How big is the annual meeting between Michigan and Ohio State? Well, it’s know simply as “The Game.” And, in 2000, ESPN dubbed it the greatest rivalry in North American sports.
The past few years have added to the rivalry, especially the 2006 game when undefeated #1 Ohio State met undefeated #2 Michigan for a chance to play for the BCS championship. But the Buckeyes have clearly had the upper hand since Jim Tressel took over as their head coach in 2001. Tressel has lost just once against Michigan.
This year? Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez makes his debut in the rivalry, and the forecast is gloomy, to say the least. At 3-8, Michigan has already secured the record for most losses in the school’s history. With a sub-.500 record, they’ve already snapped the streak of 33 consecutive bowl appearances.
All that remains is Ohio State.
As poor as Michigan has played, this is the ultimate chance for revenge. The Buckeyes win at least a share of the Big Ten title with a victory, and could still earn a trip to the Rose Bowl. A loss versus Michigan would end their hopes of playing in any of the BCS bowls.
For the Wolverines, this is a daunting task and a huge opportunity. Forget the disappointment of this season. The seniors on this Michigan squad are in danger of graduating having never beaten the Buckeyes. That’s not a legacy they want to leave behind.
For Rodriguez, a win would do wonders to ease the mounting pressure bearing down on him after one year at the helm. Even the most patient Wolverine fan is having trouble holding back now. I thought my modest preseason projection of six wins was palatable. Yet heading into the finale, they have achieved merely half that win total, and Rodriguez is receiving the brunt of the blame.
By setting the bar low with their performance this year, Michigan is in good position to show improvement in 2009. But Michigan fans want more than improvement. They expect to be in competition for the Big Ten title year in and year out, and they expect to be a national title contender. Clearly the team is far from that as it is presently constructed.
Until they re-establish that consistency, there’s only one way Rodriguez and the Wolverines can ease the pain of the maize and blue faithful: beat the Buckeyes.
Ohio State is beatable. They’ve suffered defeats at the hands of USC and Penn State already this season. They also start a freshman quarterback, Terrell Pryor, who will certainly be in the spotlight on Saturday afternoon. Pryor spurned Michigan and Rodriguez’ recruiting efforts, choosing to sign on at archrival Ohio State instead. Pryor will have the home crowd behind him for this year’s game, but he’s sure to be under attack from the Wolverines defense.
No one expects Michigan to win this game. Many think it won’t even be close. But rivalry games are different. Win or lose, this is Michigan’s last game of the year. Essentially, this is their bowl game. If Rodriguez can’t get his team fired up to play well in this one, it’s going to be a long offseason in Ann Arbor.
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