Staples: Every team in the Big Ten should be rooting for Michigan in The Game

Every Saturday night, Andy Staples and Ari Wasserman react to the weekend’s slate of games on “The Andy Staples Show and Friends.” On Mondays, Andy revisits his and Ari’s biggest takeaway from Saturday night’s instant reaction. This week: Neither Michigan nor Ohio State is riding into The Game with lots of glories. But Michigan has a real chance to change everything…for everyone.

The biggest game of rivalry week could signal the dawn of a new age in the Big Ten, or it could return the league to a mind-numbing status quo after an anomalous one-season hiatus. Michigan has a chance to change everything. Ohio State has a chance to ensure nothing changes.

Sound hyperbolic? Maybe a little. But such a storied rivalry deserves this brand of hyperbole. Especially when it’s rooted in truth. To understand the stakes on Saturday in Columbus, it’s necessary first to understand some recent history…

The tune was called “Buckeye Swag,” and the title seemed entirely appropriate. The Best Damn Band in the Land blasted that banger through a rapidly emptying Spartan Stadium a little more than 10 years ago. On the field, Ohio State players danced. Even Urban Meyer bobbed his head a little to celebrate a 17-16 win against a Michigan State program that had emerged as one of Ohio State’s chief contenders during the tail end of the Jim Tressel era.

After covering that game, I wrote this message to the rest of the Big Ten in a column for Sports Illustrated:

You are completely screwed.

You might get Meyer this season. His Buckeyes are still fragile and vulnerable at times. Heck, Nebraska might even beat Ohio State in the Horseshoe Saturday. But Meyer will put you through a living nightmare in successive seasons. It won’t last forever, because the same external factors that plagued Meyer at the end of his tenure at Florida exist at Ohio State, but the next few years will be miserable.

Almost every word came to pass. (Unfortunately for Nebraska, Ohio State won 63-38 the next week.)

The point was that after watching Meyer defeat some of the league’s better programs with a roster consisting of Braxton Miller and duct tape, it was obvious that Ohio State would ascend to a completely different level from the rest of the league. Meyer would build the same kind of roster at Ohio State that he had at Florida. And unlike the SEC, which had Nick Saban and several others who understood what Meyer was doing, the Big Ten coaches were largely unprepared for how thoroughly Meyer would upgrade Ohio State’s talent. Tressel recruited well, but this would be a different beast entirely.

Mark Dantonio’s Michigan State program fought valiantly, beating the Buckeyes for the Big Ten title in 2013 and 2015. Penn State shocked Ohio State in 2016. But eventually, they all succumbed. As Ohio State won the league every year from 2017 to 2020, the Buckeyes were — according to Las Vegas power rankings — usually at least two touchdowns better than every other program in the league.

During that stretch, Ohio State went 31-2 in Big Ten regular-season play and 4-0 in the Big Ten title game. Even though Meyer stepped down after the 2018 season, successor Ryan Day followed the same approach to roster building. And nowhere was the gap between the Buckeyes and the rest of the league more apparent than in the Michigan game. After losing by a butt cheek in 2016, Michigan lost the next three meetings by a combined 63 points.

Too many COVID-19 cases got The Game canceled in 2020, and that was probably for the best for Michigan. It almost certainly would have been another blowout loss. Would that have been the final straw for coach Jim Harbaugh? That’s difficult to say. That year was strange. Perhaps Michigan’s administration would have been satisfied with the same Harbaugh pay cut and coaching staff revamp that happened in our timeline. But what emerged from that turmoil was an entirely different entity.

Harbaugh had been building a roster that he hoped could stymie Ohio State’s athletic advantage through blunt-force trauma.

In defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald — on loan for a year from brother John’s Baltimore Ravens staff — Harbaugh found a tactician who could match wits with Day and Buckeyes coordinator Kevin Wilson. (Harbaugh replaced Macdonald with fellow former John Harbaugh staffer Jesse Minter, and the defense continued to roll.) By moving tight ends coach Sherrone Moore to the offensive line, Harbaugh provided the position group that could do the most damage with the best possible person to teach it how to inflict that damage. In essence, Harbaugh built an old-school Big Ten team capable of playing a modern game.

Combine that with the development of elite edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, and you have the recipe for a statement win against the Buckeyes. Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud was pounded all day, and Moore’s offensive line mauled a Buckeyes defense that was already headed toward a new coordinator.

But as dominant as Michigan 42, Ohio State 27 was, it was only one game. If Michigan can’t build on it, it will be but a blip in a long period of Ohio State dominance. If Ohio State does what it did in 2018 — follow a weird, way-too-hard win at Maryland with an annihilation of Michigan in Columbus — then maybe nothing really has changed. Maybe the Buckeyes will continue to dominate the Big Ten more or less every year for as long as Day wants to work at Ohio State.

