A no-frills blog dedicated to Ohio State football, the Michigan rivalry,
and the ongoing melodrama that is life in the Big Ten.

View video of "That State Up North"

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Family Affair: A gathering of mutants, psychopaths, and the numerically challenged.

Way to go, Big Ten. We’re 1-0 in bowl games so far, thanks to Purdue beating Central Michigan—that mighty MAC opponent—in the Motor City Bowl last night.

The Chippewas put up 48 points against the Boilermakers.

Purdue beat them on a last second field goal.

We’re going to have to do better than that.

Recall that this is a make it or break it year for the Big Ten. A year when every Big Ten team must show up at their respective bowl games and make a statement. Perhaps not everyone got the memo.

Purdue’s defense seems to have missed the bus to Detroit, ensuring that, even in victory, the Boilermakers have opened the conference to more criticism. Want more bad news? Our next hopes are pinned on Michigan State. They play Boston College this Friday in the Champ Sports Bowl.

Believe it or not, this is one of the match-ups I’ve been excited about. The Spartans, who finished a dismal 3-5 in Big Ten play, square off against Boston College, the ACC runner up and a team still ranked 14th in the BCS. What’s the good news, one might reasonably ask? Answer: The Spartans have nothing to lose. While the Eagles, who at one point rose as high as number two in the rankings, are probably disappointed by their failure to make a New Year’s Day bowl, the Spartans—who are lucky to be playing at all—should be relishing the opportunity to get a crack at such a highly ranked team.

So how have they risen to the occasion?

By having five players suspended from the team.

And not just any players, but key players. Players like defensive end Jonal Saint-Dic and linebacker SirDarean Adams, the one-two combo who put a hurt on Todd Boeckman and the Buckeyes in October, returning a fumble for a touchdown and raising the blood pressure of Ohio State fans everywhere. Saint-Dic, who apparently has trouble counting, failed a math class, one of only two classes he was taking this semester, making him academically ineligible. Adams violated team rules, a vague explanation put out by the Spartan athletic department which can safely be assumed to mean “acted like an idiot.”

Needless to say, I’m less excited by this match-up now.

But here’s the thing (which finally brings me to the point of this article): if Big Ten teams don’t seem to get it, at the very least, the fans should. Despite my cynicism, I’m going to be cheering like mad for Michigan State tomorrow night, and I better not see some joker in the stands wearing a Michigan sweatshirt cheering for Boston College. Such reminders should be unnecessary, yet, predictably, I saw some mutant in a Michigan jersey cheering for Central Michigan last night—apparently unaware of the consequences a Chippewa victory would have on his own Wolverines.

So listen up, Michigan fans. I know you don’t like Michigan State. Get over it. Mark Dantonio doesn’t like you either, but do you think he’s going to be rooting for Florida on New Year’s Day? Hell no, because he knows that every Big Ten victory makes his own team better. Mike Hart called the Spartans “little brother”. Insulting? You bet. But at least even a dimwit like Hart understood we’re all in the same family. Every big brother picks on his little brother once in a while, but it takes a rare psychopath to actually stand around and cheer while someone else beats him up.

How about tomorrow you resist being that psychopath? And maybe, just maybe, things will start to look up for the whole family.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Hey Bo! Lookin' Good in That Dress

Some combinations just don’t work.

Ohio State should never play teams wearing orange and blue (see Florida and Illinois); teams sporting winged helmets should never play Appalachian State (see Michigan and the Delaware Blue Hens); and, based on past experience, a Wolverine should not wander within rifle range of the spread offense. Just ask Armanti Edwards, Dennis Dixon, or any member of ESPN’s College Game Day.

So one has to wonder: how does West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez, mastermind of the spread offense, end up as the head coach of Michigan?

Let’s face it: it’s not as if Rodriguez is going to run anything but the spread in Ann Arbor. You don’t hire a coach for millions of dollars, and say: “Hey, we love what you’ve been doing. Just don’t do it here.” That said, the Wolverine’s transition from one of the nation’s most notoriously conservative offenses (didn’t Lloyd Carr even make a joke about this in a press conference this year?) to the spread will represent one of the largest sea changes ever witnessed in college football. A change no less shocking than if Bo and Woody had suddenly chosen to coach in drag.

