The best part of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is talking about it for 364 days.
Without this year’s installment of “The Game” — which was canceled Tuesday because of the Wolverines’ ongoing issues with COVID-19 — that talking is going to be the worst part of it.
Even in a year where the Buckeyes opened as 30-point favorites, you still need to see it. For all the advances in modern technology, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry still relies on the word of mouth — the storytelling that passes down like its own language from generation to generation — in those short affirmations of Rust Belt pride.
“My parents drove to the Snow Bowl in 1950.”
“I was there for ‘The Heisman Pose’ in ’91.”
“I had tickets for No. 1 vs. No. 2 in ’06.”
“I stormed the field after The Spot.”
A year and a phrase. That’s all you need, and fans on both sides can tell you the rest. It’s the most popular bedtime storybook in Ohio and Michigan since 1897. So, naturally, this one will be labeled like everything else
You were probably in your house when you found out. That’s the year the Big Ten canceled the season, returned with an eight-game schedule but still failed to deliver the greatest rivalry in college football. Ohio State and Michigan haven’t missed their annual game since 1917 — and that was a year before the last widespread pandemic in the United States.
That’s all we’ll remember about this season when it comes to the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
Ohio State (5-0) didn’t have 23 players last week against Michigan State, and now the Buckeyes might not be able to play in the Big Ten championship because of the conference’s six-game requirement. That could negatively impact a Big Ten championship, the College Football Playoff and Justin Fields’ Heisman Trophy candidacy.
Michigan (2-4) is still looking at an uncertain future under sixth-year coach Jim Harbaugh, who has an 0-5 record against Ohio State. The Athletic reported that Michigan is dealing with as many as 45 COVID-19 positive tests. Perhaps that buys Harbaugh a contract extension, but that reality will get distorted through word of mouth.
Jim Harbaugh: “The players, to a man, wanted to play this game.”
— Dave Briggs (@DBriggsBlade) December 8, 2020
The Wolverines didn’t “wave a white flag” — which ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit suggested on the second installment of the College Football Playoff rankings on Dec. 1. Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel responded with a harsh criticism and called it a “statement by a fool.”
All that did was greenlight message-board nonsense that takes away from the truth. Nobody ducked anybody.
The Game would have happened if not for COVID-19, and that took away the chance for Ohio State to finish off the expected conclusion of its season. The Buckeyes won the last two meetings by an average 26 points per game. This wasn’t a widespread plot to deny Ohio State a shot at the Big Ten championship, and Harbaugh was one of the leading advocates for a season. A blowout loss might have resulted in the end of the Harbaugh era. We didn’t get to see that either.
Why? COVID-19 numbers in both states made that impossible in the past month. Ohio had 484,297 total confirmed cases as of Tuesday. Michigan had 443,076. That’s nearly a million cases combined, and those states rank in the top 10 on that list. That is another sobering reminder of the virus’ reach heading into the winter months.
From Michigan’s end, canceling the game was the right thing to do.
The fallout won’t be fun to talk about. Ohio State will get their round of conspiracy theories if and when the Big Ten changes that six-game requirement next week. It might be seen as preferential treatment for the conference’s biggest brand, just another way to get the Buckeyes in the four-team Playoff despite six games and a weak strength-of-schedule ranking.
The Big Ten should make those changes. Ohio State is the best team in the conference. That’s also the right thing to do.
The season, however, will still have those pangs of emptiness associated with not seeing the best Big Ten tradition of them all. You need to see it, so there’s something worth talking about the next 364 days.
We got to see the Iron Bowl and Red River Showdown. USC-UCLA and Army-Navy are this weekend as well.
We don’t get Ohio State-Michigan. We don’t get to experience the helmets, the weather, the fallout. We didn’t get to see whether Ohio State coach Ryan Day would “hang 100 points” on Harbaugh. We didn’t get to see the Wolverines try to play spoiler and break a 20-year losing streak at Ohio Stadium.
No talking smack to friends. No turning off the phone for 24 hours. No, not this year.
It’s the worst. Even in a year where the outcome was a virtual certainty, it’s still a part of that story. It might be “the most important thing in the world” for fans in both states — it’s just not the most important thing right now.
We have to wait a year to see if Harbaugh — if it’s still Harbaugh — can break that losing streak to the Buckeyes. Ohio State could go on to the Playoff and win a national championship, but will that feel the same without those gold pants that are given for each win against the Wolverines?
That’s the worst part about it. We’re left to talk about it all the way until next season. It’s clear when it comes to this rivalry, there is nothing left to see in 2020.
There’s almost nothing worse than talking about that.