COLUMBUS — For the better part of the last quarter-century, the soul of college football’s greatest rivalry was often missing.
The Ohio State-Michigan game did not pair coaches who grew up with this rite of fall, and it swung from one lopsided extreme to the other. Tennessee native John Cooper infamously called it just another game, then went 2-10-1 in that run-of-the-mill season finale, while Jim Tressel got it and was 9-1 against Michigan. Don’t even mention the Rich Rodriguez era.
But times are changing.
When fourth-ranked Ohio State places its perfect season on the line against No. 20 Michigan today at Ohio Stadium, there is a sense the rivalry is embarking on its next great era.
No. 20 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State
■ Records: UM is 8-3, 6-1 in Big Ten, OSU is 11-0, 7-0.
■ Time: Noon
■ TV: ABC
■ Radio: 106.5, 100.7
■ Series: UM leads 58-44-6
■ Favorite: OSU by 4
■ Notes: In the first battle between Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Michigan’s Brady Hoke, the Buckeyes are chasing their sixth perfect season in school history — and just the second since 1973. … Michigan will play the familiar role of spoiler. The Wolverines handed OSU its first loss in 1969, 1973, 1993, 1995, and 1996. (Ohio State tarnished unbeaten UM seasons in 1970, 1972, 1975, and 2006.) … The Buckeyes will be looking to avenge a 40-34 loss last year in Ann Arbor — their first defeat against UM since 2003. … A week after Wisconsin stalled quarterback Braxton Miller, Meyer said to expect a more open offense and more carries for Carlos Hyde. The junior running back is second in the Big Ten with 16 touchdowns — 14 of those coming in the past six games. … Michigan has the nation's top pass defense (152.2 yards a game), and ranks 12th in total defense (303.5 yards a game) and 17th in scoring defense (18.1 points a game). … OSU has not lost Michigan at home since 2000 — a 38-26 Wolverines win where quarterback Drew Henson threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. … In three games at quarterback, UM's Devin Gardner has averaged 278 passing yards a game — with a 314-yard effort last Saturday in a 42-17 win against Iowa. Gardner has completed 46 of 70 passes for 834 yards, and has 28 carries for 105 yards and six touchdowns.
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and second-year Michigan coach Brady Hoke have both enjoyed big early success — on Saturdays and on signing day — and, just as important for the health of The Game, are deeply invested in beating the other guy.
The coaches were born and bred in Ohio, Meyer in Ashtabula as the son of a father who worshipped Woody Hayes, and Hoke outside Dayton as the contrarian who pulled for Michigan because everyone else liked Ohio State. They are sons of The Ten-Year War — the stretch between Ohio natives Woody and Bo that forever elevated the rivalry — and just maybe the protagonists in another one.
The fire is back, with Hoke grating Ohioans by refusing to call Ohio State by its full name and Meyer never shy about his distaste for “that school up north.” How pervasive is that sentiment? The letter "M" is covered on buildings and street signs across Ohio State’s campus this week.
“Let’s kick the [expletive] out of Michigan,” Meyer said Friday at former coach Earle Bruce’s “Beat Michigan Tailgate" in Columbus.
Of his adversary hailing from this state, he said, “I think that's when you start using the term like war, with all due respect. This is not war, it's a game, but it's a very intense game when this is home.
“[Hoke] was born in the state of Ohio, which I still don't get," Meyer added. "That’s another story. But it adds to the intensity, rather obviously. I think when you're talking about it as close to home, it adds to the fuel, fuel to the fire.”
As if today needed any more fuel. For Ohio State, the first contest between Meyer and Hoke offers the legacy-defining chance of a perfect finale to a year that began anything but. Despite playing under the shroud of a postseason ban — and coming off a 6-7 season — the Buckeyes can claim the program’s sixth unbeaten or untied season.
Meyer knows the rarity of perfection, achieving it once in his first 10 seasons as coach — and not in the two seasons his Florida Gators won a national title. The Buckeyes, who retain an outside shot an Associated Press national title, and Notre Dame remain the only two unbeaten teams after losses by Kansas State and Oregon.
“It's a credit to a bunch of players and assistant coaches that keep that focus [despite the distractions]," Meyer said. "Once you leave the facility, who knows what's being said? Who knows when you start talking about the end of the season, agents and who's coming out, who's doing this, what about this … am I going to transfer? All that nonsense goes toward end of the year.”
Fortunately for Meyer, Michigan week requires little motivation.
“This is the Super Bowl,” senior linebacker Etienne Sabino said. “This is the bowl game. This is the national championship. This is everything for us. This is The Game.”
Hoke and Michigan, meanwhile, await eagerly. The Wolverines won the Sugar Bowl last season, but the chance to spoil the Buckeyes’ pursuit of perfection might be Hoke’s most satisfying victory yet. Michigan has tarnished five unbeaten OSU seasons on the final weekend of the regular season, most recently in 1996.
The Game is here, back and healthy again.
"In years past, I don't want to say that it lost anything, but this year it'll definitely be much more intense," senior defensive back Zach Domicone said. "The rivalry will definitely pick up in intensity."
NO COMMENT: As the stakes of OSU’s one-year bowl ban continue to rise, athletic director Gene Smith again this week refused to second-guess the school’s much-debated decision not to voluntarily decline a bowl invitation last year.
"I could sit here and give you a million other what-ifs had we taken that, but I’m not going there," Smith said. "I’m worried about making sure that we position our football staff, our student-athletes, and do everything we can to have the opportunity to beat that team up north. That’s my mission right now. I apologize if that sounds insensitive, but that is the reality of what we have to do."
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.