The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has long been considered the nation’s best.
But for all the great Michigan-Ohio State games, the two teams never entered The Game ranked first and second, until 2006 -- The Game of the Century. And despite the fact that the century was only six years old, the game delivered, with Ohio State winning a 42-39 classic.
But in the past 13 years, Michigan has beaten Ohio State exactly once. Even Buckeye fans became bored, openly wishing for a better Michigan team.
Well, be careful what you wish for. This year, for only the second time, both teams entered The Game ranked in the top three. The winner was all but guaranteed a spot in the four-team national playoff, while the loser would likely be left out. The Game of the Century II was on.
Once again, it delivered.
You could also point to the officiating, which was awful even by Big Ten standards. The refs repeatedly penalized the Wolverines for things they were letting Ohio State do all day, like holding and pass interference.
Making matters worse, it turns out one of the refs had already been fired by the Big Ten back in 2002 for incompetence, while another had been banned from reffing the Michigan-Ohio State game ten years ago due to his apparent bias toward the Buckeyes. Why these guys were allowed to ref the year’s biggest game is a mystery.
Which brings us to a bigger point: Big Ten schools spend millions on athletic directors, coaches, and facilities, but the league spends peanuts for part-time officials, and gives them the power to settle the scores on these multi-million dollar contests. You don’t have to wear tinfoil hats to think that’s kind of crazy.
The Michigan-Ohio State game went into overtime, the first ever between these two titans. And that meant the loser would suffer maximum anguish.
In the second overtime, when the Buckeyes needed a first down to avoid losing, the refs ruled they made it by a whisker. Photos of that spot have been broken down from more angles than the Zapruder film. On the next play, Ohio State scored to win the game.
Just a few minutes after the fans rushed the field, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh faced the press. He said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the officiating.
This echoed the famous line of his mentor, Bo Schembechler, who said he was “bitterly resentful” after the Big Ten’s athletic directors voted to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl – back in 1973. In this rivalry, the big quotes have the half-life of uranium.
Harbaugh wasn’t ranting, just answering the reporters’ questions. He was intense but measured, calmly breaking down four missed calls. He vented his spleen, took the pressure off his players, and changed the headline.
So why did the Wolverines lose: their mistakes, or the refs’? The answer is yes. In a game that close, subtract just one major mistake from Michigan, or the officials, and Michigan wins.
The committee that will select the four playoff teams released its penultimate poll this week. It ranked Ohio State second, and Michigan fifth – so the Buckeyes are in, and even Michigan could be if the third- or fourth-ranked team stumbles this weekend.
We won’t know who will be in the Final Four until Sunday, but we do know The Game is back – big time. When these two teams play again, the nation will be watching – whether it’s in Ann Arbor next fall, or in the playoffs this winter.