Recruiting, for one, will have to start from scratch. Ryan Mallett, the highly touted freshman quarterback who filled in admirably for the injured Henne this year, may have a golden arm, but he’s certainly no dual threat. He has neither the speed of Pat White nor the power of Tim Tebow to run the ball effectively. To this end, Rodriguez told Terrelle Pryor, one of the nation’s top high school QB prospects and a genuine dual threat of the Vince Young variety, that he was taking the job at Ann Arbor before he even announced his decision to the press. Instantly, Pryor scratched West Virginia off his list and penciled in Michigan. If I were Ryan Mallett, I’d be thinking transfer. Preferably to the Miami Dolphins.

And landing the right quarterback is just one of many transitions the Wolverines will face between now and next August. How about teaching the O-line a new offense, or developing the required chemistry between the receiving corps and backfield essential to the spread, where every play can become a hand off, keeper or pass depending on the split second decision the QB makes after the ball is snapped?

So, I ask again: how did Rich Rodriguez end up in Ann Arbor?

My first thought was that Michigan athletic director Bill Martin read my last blog posting and actually tried to follow my advice. After all, he did hire the coach of the Mountaineers…just the wrong Mountaineers.

A more probable theory, perhaps, is this: after losing four in a row to the Buckeyes, and six out of the last seven, it was time for the Wolverines to take drastic action.

The only team that has struggled more with the spread offense than Michigan is Ohio State. The Buckeye’s last two losses have come against such offenses, with Illinois’s dual threat Juice Williams being the latest to make Ohio State’s run defense look like it was anchored by the Golden Girls, not James Laurinaitis, Vernon Gohlston and Malcolm Jenkins. If Michigan actually gets Rodriguez’s new offense together, Ohio State could have its hands full next November. And isn’t that what Michigan wants most?

If they come out next fall wearing orange and blue, I think we’ll know the answer.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Has anyone else noticed that Michigan seems a little out of step lately? As if the pep band had been sacked and “Hail to the Victors” replaced as Ann Arbor’s theme song by Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me”?

Think about it. In the past week, Florida’s Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman, Ohio State basked in the glow of Laurinaitis’s Butkus Award and Jim Heacock’s Assistant Coach of the Year honors, and scads of other schools made room for new hardware in their trophy cases.

What did Michigan get? Snubbed by another coach. Rutgers’ coach to be exact.

How embarrassing.

Well, since my Cooper plan for replacing Lloyd Carr hasn’t gained any traction in Ann Arbor and my cat has yet to receive a call for the position (see posting from November 20), I have some new advice for our archrival’s athletic department: lower your expectations.

Hold on. Hear me out.

By this, I don’t mean settle for a lesser coach. Far from it. I mean, perhaps it is time to look outside of the Division IA family.

“But wait!” I hear you protest. “We are the winningnest program in college football history! We have more tradition in our toenail crud than LSU has on its entire campus! Our mascot is a very large weasel! We have those cool helmets!”

Yes, yes, I hear you. But along with that tradition and those pretty helmets comes the stress of a fickle fanbase and a very high expectation to perform…all coupled with one of the lowest salaries in major college football. Not exactly a dream job to pull a well-known coach away from a comfortable position with an established program.

But there is another route: the Football Championship Subdivision, or Division IAA to you and me.

Don’t laugh. It’s worked before, as you should know well by now. In 2001, after Ohio State finally came out of its Cooper Coma, the athletic department’s first thought was to do what you are doing now: try to net the big fish, the known entity. Well, Lou Holtz turned us down. Said he didn’t want the pressure. Said he preferred to stay in South Carolina, a program with as much tradition as Canada where he made a nice salary and everyone was just happy to have a guy of his stature in town. Winning, if it happened, was just a bonus.

So where did the Buckeyes go from there? To Division IAA’s Youngstown State, where a little known coach had quietly made a name for himself amongst these lesser schools by leading the Penguins to three national championships in the 1990s. The man’s name: Jim Tressel. You might have heard of him. He’s the guy in the sweater vest that makes you very depressed each November.

After his success at Youngstown State, Tressel arrived in Columbus and just kept doing the two things he does best: wearing the vest and winning. The formula worked just as well in Division IA as it had in IAA. In seven years, Tressel has led the Buckeyes to three national title games, four Big Ten championships, and the highest win percentage against Michigan of any coach in the history of the rivalry. Not bad for a man from the “lesser” division.

Now, I know that Michigan praises tradition, an inside connection, as does Ohio State. And of course, Tressel did have a previous Buckeye connection: a little experience at the Horseshoe coaching under Earle Bruce in the 1980s. So let’s think about this. Who out there has a proven track record in Division IAA and a little experience in the Big House to boot?

Answer: Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore.

This weekend, Moore will lead the Mountaineers into their third title game in as many years. If he wins, he will have done something no one—not even Tressel—accomplished at that level: win three national titles in a row. Even if he doesn’t win, he has proven his ability beyond doubt to recruit and coach in the big games. Oh, and he apparently knows how to win at the Big House. How could this guy not get a call from the Michigan athletic department?

“But we don’t like Appalachian State,” you whine. “They made us look girly in front of our fans.” True, but that only works to your advantage. Think about it. By hiring Moore, you shed the shame of losing to Appalachian State. Their man is now your man. You’ve internalized your conqueror, made him your own. His success is now your success, something to be bragged about, crowed from the rooftops.

Seriously, how is his phone not ringing right now?

Sure he’s old as dust, but so what? At 68, he’s twelve years younger than Joe Paterno, ten than Bobby Bowden. And unlike those coaches, he’s still winning. Heck, even if he only stays five years, consider the possibilities. Had Tressel retired after five years, he would have done so with a national championship and two Big Ten titles to his credit, while leaving behind a team full of blue chip recruits, including five future first round draft picks and a future Heisman trophy winner, for the next guy. Things could be a lot worse.

Are you dialing the phone yet?

Oh, and one last thing: to properly emulate your rival and pull this off, Jerry Moore will need to bring a fashion statement to Ann Arbor. Tressel has the sweater vest. It’s copyrighted. No one else can do it. But perhaps you could persuade Moore to take another route, something that speaks of his previous roots. Overalls perhaps? Something in burlap? Cultural items also work: replacing the Gatorade cooler with a moonshine jug, for instance, or adding a banjo and fiddle section to the marching band.

Anyway, you’ll think of something. That’s the easy part.

The hard part is getting that Human League song out of your head.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Giant Sloth Versus the Salad Shooter: A Divine Comedy

Here’s a bit of good news. Apparently there is a god. And get this: he’s a football fan.

More specifically, he’s a football fan with a bit of a prankster, stir the pot, stoke the flames sort of attitude. But just whether he’s a Big Ten fan or an SEC fan remains to be seen.

What we do know is that after a crazy ending to the craziest regular season in college football history—an ending that saw the number one and number two teams simultaneously lose for the third time this season—the stage is set to answer the following questions once and for all: Is the Big Ten slothful and weak? Is the SEC the greatest thing since the salad shooter? Is “sweater vest” or “baseball cap” the better fashion statement?

Yes, after Oklahoma beat up on Missouri and, more improbably, Pitt stunned West Virginia in a game that even the refs couldn’t win for the Mountaineers, Ohio State and LSU have landed in the national championship game—a game that will stand as the marquis match-up in a postseason promising either redemption for the Buckeyes and Big Ten fans in general, or assurance that we no longer need to defend ourselves to the media, because, well, they will have stopped caring.

For Ohio State, the scenario seems too good to be true. At the end of a rebuilding year, we get the chance to play for a national title…against the SEC champion…coached by a Michigan man. In a single sixty-minute span, we can expel the SEC demon while simultaneously delivering an extra blow to our archrival.

Predictably, the media can’t stand it. On ESPN’s Bowl Selection Special last night, Mark May couldn’t list enough reasons why the Buckeyes will get trounced by LSU. The Sporting News’s Matt Hayes dubbed the game the “Backed-in Bowl”, and Las Vegas has already made LSU a five-point favorite. Get used to it, Buckeye Nation. You’re going to hear this and much worse in coming weeks.

The good news is, after nearly a year of fending off belittling commentary, we now control our own destiny. If we beat LSU, any SEC fan or media pundit with a shred of sense will have to stop using the Florida game as the definitive statement on the Bucks. If we lose, well, get ready for another twelve months of hearing how Ohio State’s fastest player can’t outrun Dom Deloise.

But wait, there’s more.

Providence the Football Fan wasn’t content to let the drama play out on a single stage. Other postseason match-ups heighten the intrigue, from a Buckeye point of view, and with a little bit of luck—something on a parting-of-the-waters or endless-basket-of-fish scale—could revolutionize the way a critical nation views the Big Ten as a whole.


Michigan vs. Florida in the Capital One Bowl
Remember my argument that, no matter how much you revile That School Up North, their success is good for Ohio State? Well, you can’t ask for a better example than this.

SEC fans, despite losing two out of three bowl games against the Big Ten last year, love to cite two examples as to why our conference is a glorified Pop Warner league: 1) Ohio State’s pummeling by Florida last year, and 2) Michigan’s loss to Appalachian State at the start of this season. Well, Mike Hart, here’s your final shot at glory. If you have an ounce of pride left in that diminutive body, you will rally your fellow seniors and send Lloyd Carr out with a final victory.

Can you imagine the irony? Florida getting beat by the team that got beat by Appalachian State? However would they explain that in Gainesville?

Illinois vs. USC in the Rose Bowl
That’s right. When the Buckeyes moved up to the title game, Illinois inherited our “consolation” prize. In Pasadena, they will have the unenviable task of facing a finally healthy USC team, a team that started the season ranked number one, floundered midseason amidst a sea of injuries, yet healed in time to become, once again, the media’s darling. Ask commentators who they think, regardless of ranking, is the best team in the country right now, and most will say USC.

On the surface this doesn’t seem like very good news for Illinois, and, let’s face it, it’s probably not. But what if, in this year of upsets that makes Hoosiers seem like a blasé movie, Ron Zook, Juice Williams, and crew—the only team to beat the Buckeyes this year—can pull it off? Well, that wouldn’t be so bad for conference credibility.

To this end, Buckeye fans should also be cheering for Wisconsin against SEC runner-up Tennessee in the Outback (eat a steak) Bowl, Michigan State against ACC runner-up Boston College in the Champs Sports (buy some gear) Bowl, Penn State against the Big 12’s Texas A&M in the Alamo (boys, I think we’re screwed) Bowl, Indiana against the Big 12’s Oklahoma State in the Insight (I don’t know what that is) Bowl and finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, Purdue against MAC champ Central Michigan in the Motor City (if we lose this, it’ll erase all the other ground we’ve gained in the other bowls) Bowl.

Now, naturally, none of this is a lock. Far from it. After all, we can’t control what other teams do. Not Illinois, nor—no matter how much recent dominance would suggest—Michigan. Heck, at 0-8 lifetime against the SEC in bowl games, Ohio State has enough on it’s own plate to worry about. So I’m not suggesting that the Football God, missing the glory days of Manifest Destiny, has chosen to smile upon the Buckeyes and is about to lead us into the promised land of national credibility, let alone approval. I’m just saying that, in a year when just about anything could have happened, somehow the pieces have fallen just right to make the path to the promised land visible. Even accessible.

And wouldn’t it be nice if a guy in a sweater vest, a diminutive, smack-talking running back, and a quarterback named after a beverage could lead us home?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Buckeye Trip to New Orleans? Let’s see what Boomer Sooner, Lloyd Carr, and John Denver’s corpse have to say about that.

Can I state the obvious? The only thing more ridiculous than viewing the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize would be falling victim to such folly twice in the same season—or worse yet, twice in a matter of three weeks. Yet here we Buckeye fans are, guilty as charged.

Just as the Buckeye Nation was coming to terms with the idea that beating Michigan, clinching the Big Ten title, and earning a trip to “The Granddaddy of Them All” wasn’t too bad of an outcome for a so- called rebuilding year, the college football world turned upside down again. First Oregon and Oklahoma lost two weeks ago, and then LSU succumbed to Darren McFadden. Throw in the Kansas loss and suddenly the Buckeyes are ranked third in the BCS, just one little upset away from a berth in the national championship game. And, once again, anything less—even a trip to Pasadena—is simply unthinkable.

At the heart of this shake up, in its blundering sort of way, stands our old rival, That Team Up North. I never knew such drama was possible in a week when neither Ohio State nor Michigan took the field, yet a simple press conference by Lloyd Carr seems to have helped get the Bucks one step closer to the national title game—and perhaps to have doomed us to disappointment at the same time.

Immediately following Carr’s announcement to retire, the media began an all out blitz on the leading candidate to fill the position, LSU’s Les Miles. After being hounded all week as to whether he would take the Michigan job—a distracting situation to say the least as evidenced by Miles’s emotional plea to lay off and let him focus on, as he so eloquently pronounced, “Ar-Kansas”—the top-ranked Tigers let down their guard just enough to be toppled by that very Ar-Kansas team; and, in so doing, put the Buckeyes a hair’s breadth away from a trip to New Orleans. I guess we’ll have to wait for next weekend to see whether LSU’s fall from grace will stand as Lloyd Carr’s parting gift to the Buckeyes or his final revenge.

Enter Oklahoma. The very team whose loss on November 17 was celebrated wildly by Buckeye fans now holds our fate in its hands.
That’s right, our hopes are pinned to a team named after a musical.
If Oklahoma beats Missouri in the Big 12 championship game this Saturday, Ohio State moves up one more notch—and Expedia and Travelocity will be flooded with Buckeye fans changing their plane tickets from Pasadena to New Orleans. All of which means Oklahoma is, for the next few days at least, the second favorite team of Buckeye fans across the nation. I, for one, am now the proud owner of a Sooner foam combination set, complete with oversized cowboy hat, coozie and giant finger. The inflatable covered wagon should be delivered to my front yard later this week.

I would suggest cheering for Pitt to beat West Virginia on Saturday, as such a scenario would also land the Bucks in New Orleans— but unless Pitt brings back Tony Dorsett for the game and West Virginia replaces Pat White with John Denver’s corpse, I’m afraid this one may not go our way.


Would it be asking too much for Ol’ Lloyd to hold another press conference, stating that the short list for his replacement now includes West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel? Could you do that for us Lloyd, for old time’s sake? It’s for the benefit of the Big Ten after all.

In all probability, we should prepare ourselves for the fact that the upset is simply not going to happen. We should expect that Missouri and West Virginia will both win next Saturday and Ohio State, despite coming unexpectedly—nay, ridiculously—close to playing for it all for the second time this season, will in the end have to settle for playing in the Rose Bowl. And we would do well to remind ourselves what a treat that actually is.

Really, we would.



Ah, screw it. Go Sooners!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanks for the Memories: Now perhaps you'd like to hire my cat?

How’s everybody feeling out there this week? Pretty good? I would hope so. Me? It’s Tuesday and I’m still drunk.

I don’t know what to celebrate more: Ohio State’s fourth straight victory over “that team up north”, the release of HBO’s documentary dedicated to the storied rivalry, or Oregon and Oklahoma losing and getting the Bucks back into the national championship conversation? Any way you slice it, last week was a good one for the Buckeye Nation.

So why, then, do I feel a hint of sadness in the air, a nagging sensation that tugs at my heartstrings like a three-legged Wolverine begging to be put out of its misery? Could it be that we have some goodbyes to say?

Ah, Mike Hart, how Buckeye fans will miss you. Though you are likely saddened by your abject failure against Ohio State throughout your college years, I urge you to take comfort in the fact that you’re going to have an extraordinary pro career. How do I know this? Because you have exactly the right amount of class for the NFL. Which is to say, none. Last Saturday, I marveled at your seemingly limitless machismo. Having to be restrained at the 50-yard line prior to the game was a nice touch, but pushing Ohio State defensive back Chimdi Chekwa to the ground after a block and pounding your chest was pure gold. Anybody that can show such bravado en route to a season low 44-yard rushing effort on 21 carries is truly a special kind of stupid. Yes, you’re going to fit in with that whiny, overpaid NFL crowd just fine.