But if Michigan can compete in this game — and especially if Michigan can win it — it might mean something different not just for the Wolverines but also for the entire conference.

It might mean the beast Urban Meyer hatched and raised and then handed off to Ryan Day is wounded and vulnerable. And that should get the attention of everyone at Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, USC and UCLA.

Because it might mean they’ll have a chance in the future.

Let’s examine the short- and long-term benefits of a Wolverines win.

Why a Michigan win is great for the Big Ten in the short term

Because of the way the wins and losses have shaken out among the College Football Playoff contenders, a Michigan win Saturday could provide the Big Ten with its best chance to place two teams in the four-team bracket. The SEC has done this twice and the ACC did it in 2020 when Notre Dame played a conference schedule, but thus far the nation’s wealthiest conference has yet to occupy half the field. The CFP will expand to 12 in either two years or four, and after that the Big Ten should have multiple teams in the bracket every year. But this may be the best chance to dominate the proceedings while the number remains four.

How would that work?

If TCU finishes 13-0 and USC beats Notre Dame and its Pac-12 title game opponent, then it’s unlikely the loser of The Game has a shot. But given everything we’ve seen, there probably is a less than 50 percent chance of TCU’s and USC’s combining to go 4-0 in the next two weeks. If one of them stumbles, that second Big Ten team has a chance. If both of them fall, the likelihood only increases.

This is especially true if the loser of The Game is Ohio State. An 11-1 Michigan might not be able to overcome the weakness of its nonconference schedule against a 12-1 Big 12 champion TCU or a 12-1 ACC champion Clemson. The 2019 decision to bail on a scheduled 2022-23 home-and-home series with UCLA looked cowardly at the time and looks even worse in retrospect. Although Michigan got its desired seven home games in 2023 — the UCLA game this season would have been at Michigan Stadium — it missed the chance to get a nonconference win that probably would have made the Wolverines a CFP candidate even if they lost to Ohio State.

But an 11-1 Ohio State probably remains a strong CFP candidate. The Buckeyes would have an especially good case when compared with Clemson. Why? Because the CFP selection committee has told us by its previous rankings that it does not respect the ACC this year, and because the Buckeyes and Tigers share one particularly prominent nonconference opponent.

Ohio State opened the season with a 21-10 win against Notre Dame in Columbus. On Nov. 5, Clemson went to South Bend and got crushed 35-14. If Notre Dame beats USC on Saturday and knocks the Trojans out of the picture, that makes Ohio State’s win look even better. So even if TCU locked down the third spot with wins against Iowa State and Kansas State, the Buckeyes would remain very much in play for No. 4.

Of course, Ohio State does not want to go back into the CFP. It wants to re-establish its dominion over the Big Ten and send Michigan hunting for a participation trophy in the Rose Bowl. Harbaugh’s 2021 assertion that Day was “born on third base” likely chaps the hide of a coach whose only Big Ten loss in four years on the job remains that game.

Why a Michigan win is great for the Big Ten in the long term

This game is also huge for Day. Although a loss would only be his second in Big Ten play in the aforementioned four seasons as Ohio State’s head coach, it would signal far and wide that Ohio State’s previously prohibitive talent advantage might not be enough to dominate the league anymore.

Penn State, which always seems to play Ohio State tough, is only one spot behind Michigan in the 247Sports talent composite. If Michigan can close that gap with scheme and playing style, then perhaps Penn State could close it with scheme or the development of a five-star quarterback who happened to spend his freshman season as a backup to a long-time starter.

Michigan State is paying Mel Tucker an obscene amount of money to bring the Spartans to Ohio State’s level. That has blown up in everyone’s face this season, but Tucker continues to try to upgrade Michigan State’s roster with recruiting and evaluation skills honed at Ohio State, Alabama and Georgia.

Wisconsin is in the hunt for a new coach because the administration jettisoned Paul Chryst before the program could fall too far behind. If Chryst’s replacement — possibly interim coach Jim Leonhard — upgrades the recruiting department and hires a whiz of an offensive coordinator, the Badgers suddenly become a problem.

What if Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz ever realizes that a merely competent offense alongside the Hawkeyes’ elite defense and special teams could provide some special seasons?

And don’t forget that Lincoln Riley is coming in 2024 and bringing the Trojans with him. Quarterback Caleb Williams will be gone — possibly with a Heisman Trophy in his case. But Riley has proven he’s always going to have a dynamic quarterback. If Riley ever figures out how to staff and field an adequate defense, everyone should be scared. Including the Buckeyes.

But that’s another problem for another day.

This week, Day and company must fight against the possibility that Michigan could be Ohio State’s equal. The Buckeyes spent the past decade building a massive talent advantage over the rest of the Big Ten. But if they can’t use it in practice for a second consecutive year, it may trumpet a new era when the throne is up for grabs every single season.

(Photo of Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day: Aaron J. Thornton / Getty Images)

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