship team. After a couple of years coaching QBs for the Oakland Raiders, Harbaugh snagged the head coaching job at the University of San Diego, where he compiled a three-year record of 29-6.

In the meantime, Urban Meyer had translated his success at Bowling Green and Utah into a top-tier job at Florida. In his second year at the helm, he defied conventional wisdom and destroyed his former employer Ohio State in the 2006 BCS National Championship Game. Two years later, he would add another title to his résumé.

In 2007, Jim Harbaugh took over at Stanford, a program that, despite making some gains under Ty Willingham, had fallen off under the guidance of Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris. Steadily improving each season, Harbaugh delivered a 12-1 campaign in 2010 with the lone loss coming against an Oregon team that would appear in the national championship game.

2010 would be Urban Meyer’s last at Florida. After taking a leave of absence for health-related issues following the 2009 season, Meyer returned to the team at the request of athletic director Jeremy Foley. The Gators went 7-5, and Meyer resigned for good on December 8, 2010.

A month later, Jim Harbaugh became the head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and led the team to a 13-3 regular season record and an appearance in the NFC championship game. This success also revitalized the stalled career of quarterback Alex Smith, who had played for Urban Meyer at Utah. The next two years were just as successful, with the team reaching at least the NFC championship game each season, and facing off against the Baltimore Ravens—coached by Jim’s brother John—in Super Bowl XLVII, a game the Niners lost by 3 points.

By then, Meyer had taken over at Ohio State, stabilizing a program reeling from disappointment after an impermissible benefits scandal led to the sudden resignation of coach Jim Tressel and a rocky season under interim coach Luke Fickell, who was nevertheless retained as a defensive coordinator and expert recruiter. Meyer delivered on his reputation as a master motivator by coaxing a 12-0 season out of a team that wasn’t allowed to participate in the post-season. He followed that up with another perfect regular season, before losing both the Big Ten championship game and the Orange Bowl. Last year, Meyer’s Buckeyes overcame long odds and more than their share of adversity to win the first ever College Football Playoff, despite being underdogs in their final three games.

Harbaugh’s Niners went 8-8 last year as his relationship with the team’s front office deteriorated beyond repair. In December, he and the team parted ways, although the amicability of that split depends on who you ask. At the end of the month, after much speculation about his future plans, Harbaugh was introduced as the next head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.

The two coaches now head up opposing armies in a war that predates either of them, a sports rivalry that began in the shadows of an actual dispute between the two states over a 468-square-mile strip of land that, yes, included the future site of the very hospital where both men were born. The Great State of Ohio won the land dispute. The winner of the Meyer-Harbaugh War remains to be seen.

What I Learned From the College Football Playoff

As a longtime playoff proponent/BCS hater, it’s tempting to do a victory lap right now. It would be easy to go through each year of the BCS era and question how often a different team would have won the title in a four-team playoff system. It would be easy to point to the various experts who have confirmed that this year’s BCS match up would have been Alabama vs. Florida State, the two teams who lost in the playoff semi-finals. It would be easy to beat the dead horse of the BCS for every time the system got it wrong, calling every championship won in the era out as questionable.

And if I had written this last week, that’s what I would have done.

But while I still think the BCS was the wrong way to determine a champion and that the current playoff is infinitely better, I hesitate to call the results of the BCS “wrong,” because that would have to mean that there was another, alternate result that was “right.” That mindset–that we can objectively assess which team of any pair is better, without actually seeing them play–is exactly what was wrong with the BCS to begin with.

Half of the BCS title games were won by the #1-ranked team and half by the #2-ranked team. Even though it’s a little surprising that it worked out so perfectly, we should have expected it to be fairly even. After all, the rankings weren’t (nor could they have been) based on anything concrete; they were simply an amalgamation of various opinions (yes, computer rankings are opinions just like human polls are) and opinions are a crap shoot of reliability.

This isn’t intended as a shot against the BCS rankings; they did as well as they probably could have. I expect the playoff to achieve a similar type of balance, with the 3- and 4-seeds winning about as often as the 1’s and 2’s do. I like the committee system’s ability to introduce discussion and divergent thinking into the mix, but at the end of the day, we’re still talking about a bunch of opinions.

And that’s all we’ll ever be talking about, no matter what form the playoff eventually takes. Besides the possibility of automatic bids for conference champions, there will always be some element of subjectivity involved. In fact, the assertion that every conference champion deserves an automatic bid (something I believe) is subjective in itself. The truth is no team deserves a national championship, because that’s not the point.

There is no “best” team. Ever. There is no right answer that the post-season must conclude on so as to be considered legitimate. If Oregon had beaten Ohio State last Monday night, that would have been acceptable; their championship would have been legit. The same is true if Alabama or Florida State had won. Or if Baylor or TCU would have made the playoff in our place and won.