Someone with infinitely more class who I will miss is Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who resigned on Monday—and, believe it or not, I say this without the faintest hint of irony. I really am going to miss ol’ Lloyd. I watched his retirement speech on Monday from beginning to end, and I have to admit: the guy’s a good guy and, as the record shows, a helluva coach. Over the past 13 seasons he racked up five Big Ten titles, a national championship, and a win percentage that ranks up there with the best coaches in history. All of which makes the fact that Tressel beat him six out of the last seven years even more remarkable. And unfortunately for Lloyd, it is this last fact that both Michigan and Ohio State fans will dwell on for awhile. To that end, he’s become Michigan’s John Cooper—the Buckeye coach who managed just two wins over the Wolverines in thirteen long, painful seasons—which I suppose allows me to use the phrase “I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy” with complete apropos.

As Ohio State fans bask in the glow of our recent victory and daydream about extending our rivalry win streak to five in a row for the first time in history, the media madness accompanying Michigan’s search for a new man at the helm has already begun. With this in mind, an interesting though disturbing trend occurs to me: new coaches have an uncanny ability to knock off their archrival in their inaugural year. Now, I don’t want to take the glow off of any Buckeye daydreams out there, but this beginner’s luck, or dogged determination to prove oneself worthy of the new position, or whatever one wants to call it has struck with alarming consistency over the past four decades. Bo Schembechler inherited a floundering Wolverine team in 1969 and promptly beat the top ranked Buckeyes his first year. Earle Bruce reciprocated when he took over for Ohio State in 1979. Gary Moeller sobered up enough to win in 1990. Lloyd Carr prevailed in 1995, and so did Jim Tressel in 2001. And in each of these inaugural match-ups, the quality of the opponent didn’t seem to matter: the 1969 Buckeyes entered The Game on a 22-game win streak and had been hailed as one of the greatest college teams of all time before losing to Schembechler. Carr’s inaugural victory came over a #2 ranked Buckeye team.

So where am I going with this? It occurs to me that next year the Bucks have a lot of firepower returning and will almost certainly be ranked high going into the last week of the season…and Michigan is going to have a new coach. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but we have to start planning now if we don’t want next season to be hijacked by some upstart overachiever in a cheap maize and blue polo.

Fortunately, I have an idea as to how we can avert such disaster. A foolproof plan, if you will. We simply need Michigan to replace Carr with the only coach who didn’t win The Game in his inaugural season over the past forty years. That’s right, Michigan needs to hire John Cooper. If Cooper doesn’t work out, I could also be satisfied with Donny Osmond, my cat (Mrs. Bigglesworth), or Charlie Weiss, though not necessarily in that order.

So enjoy your victory, Buckeye fans, but know that, even though the Big Ten season is over, there is still much to be done. Root for anyone playing teams ranked ahead of us, for one, in hopes that we might still make that title game, and, most importantly, get those petitions for Cooper circulating through the Michigan athletic department. Otherwise, be prepared to face Coach Bigglesworth next year.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Here's a Thought: How about avoiding that Capital One Bowl?

Let’s knock this one out of here real fast: the Buckeyes aren’t going to play for the national championship this year.

Did the loss to Illinois stink? Absolutely. Am I going to complain about the coaching staff’s inexplicable failure to challenge an obvious fumble and thereby avert a touchdown? No. How about three interceptions thrown at inopportune moments, or a defense that had more holes than a grunge band’s wardrobe? No and no.

Why, you ask? Because I tried that, and it didn’t work.

Three hours after the game, all of my venting hadn’t changed a thing. And then it occurred to me…we Buckeye fans have become a bit spoiled. Somewhere beneath the scarlet and gray film glazed over my brain, I seem to recall that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Yet here we were ranked number one again.

Well, it was fun while it lasted, but we need to maintain some perspective here. There’s still a Big Ten championship at stake, and a berth in the Rose Bowl. When those are the consolation prizes for a rebuilding year, things are in pretty good shape for the Buckeye Nation.

Now here’s the catch: all we have to do to get those consolation prizes is beat our archrival.

Oh, and that archrival? They’re pissed. They just lost, too. In fact, one could almost say they purposefully lost. Or if they didn’t purposefully lose, exactly, they certainly didn’t put a lot of effort into winning. Can anyone tell me why Mike Hart, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, would be sitting on the sidelines watching his team lose to Wisconsin after he had been cleared by doctors to play? Or why Chad Henne came out of the game so quickly to join Hart on the sidelines for the remaining three quarters? I have a theory. It runs something along the lines of: “Wisconsin, Shmisconsin. We want to whoop Ohio State.”

So that’s what we’re up against this week. A team looking to bury the memory of a humiliating September by climbing over the Buckeyes into the Rose Bowl. A bunch of seniors who want to define their collegiate careers by finally getting that elusive win over their archrival. A coach who needs to toss a certain monkey in a Brutus suit off his back before his career comes to an almost certain close at the end of the season.

All I can say is, “ain’t it great?” If the thought of denying the Wolverines such pleasures can’t get the Buckeyes up for this game, somebody needs to check some pulses.

This is the grudge match with an edge. With the national championship no longer an issue, one could almost make the case that Michigan has the most at stake, which bodes well when considering the “team who has the most to lose usually does” tradition. Then again, history may not have much to offer in the way of predictions this year. For the first time since the Eisenhower administration, both teams will enter The Game licking wounds from a loss the previous week.

So what’s going to happen this Saturday?

Hell if I know. Though I will go so far as to make three predictions: 1) a car is going to get turned over and set on fire somewhere (Detroit doesn’t count. That’s just normal crime.), 2) Mike Hart will make an obnoxiously immature comment in the postgame interview, win or lose, and 3) the scarlet and gray film on my brain, aided considerably by several pints of Guinness, will at some point induce me to attempt Script Ohio with a handful of my friends in the living room.

Other than that, all bets are off.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Go Blue? A Guide to Unconventional Cheering (Part Two)

Okay Buckeye fans, let’s face some hard truths. If you’ve picked up any newspaper in the last two months or watched five minutes of Sportscenter, you’ll have noticed that the Big Ten as a conference is lacking a little bit of respect. For this read: it has no respect. Various analysts have referred to it as the “Little Ten”, called it “by far the weakest BCS conference” and have otherwise suggested that any team playing in the Big Ten might as well have lined up a series of Pop Warner peewee teams to play this season.

This brings us to reason number two for why Ohio State fans should root for Michigan during all but one notable week of the year: We need Michigan—and all other Big Ten teams, for that matter—to be as good as possible, year in year out.

Let’s face it. That Appalachian State loss was fun—heck, I went to Boone and bought a T-shirt—but it didn’t do much for conference credibility, especially after last year’s bowl season. When Michigan then lost to Oregon in Week 2, I watched fellow Buckeye fans celebrating with a wary eye. Already, the internal conflict had begun: as fun as it is to see our archrival humiliated, what does this mean for Ohio State?

Well, ten games into the season, it appears to mean this: Ohio State is the most doubted team in America.

Every week I read articles about how they haven’t played anybody. Never mind that just who constitutes “anybody” is a constantly morphing and ultimately self-serving concept. When the Buckeyes were 5-0, analysts said the upcoming Purdue game would be their first big test. When the Bucks easily handled the Boilermakers, rather than boost the Buckeyes’ street cred, Purdue was dubbed overrated. When the Bucks were 7-0 with games against Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan remaining, the analysts said the Bucks were just getting to the meat of their schedule. And they were. But after they handled the Spartans, the analysts dismissed that game, saying, and I’m quoting someone I don’t remember from ESPN’s College Gameday here (perhaps Mark May?), “Everyone expected the Buckeyes to be 8-0 at this point, but their first test comes next week against Penn State.”

