Ann Arbor — This is The Game, and coaches and players from Michigan and Ohio State will tell you that this rivalry — like many others in college football — can go through cycles with one team more dominant than the other.
But that never takes away from its significance.
Michigan and Ohio State will play Saturday at Michigan Stadium for the 114th meeting in this storied rivalry. The Buckeyes are ranked No. 8 and are 9-2 overall, 7-1 Big Ten, and already have earned a berth in the Big Ten championship. The Wolverines are unranked and 8-3 overall, 5-3 Big Ten.
More significant is the fact Ohio State has won five straight against Michigan and is 12-1 in the last 13 meetings. In some ways that streak mirrors Michigan’s dominance from 1989-2000, when the Wolverines had a 10-2-1 record against their rivals.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer is 5-0 against the Wolverines, and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is 0-2 against the Buckeyes.
But it is the 1-12 record that stings even current Michigan players, including fifth-year seniors who never have beaten Ohio State. The last win was in 2011, 40-34.
“It’s hard to believe,” Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel, an Ohio native, said this week. “It’s there, the statistics are all there and everyone knows the records, everyone knows the stats. We want to change it this week. We want to get a victory ourselves and change the rivalry around a little bit.”
Those who coach and play in the rivalry will tell you that these types of cycles never change how the rivalry is perceived.
Undoubtedly, Meyer wants to beat Michigan again. After the Buckeyes’ rout of Illinois last Saturday, he said there would be a brief celebration and then? A “laser focus” on the Wolverines.
In the Buckeyes’ practice facility this week, the song “It’s Time for War,” by LL Cool J, was piped in and heard constantly.
“It kind of locks you in,” OSU receiver Terry McLaurin told reporters this week. “As soon as you walk into this building, you’ll hear that music and it’s time for that big game.”
Harbaugh said he has repeatedly conveyed the importance of this game to his players.
“It’s the crescendo of the regular season, it’s the final game,” he said. “There’s players on both sides who’ve been through this game before or are maybe playing their last game. Some playing it for the second or third time, some playing for their very first time. It’s their opportunity — it’s our team’s opportunity to put that exclamation point on the season.”
Even as Ohio State has continued to add wins to its current streak, viewing interest has not waned, and a big part is associated with the hiring of Harbaugh. With Meyer at OSU and Harbaugh at Michigan, suddenly it felt like the Ten Year War, made famous by Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, was reincarnated.
After a record 21,037,000 viewers for the monumental No. 1 versus No. 2 game in 2006, television viewership dipped to just under 10 million the following year. Then during Rich Rodriguez’s three-year coaching stop at Michigan, Michigan-Ohio State ratings fluctuated from 6.6 million to 6.8 million, per ESPN data.
Bob Wojnowski and Chris Howard break down the history of the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State. Later, Nick Hill and Matt Charboneau talk about the Spartans aiming for a 9-3 record. Detroit News
The numbers increased once Meyer took over at Ohio State, and when Harbaugh became Michigan’s head coach before the 2015 season, viewership returned to double digits. Last season’s double-overtime game between No. 3 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State saw an enormous increase with 16.8 million viewers and the streaming audience bumped it over 17 million. It was the most-watched game across all networks during last year’s regular season.
Harbaugh got his first taste of the rivalry when he watched the Michigan-Ohio State game in person in 1973. He later played in the series as the Wolverines’ quarterback and famously guaranteed a victory in 1986 in Columbus.
“It was a 10-10 tie,” Harbaugh said of the ’73 game. “Then afterward, really understood that was the biggest game of the year. That was between the two teams arguably the biggest rivalry in college football. Arguably one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. Came to understand that as a youngster.
“Then even more so when I actually played in the game. First couple I didn’t. I was on the team and learned about it, then really understood it once I played in the game and you understand it afterward, what it means to play in that game, what it meant, why you’re playing that game, what it meant, five, 10, 15, 20 years afterward. You understand it the more experience you have with it and the longer that time goes on, you even understand it more.”
While the Michigan-Ohio State game is arguably the greatest rivalry in college football, there are plenty of others across the country that capture national interest. And they, too, have had their share of winning streaks. But those have never lessened in intensity, whether it’s a border rivalry like Michigan-Ohio State or an in-state competition like Auburn and Alabama.
The Army-Navy game captures the national interest every year even though from 2002 until last season, Navy had won 14 straight. Army pulled off a stunning, rare victory last season. Harvard and Yale are the bitterest of Ivy League rivals, though Harvard has a 14-3 record since 2001.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State play in what is called the “Bedlam Series.” Oklahoma leads the series, 87-18-7, and is 13-2 since 2003. Auburn and Alabama play in the Iron Bowl. Beginning in 2002, Auburn won six straight and, since then, Alabama has gone 7-2. Michigan dominated in-state rival Michigan State and had a 30-8 advantage before 2008 when the rivalry shifted. The Spartans are now 8-2 against Michigan since.
Michigan, obviously, wants to reverse the course of the Ohio State rivalry starting Saturday.
“I think it’s a huge step for us not beating them since I’ve been here and Coach Harbaugh has been here,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst said. “I think securing a win against Ohio State, which is a very good team, would be very important for our program and for our season.
“It eats at me a lot. I just want this one so bad for the coaches, the players and the seniors. Just to get this win would mean so much to us and our program.”
Michigan running back Karan Higdon said he and his teammates are repelled by Michigan’s 1-12 record against Ohio State.
“You’ve gotta change it,” Higdon said. “It’s destined for change, and we have to be the ones to do it. (Defensive line) coach (Greg) Mattison talked last week about writing our own chapter, and this is the game to do it.”
Viewership bounces back
Last 10 years of Michigan-Ohio State: