If you know anything about college football, you understand the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry burns red hot throughout the year.
It is Army-Navy with bigger bands. It’s UCLA-USC with ear muffs. It’s Yale-Harvard without the trust funds. It’s big business and it’s everyone’s business.
It can make or break careers, create idols and separate families. It’s what the sport is all about and it’s appointment television when it rolls around.
This season, the Buckeyes will play the Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Nov. 30, and by that time, if you take analysts at their word, Michigan might be in line for a berth to the College Football Playoff.
Of course, this game will be somewhat different now that Urban Meyer is no longer Ohio State’s coach. He retired after last season and was replaced by his offensive coordinator Ryan Day. It’s a new day in Columbus, Ohio.
But after listening to what Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh had to say earlier this week, you’d think Meyer was still on his mind, connected forever by osmosis to the rivalry.
Asked what he thought about Meyer’s departure on The Athletic’s “The TK Show” podcast, this is what Harbaugh said:
“Urban Meyer’s had a winning record. Really phenomenal record everywhere he’s been.
“But also, controversy follows everywhere he’s been.”
Bells immediately rang. Harbaugh is a shrewd character, usually outspoken and sometimes without a filter. He’s also very intense. Things matter to him. No detail is too small for him to dismiss. He’s known for getting directly to the point.
How could you look at that comment and not think Harbaugh was taking a major dig at Meyer and his program, implying that Ohio State maybe didn’t always do its best to conform to NCAA rules and standards.
Harbaugh has every reason to be jealous of Meyer. He lost all four games he coached against him since he arrived at Michigan. He understands there are those in his fan base who care only about beating Ohio State, as if defeating Indiana, Minnesota and Rutgers weren’t equally as important to winning the conference title. Harbaugh is 38-14 at Michigan. Nope, not good enough.
“You welcome the accountability,” said Harbaugh. “All you can be judged on is your record – what your record is overall, what your record is in your conference, and what your record is in head-to-head matchups with other teams that you play. I think you’ll find that right now Ohio State is the only team that has a better record than us, has a better conference record than us, has the better overall head-to-head matchup with us.
“Yeah, we talk about the goals that we have. We have two: win multiple championships and run a first-class program. That’s what we aspire to. We’re learning and we take accountability and we learn from it. Hope springs eternal, and we’re fired up for this season going forward. It’s been good, and now we’re gonna take it over the top.”
For Harbaugh to take it over the top he’s going to need to hurdle Ohio State – and not just once. He wants to be remembered like Bo Schembechler, not dismissed like Gary Moeller, Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke.
An important part of that is creating a culture of competitiveness and class that ultimately eclipses Ohio State’s. And maybe a part of that is subtly suggesting that the Buckeyes program was run, will be run, by coaches who don’t mind circumventing the rules.
Meyer is one of the great coaches in college football history, defined by the powerhouse teams he coached at Florida and Ohio State, which he led for seven seasons and won a national championship with in 2014.
He’s also been in trouble, most notably last season when he was suspended for the first three games following an investigation about the way he approached allegations of domestic abuse against one of his assistants. At Florida, his lack of control was blamed for the arrests of more than two dozen of his players in six seasons.
The message in Harbaugh’s bottle: Michigan plays square, but beware of Ohio State. Maybe more big time recruits will think this important as they decide between the two programs.
Michigan hasn’t won a share of the Big Ten title in 14 years. Ohio State has won or shared eight conference titles in that time. And last year, the Buckeyes annihilated Michigan 62-39.
Maybe having a senior quarterback like Shea Patterson will help change that for the Wolverines, especially if Georgia transfer Justin Fields has trouble acclimating himself in Day’s new offense.
More to the point, will Harbaugh’s rhetoric succeed into poking enough holes in Ohio State’s veneer to bring more balance to the rivalry?
“I don’t think it was anything that was new, or anything of a bombshell,” Harbaugh said during his Big Ten media day on Friday. “It’s things that you all understand and have written about.”
He’s right. We do and we have. What’s certain is, Meyer’s gone, but he certainly hasn’t been forgotten.