If Michigan thought this was tough, look what's ahead. The Wolverines left Columbus bitterly disappointed because they knew they blew a prime chance. Here's what they don't know: How many prime chances they'll still get.
Brady Hoke has done an excellent job restoring order in Ann Arbor. The next level is the really difficult one, because Urban Meyer has been there before, and already has dragged the Buckeyes back. Ohio State got plenty of good fortune on its way to 12-0, but it earned its 26-21 victory Saturday.
The Wolverines aren't physically punishing enough yet, which is why they lost to the four best teams on their schedule. They tried to juice the offense with the Devin Gardner-Denard Robinson rotation, but in the second half, offensive coordinator Al Borges came up with nothing. The other part is, Ohio State's defense came up with something.
When Michigan (8-4) and Michigan State (6-6) peer ahead, they see increasing danger in their midst. Meyer feasted on a ridiculously weak Big Ten, and while the Buckeyes might weep about their bowl ban, at least they get to bubble-wrap their perfect season without having to further test its authenticity.
The other monstrous danger is Notre Dame, 12-0 in Brian Kelly's third season and headed to the BCS championship game. When Wolverines and Spartans mingle at cocktail parties (ha!), they surely won't mention their other nasty rivals went a combined 24-0. The Irish and Buckeyes have savvy (read: smarmy) coaches who can win big games and don't mind tweaking their rivals.
Hoke gets it. So does Mark Dantonio. Neither lacks competitive fire, but neither has sufficiently built the trenches to win the fiercest games. Their jobs just got tougher.
Hoke might brand Michigan's season a failure because it didn't win the Big Ten, and there's nothing wrong with hammering that objective. But a 19-6 record after replacing Rich Rodriguez is a good step that also illuminates the lingering gap. Michigan has to recruit very well — Hoke's and Meyer's current classes are ranked in the top 10 — because the battles have just begun.
Stirring it up
All of a sudden, the Midwest landscape looks especially daunting. We know how Hoke defines success, and it's clear how Meyer will define it. You could see it in the closing seconds Saturday, when he wildly pumped his arms to the crowd.
The contrast is stark. Meyer wore a headset, a shiny white jacket and shiny white shoes. Hoke rarely wears a headset and sported a short-sleeved shirt in 30-degree weather. We shouldn't be fooled by the differences, though. Meyer is tougher than his snappy outfit. And Hoke is smart enough to understand the cold, hard task.
You can bet Meyer's emotional performance the day before — he concluded a speech with, "Let's beat the (bad word) out of Michigan" — resonated with Hoke. Meyer already has stirred it up in his first Big Ten season, and he won two national titles at Florida by being pleasantly ruthless, if that's possible.
Hoke must match it, and he knows it. I asked after the loss if he'd spoken with Meyer before or after the game.
"Neither," Hoke said, not in the mood to elaborate.
So, was that by design?
"I work with the defensive line before the game. And after the game, it's kind of hard to see anybody."
After the game, fans swarmed the field and Hoke was surrounded by a half-dozen security people who hustled him off. There really was no opportunity to shake hands with Meyer, but I'm guessing it wouldn't have been the warmest embrace.
"Not a big deal," Hoke said. "Not a story."
That's how he ended his short news conference, stung by his first loss as head coach in the rivalry. I think he was equally stung by how it unfolded, with Michigan's offense falling apart in the second half.
No one should freak out, by the way. The Wolverines lost to, arguably, the top three teams in the country — Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State. And what those teams do as well as anybody is gash you with the run and mash you with defense.
The Wolverines had a questionable offensive line and no running game outside of Robinson's sprints. And while the defense is steadily improving, it hasn't won a big road game. They had no signature victory — 12-10 over Michigan State, 38-31 over Northwestern? — although they lost by a touchdown or less at Notre Dame and at Ohio State. They got blown out by Alabama and lost at Nebraska 23-9 with Robinson injured.
Michigan fans will gripe to their graves about that defeat and the use (or lack of use) of Gardner at quarterback. Borges was in a tricky spot, trying to integrate Robinson's skills into a different offense, while figuring out what to do with Gardner. Playing him at receiver was foolish, in retrospect, and next season, Michigan's offensive coaches have no excuses. They must tap into Gardner's tremendous potential.
The Spartans have a slightly different concern. Their defense, if it returns mostly intact, should be powerful. But they failed miserably in close games at home because their offensive line, quarterback and receivers couldn't make the key play.
If we've learned anything in college football this season, it's that margins are incredibly narrow. The only two unbeatens had to rally for overtime victories at home against weak foes — Notre Dame over Pitt and Ohio State over Purdue. Ohio State also escaped with a one-point victory at Michigan State. Who knows how fortunes will twist going forward.
What we do know is, the Buckeyes and Irish are back, and the Wolverines, Spartans and the rest of the Big Ten are duly warned.