Even when it is down, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is never far from the spotlight.
How else to explain The Game coming up during a teleconference being held to preview a game that won’t feature the Buckeyes or the Wolverines?
And not just any game, either.
When Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler jumped on a teleconference to preview Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship game, they probably expected to field questions about LSU and Clemson.
While the two teams actually playing in the game were discussed, someone couldn’t resist asking Herbstreit about the state of his alma mater’s rival to the north.
More specifically, what does the former Ohio State quarterback and captain make of the state of the program heading into year six under Jim Harbaugh?
"I think if we’re all being honest with each other, we can talk schemes all we want, but I think the real part that I’m sure coach Harbaugh and his staff are looking at is they just have to continue to recruit,” Herbstreit said. “I mean, if Ohio State is the bar in the Big Ten and you’re matching up with them, and there have been games where they’ve been competitive and there have been games where they’ve not been, where is Michigan falling short?
“I think that’s a question that when they watch film they have to be able to look at. People can say quarterback. Well, I think it’s overall just across the board the athletic ability of Ohio State right now in the Big Ten, it’s just at a different level.”
The Buckeyes have won eight games in a row against Michigan and 17 of the last 19, dominance not displayed by either team since the Wolverines won or tied the first 15 games in the series.
At 58-52-6 against Ohio State, the Wolverines still have the overall advantage in the series, but their six-game margin is the smallest it has been since 1905.
While upsets were among the distinguishing features of The Game for decades, they have been rare since the turn of the century — save for Ohio State wins as the underdog in 2001, ’04 and ’18.
Even Michigan’s lone win in the last 16 years was overshadowed by the impending hire of Urban Meyer as the coach of the Buckeyes in November 2011.
With reigning Big Ten and national coach of the year Brady Hoke coming off 11 wins in his first season at the helm in Ann Arbor, multiple national publications declared the potential for a new “10-Year War,” the era from 1969-78 in which Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler matched wits as head coaches on either side of the rivalry.
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The underdog Wolverines lost 26-21 in Columbus in 2012 then came within a failed two-point conversion of upsetting the undefeated Buckeyes in Ann Arbor a year later.
Michigan hung around until the fourth quarter in 2014, but the Buckeyes pulled away late for a 42-28 victory that turned out to be a prelude to a national championship run.
That was all for Hoke, setting off another round of optimism in Michigan and beyond as he was replaced by Jim Harbaugh, who rebuilt Stanford and took the 49ers to the Super Bowl before being hired by the school where he played quarterback in the ‘80s.
“When they hired him, I was elated because I was happy to see him coming back to college, happy to see him coming back to his school, and I really thought, man, here we go,” Herbstreit said. “Him and Urban Meyer, it’s like a Woody and Bo round two kind of thing is what I envisioned.
“It hasn’t turned out that way.”
That would be an understatement.
Harbaugh has won 47 games in five seasons but few of consequence.
After losing four in a row to Meyer, Harbaugh’s Wolverines were trounced 56-27 last fall in Ohio State’s first season under coach Ryan Day.
From a Michigan standpoint, worse than an 0-5 record against Ohio State is how the games have played out: Only one has been decided by less than 11 points, prompting Herbstreit’s partner in the broadcast booth to suggest there is more at work than just a physical disparity in The Game.
“For me, dealing from afar, they have an Ohio State problem between the ears, too, that translates more than just a gap in personnel — which as Kirk said is real, especially in the speed department — the scores reflect more than that to me,” said Chris Fowler, who was also formerly part of the ESPN GameDay cast with Herbstreit.
“And I do think that despite all the equity that Jim has in Michigan, people do have higher expectations. You look ahead to next year and you open at Washington, got two easy games, then their next game is the Big Ten, Wisconsin, Penn State, at Michigan State, at Minnesota. That’s before October. That’s a helluva gauntlet. It’s not even going to be just about Ohio State next year, it’s going to be about winning a tough road game and then competing with those four Big Ten teams, two home, two away, to even be relevant by the time late October rolls around. And then obviously the huge problem with going to the Horseshoe at the end of the year.
“It sets up as a very interesting year.”
Harbaugh (and Hoke for that matter) have recruited fairly well — but not to the level of Ohio State.
Michigan has five top 10 national classes in the 247Sports Composite rankings since 2012 while Ohio State has seven. (Not counting 2020 yet since it is not complete.)
But with their inability to break through on the field, the Wolverines have ceased being the measuring stick for the Buckeyes, who went toe-to-toe with defending national champion Clemson before losing 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 28.
“When you watch Ohio State play Clemson, Ohio State (is) stride for stride right there playing as good if not better, and Clemson has been winning a lot of championships lately,” Herbstreit said.
"That’s the bar right now for Michigan. And for me right now it’s not necessarily about scheme, it’s more about continuing to go out and try to get great players that can run because I feel like that’s the area that when they play Ohio State they don’t seem quite to be at the same level right now.”
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