It's Because of Ohio State

No, really. That's all it is.

Photo: Patrick Barron (The Game 2018) 
Ah bye week. It's an early one, but it got here just in time to give Michigan fans an extra week to dip their proverbial toes into the murky waters of doubt and misery. Judging by the fallout of these first two games, you'd be surprised Michigan was 2-0. Yet here we are, undefeated, and no one is comfortable.

But why?

Why can't Michigan fans seemingly enjoy this 2-0 start the way they should? Why is the sky falling all of the damn time?

It's simple. It's because of Ohio State.

Let's back up a minute.

The moment Jim Harbaugh took the job in Ann Arbor, Michigan fans everywhere proclaimed that Michigan was suddenly back, despite years of ineptitude. That Harbs would restore Michigan to it's former winning ways. That he would make Michigan football, MICHIGAN FOOTBALL again.

Well, what is "back"?

Bo Schembechler is the standard by which all Michigan coaches since have been judged. While he hasn't coached since 1989, most Michigan fans have a memory of him coaching or have heard stories or seen highlights. Undoubtedly, Bo was Michigan. They named the football complex after him...there's a statue of him right by the front door. Every Michigan head coaching hire since he retired, with the exception of Rich Rod, can be directly attributed to Bo's influence...despite the fact that he never won a national title.

Bo's winning percentage over 21 seasons at Michigan was .796. His successor, Gary Moeller's was .758 over 5 years. Lloyd Carr's, another Bo assistant, was .753 over 13 years. For almost 30 years, Michigan Football's winning percentage was an impressive .769.

Jim Harbaugh's winning percentage at Michigan so far is .741. This, after Rich Rod's .405 and Brady Hoke's .608 (combined .506), means that Jim Harbaugh has, in fact, pretty much brought Michigan back to it's former levels of consistent success on the football field. Michigan wins the vast majority of games it's supposed to win. Sure, a few losses have been stinkers...MSU in 2015 and 2017. Penn State and Wisconsin in 2017...but that happens. Even Bo lost sometimes. So what's with all of this angst and hand-wringing?

It's simple. It's because of Ohio State.

Simply, any coach in Columbus or Ann Arbor is judged with how well they do in this game. Careers are made or lost by this game. Legacies are forever etched in stone because of this game. No other game on either schedule means more than this game...ever. Period.

Michigan Football will never truly be "back" until they win this game, go to Indy, and win the Big Ten Championship.

Ohio State has seemingly always been good. Through the ups and downs of their own program's arc since 1969, they've always maintained a consistent level of success, by and large. During the Bo and Moeller years, Ohio State was good. About halfway through the Lloyd Carr era and maintaining ever since, they've been great. And against Michigan, they've been dominant.

Bo never had to compete with an Ohio State program that was consistently better than his own. I can attribute the Buckeye's recent success to two things...the hiring of Jim Tressel and the hiring of Urban Meyer. Both of whom solidified the identity of Ohio State Football as a juggernaut. How did they do this? They were good, first off. You have to give Gene Smith and his staff a ton of credit, they nailed both of those hires. But more importantly, both coaches seemingly knew that the ultimate path to consistent success was through Ann Arbor and nowhere else.

Beat your rival, receive bacon. Beat your rival consistently, become a legend.

I think the long-term fallout from the 2006 game was especially impactful for both programs. Following that game, Ohio State got busy living their best lives while the Michigan program got lost in the woods. As Ohio State doubled down on their own strengths as a program, Michigan abandoned theirs. With the 2006 "Game of the Century" squarely in the loss column and Bo now gone, Michigan's identity was shook. There's no doubt in my mind Michigan's struggles from 2007-2014 are directly responsible for the success achieved by both of their biggest rivals, Ohio State and Michigan State. The Buckeyes and the Spartans proved that you don't have to beat everyone all of the time, you just have to beat your biggest rival all of the time.

It was the perfect storm. Tressel and Urban at Ohio State and Mark Dantonio at Michigan State were the exact perfect coaches to kick Michigan while they were down. And while Michigan has been able to stem the tide with their in-state rival, wins versus Ohio State remain frustratingly elusive.

Ohio State marks their own program's strength with how well they play in The Game. Beating Michigan has become a way of life for not just the program, but the Ohio State culture. I've been in Columbus for the last 4 Michigan games and I can tell you, despite their continued success, there's no letting up down there. They hate Michigan with a passion. Student season tickets sales have dipped by 6,500 this year mainly because Michigan is not on the home schedule. They hate Michigan more than they love Ohio State. And until Michigan can some way, some how reverse the coarse of the rivalry, they can expect more of the same.

How do they do it? How do they beat Ohio State? I have no idea. Michigan has seemingly gone out of it's way to lose this game. Of the 16 losses to the Buckeyes over the last 18 years, the only common thread that I can tell is that Ohio State, whether a favorite or underdog, seems more prepared than Michigan does. They're more prepared because they have a clearer idea of who they are as a program and what they can do better than Michigan in this game...and they've got some pretty lucky breaks as well. They've made their whole world about beating Michigan...a benefit of course of having no other rivals to speak of.

And now, as Ryan Day assumes the role of head ball coach in Columbus, his primary objective is to simply serve as steward of the keep the train on the rails, steaming full-speed ahead. A tall order for sure for a first year coach, but one he seems well groomed for...much like Gary Moeller or Lloyd Carr a generation ago. As long as the Ohio State program remains committed to who they are and the direction set out by Tressel and Meyer, Day will be successful.

As Ohio State has proven and so has Michigan, it's much easier to continue to be who you are as a program than it is to have to reinvent yourself over and over again. Jim Harbaugh has brought Michigan Football back to their former levels of success as a program...

...with one monster exception.

It all comes down to Ohio State.

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