So what I learned from the college football playoff is that the BCS-era titles are no less legitimate or more questionable than titles won going forward. They are nothing more (or less) than the result of the system in place at the time, just like every title has always been and always will be.

MOTSAG TV Guide: Championship Edition

Rankings reflect current College Football Playoff rankings.

Friday, December 5


#7 Arizona vs. #2 Oregon. 9:00p, Fox.

Saturday, December 6

BIG 12

Iowa State @ #3 TCU. Noon, ABC.

#9 Kansas State @ #6 Baylor. 7:45p, ESPN.


#1 Alabama vs. #16 Missouri. 4:00p, CBS.


#4 Florida State vs. #11 Georgia Tech. 8:00, ABC.


#5 Ohio State vs. #13 Wisconsin. 8:15p, Fox.

The Spread, Championship Week

If the world was perfect, we’d be getting ready to watch eight conference championship games and few other games that would have a direct impact on which teams made it to the sixteen-team College Football Playoff. We’d calmly watch Sunday’s Selection Special to see where the teams will be seeded, and which non-champions get at-large nods. Maybe some of those choices would bug us a little, but we would also know that each and every team had the ability to control their own destiny.

Instead, we’re getting the same thing we’ve been getting forever: controversy. TCU is ranked 3 spots ahead of a team that beat them, despite identical records, similar schedules and not really that much difference in terms of on-field performance. Sure, I get it, Baylor hasn’t played Kansas State yet. But if the Bears win big on Saturday, is the committee really going to knock TCU out of the #3 slot? Maybe they will, but it seems hard to believe, considering the Frogs are also in front of undefeated Florida State.

And Seminoles fans should be pretty worried about that too. I see no reason to believe that this committee won’t leave an unbeaten team out of the playoff if they think four other teams are better. If Florida State stumbles around for three quarters before barely beating Georgia Tech (a script the Noles know quite well this year) and Baylor blows Kansas State’s doors off, what’s keeping the committee from putting the Bears in? Some “statement” about non-conference scheduling?

Well, maybe. That would explain why Baylor is so far behind TCU, despite the teams’ similarities and the head-to-head win. And while I agree that a team shouldn’t be rewarded for weak scheduling, and that a 3-point win doesn’t necessarily mean one team is “better” than the other, it is sort of frustrating that a playoff system whose very purpose is to settle things on the field would completely ignore the on-field result of a game between two top teams.

But what’s most frustrating is that these arguments have to happen at all. We can stage a sixteen-team playoff beginning the week after the conference championship games, take a week off for whatever snow-holiday you celebrate, then play the final four and championship games at the exact same time we will anyway. Did some teams “have to” play a couple extra football games? Yeah. Do you really think any of the kids on those teams are going to complain about that?

Every team could enter the season knowing exactly what they need to do to make it to the playoff instead of trying to guess what a roomful of spectators is going to value. Tons of games every single weekend would matter. Nearly a dozen games this weekend would be vital. And then it would all get settled on the field.

At the end of it all, a single champion would remain. Would they be the “best” team according to the “eye test” or some binder full of charts?

Who would even care?


All games Saturday, November 29, unless otherwise noted.
Rankings reflect current College Football Playoff rankings.


That Team Up North (unranked, still sucks) @ #6 Ohio State. Noon, ABC.

A win here will complete Ohio State’s third consecutive perfect Big Ten regular season. Wolverine Destroyer and Heisman trophy winner Troy Smith will be on hand for his number honor ceremony and we expect him to transfer his Wolverine-destroying and Heisman-trophy-winning powers to J.T. Barrett. Much like last week, we should not take a win for granted. After all, Michigan is playing for a chance to be humiliated in some stupid bowl.


(Friday) Nebraska @ Iowa. Noon, ABC.

Illinois @ Northwestern. Noon, ESPNU.

Purdue @ Indiana. Noon, Big Ten Network.

#18 Minnesota @ #14 Wisconsin. 3:30p, Big Ten Network. Winner plays Ohio State for Big Ten title.

#10 Michigan State @ Penn State. 3:30p, ABC/ESPN2.

Rutgers @ Maryland. 3:30p, ESPNU.


(Friday) #13 Arizona State @ #11 Arizona. 3:30p, Fox.

#16 Georgia Tech @ #9 Georgia. Noon, SEC Network.

South Carolina @ #21 Clemson. Noon, ESPN.

Kentucky @ #22 Louisville. Noon, ESPN2.

Florida @ #3 Florida State. 3:30p, ESPN.

#4 Mississippi State @ #19 Mississippi. 3:30p, CBS.

Notre Dame @ USC. 3:30p, Fox.

Kansas @ #12 Kansas State. 4:00p, FS1.

#15 Auburn @ #1 Alabama. 7:45p, ESPN.

#2 Oregon @ Oregon State. 8:00p, ABC.

Washington @ Washington State. 10:30p, FS1.