In the aftermath of Ohio State’s 31-20 win over Michigan, the Buckeyes’ 13th win in the last 14 years in this traditional season-ending showdown, I went to a college football text thread I’m a part of where all of us are Big Ten-centric. I asked the simple, yet provocative question—how much longer are we obligated to keep saying that Michigan-Ohio State is one of the great rivalries in all of sports?
It would seem that the most basic element of what makes a great rivalry is a certain amount of back-and-forth. Ohio State’s 13-1 record over the last 14 years is lopsided enough. Most of those wins were fully anticipated at the time of kickoff, including this one. The only games in that stretch that were truly memorable were the 2006 game when both were undefeated and the 2016 game that settled a College Football Playoff berth (yes, both were won by Ohio State).
Yes, it was a pretty good game and there were certainly points where it seemed Michigan might win—particularly when they jumped to a 14-0 lead and again when J.T. Barrett went to the sidelines. But if a rivalry is going to be a truly big deal nationally, there has to be more than one side occasionally looking as though it might win the football game.
I chose to emphasize the word “nationally” above, because that’s what I’m really getting at. I’m not talking about fans and players for Michigan or Ohio State seeing this as “The Game.” Of course that’s their rivalry game. I root for Wisconsin and the battle for The Axe with Minnesota will always be the big rivalry game, even if the Badgers haven’t lost this one since 2003. But I wouldn’t expect the nation to bend a knee at the mention of “Wisconsin-Minnesota.” I wouldn’t expect this game to have guaranteed national TV coverage every year in the noon ET window, the way Michigan-Ohio State does.
Partisans of Michigan-Ohio State might argue that their game has had more meaning on a consistent basis than Wisconsin-Minnesota or a host of other rivalries that go down every November. That’s fair enough. Very few rivalries have a period like The Ten-Year War of 1969-78 when Bo Schembecler and Woody Hayes went at it for the Rose Bowl every year and there was legitimate back-and-forth. During stretch like that, the media should go nuts over Michigan-Ohio State.
But the same can be said of USC-UCLA, which used to consistently settle Rose Bowl berths. For that matter, Penn State and Pitt had a fantastic stretch from 1975-83 in their rivalry and that game is thought of so little that the Nittany Lions can’t even be bothered to play it regularly anymore.
Let me draw an example from another sport where Midwestern fans might better identify with my point. The most publicized rivalry in baseball is Yankees-Red Sox. In this rivalry, I’m on the side of the establishment elite, as a Boston fan (and as of this fall, a resident of the MetroWest area in the Hub). Most baseball fans in flyover country are tired of the constant promotion of this rivalry by ESPN and Fox at the expense of other games. And you know what? I agree with the critics.
For me, as a Red Sox fan, there’s always a special juice that comes with a series against the Yankees. There have been points in history—notably 1946-49, 1977-78 and 2003-05 with this rivalry was truly great on a national stage and should have been promoted with gusto by the mainstream media. But in other years, I completely sympathize with fans of, say Giants-Dodgers, Cubs-Cardinals or Mets-Nationals, who wonder why a Sawx-Yanks showdown always has to get top billing on ESPN’s weeknight coverage, Fox’s Saturday lineup and again on Sunday Night with ESPN.
When Michigan and Ohio State are both genuinely elite teams—and face it, Michigan hasn’t been since they ran Lloyd Carr off ten years ago—I have no problem with this rivalry being the focal point of the Big Ten and one of the hyped games nationally. In spite of my distaste for both teams, I’ll even allow there’s something about a truly big Michigan-Ohio State game that makes it feel like the world is properly aligned. But we haven’t had that in eons. Let “The Game” take its place with Harvard-Yale, USC-UCLA and others that have to earn their keep to get national media attention. For now, let it be a big deal to the local fan bases and leave it right there.
P.J. FLECK: SNAKE-OIL SALESMAN
I watched the Wisconsin-Minnesota game in the 3:30 PM ET window on Saturday rather than Alabama-Auburn, although that in no way means I think Badgers-Gophers is a better rivalry. It just meant more to me personally (see Michigan-Ohio State fans, it’s not so hard to say). Anyway, as Wisconsin’s 31-0 dismantling wore on, the ABC-TV crew focused almost exclusive attention on Minnesota’s first-year coach P.J. Fleck.
The gist of the commentary was that even though the loss cost Minnesota a sixth win and bowl eligibility, Fleck’s enthusiasm and connection with his players meant he had the program on the right track. It left me going to the archives to see what Minnesota’s recent records had been. The results told me this is has a program that had reached a bowl game every year since 2011. In three of the last four years they had won at least eight games.
Fleck is a young coach filled with enthusiasm and gimmicky motivational techniques—so much so that I was terrified he’d have his Minnesota team ready to upend Wisconsin’s best season ever. I should have listened to one of the participants in the text-thread mentioned above, who called Fleck a “snake-oil salesman” as far back as two years ago when he was still in the MAC.
P.J. Fleck wouldn’t be the first coach to go overboard on the rah-rah stuff and end up losing games. What blows my mind is how people can talk about the program he inherited in anything other than glowing terms. This is a guy who got a team that wins games consistently, has a fan base that’s polite as all get-out and won’t kill him to go undefeated and is in the softest division in the entire Power 5, the Big Ten West (sorry fellow Badger fans, it’s true).
How does Fleck manage to get a pass for going 5-7? It doesn’t mean he’ll never win, but it certainly means he’s behind schedule. If he wants a real mess, he should call up Lovie Smith at Illinois, who inherited a horrible team in a dysfunctional athletic department. That’s a legitimate rebuilding job. Or if P.J. wants a motivational challenge call Ed Orgeron at LSU who knows full well the only reason he was hired is that his predecessor, Les Miles, stopped beating Alabama. Now that’s a high bar to hurdle. Being expected to win eight or nine games at Minnesota is as good a gig as there is in college football right now and Fleck’s first year was a disaster.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF
Let’s assume that the Vegas favorites win all of the conference championship games on Friday-Saturday. That means USC, Oklahoma, Central Florida, Auburn, Clemson and Ohio State. Everyone of those teams except Auburn is favored by more than a field goal, indicating the smart money has a pretty strong conviction on most games. What does that mean for the College Football Playoff and the New Year’s Six?
This is how I’m guessing how the final rankings next Sunday and the bowl matchups would shake out…
#1-Clemson, #2-Auburn, #3-Oklahoma, #4-Alabama
Sugar Bowl (Playoff): Auburn-Oklahoma
Rose Bowl (Playoff): Clemson-Alabama
Orange Bowl: Miami-Central Florida
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State-USC
Cotton Bowl: Washington-Penn State
Peach Bowl: Georgia-Wisconsin
In that scenario, I’m pretty comfortable with the four projected Playoff teams and the eight additional teams selected for premium bowls. We’ll have a better handle on how the top four will actually be ranked after tonight. If Georgia beats Auburn, you can just flip those two teams.
Where this gets interesting is what happens if Wisconsin beats Ohio State—the line here opened at Ohio State (-2.5) and obviously money came down hard on the Buckeyes, as the number quickly drove to (-6.5). Whether an undefeated Wisconsin team would get in ahead of a two-loss SEC champ in Auburn or a one-loss Alabama is something we’ll have a better handle on after tonight’s rankings come out.
Miami beating Clemson could either cause dramatic ripple effects, or it could be as simple as just flipping those two teams in the matchups above. The one big chaos factor comes if TCU beats Oklahoma. It opens up a Playoff berth and simultaneously eliminates a berth in the New Year’s Six as the Horned Frogs and Sooners would both be in premium bowl spots. My guess is that Washington would get left behind.