Well, the Bucks blew out Penn State at Happy Valley, and followed that up with a three-touchdown victory over Wisconsin. But of course now those teams are dubbed overrated, and the first big test is supposed to come this week against Illinois. Do you see a pattern here? In a Big Ten that is perceived as weak, the Buckeyes can’t win respect. If they lose a game, it will instantly be hailed as the just desserts of an overrated team. If they continue to win, it’s because they’re playing a bunch of cupcakes. If Ohio State beats Illinois (who also beat both Wisconsin and Penn State) and Michigan (currently ranked 12th in the BCS), will they have gained respect? Of course not. I can hear it now: Illinois doesn’t count because, well, they’re Illinois, and Illinois always sucks—never mind their record this year. And Michigan? Well, didn’t they lose to that I-AA team earlier this season? Ah, yes, that. You see my point.

I’m not saying such Big Ten bashing is just. Not for a minute. But it’s the perception that counts. As it stands, the only way Ohio State can gain national respect this year is if it runs the table and beats an SEC or Pac-10 team in the national championship game. These are the conferences currently fulfilling the role of analysts’ darlings, and to an obviously biased degree. An example or two should suffice.

Penn State and Wisconsin, who both started the year in the top twenty, have just three losses, and those to Big Ten opponents. Rather than sending the message that the Big Ten is a tough conference, however, the analysts say that the teams were simply overrated and have dropped them completely out of the rankings. Contrast this to the SEC where six three-loss teams are currently ranked in the AP Top 25, as is the Pac-10’s three-loss Cal. And remember, Cal lost to UCLA—the same UCLA that got crushed by Utah 44-6 and handed Notre Dame its only win of the season—so I don’t want to hear, oh, they were all losses to quality teams.

Analysts’ bias is leading them to confusion and even contradictions. They consider the Pac-10 a “strong” conference, yet have dubbed USC’s loss to 40-point underdog Stanford the greatest upset of all time. Here’s my question: how can losing to someone in your own conference be called the greatest upset of all time? If that’s the case, get Stanford out of your conference. Yet somehow, such a scenario doesn’t diminish the respectability of the Pac-10. It does, however, take away Michigan’s status as the victim of the biggest upset of all time—proving that, even in defeat, the analysts scorn the Big Ten.

So what’s the way out of this quagmire? Buckeye fans need Big Ten teams to win every high-profile non-conference game they play, especially bowl games. And this includes Michigan. Yes, I know it hurts. But remember, it’s all in the interest of self-preservation.

And that’s why I root for Michigan—the very team I was born to loathe—every week but one. Any Buckeye fan should be so insane.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Go Blue? A Guide to Unconventional Cheering (Part One)

Here’s a confession you won’t hear from many Buckeye fans: I root for Michigan every chance I get. Every week but one to be specific.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Appalachian State loss as much as every one else. And to be fair, my cheers are never vocal (Woody forbid!) or even very conscious. It’s more like an underlying feeling that continually, if subconsciously, suggests: victory for Michigan is good for Ohio State.

Now, before you fly off the handle and holler, “Hey man, that’s crazy talk,” I can offer two reasons for such apparent madness.

First is the old adage which so defines the rivalry, and which I cited in the last posting: namely, “the team that has the most to lose usually does.” The last thing a Buckeye team wants to face—especially a #1 ranked Buckeye team—is a desperate Wolverine team. One with absolutely nothing to lose. A rabid Wolverine, one might say, looking to claim one last victim before the season ends and somebody shoots it in the head.

Instead, we want Michigan to have as much at stake as possible, nearly as much as the Bucks in an ideal world. Consider the 2006 season, when both teams were undefeated and ranked one and two heading into the Big Game. That is the ideal set up, and result. The Buckeyes not only won the game, but in doing so denied “That State Up North” the Big Ten Championship and a shot at the national title. A textbook three-in-one victory.

Last year’s loss to the Buckeyes stung so much, Michigan stars Mike Hart, Chad Henne and Jake Long all turned down certain millions in the NFL to instead play one more year in college. Three goals guided this decision: 1) beat Ohio State (something they have yet to do in their college careers), 2) win the Big Ten, and 3) win a national championship. Well, starting 0-2 on the season with a loss to a Division 1-AA team pretty much put a damper on goal three. But goals one and two are still very much alive. If Michigan were to lose between now and the Big Game, then only goal one would remain. And it would mean more to Hart, Henne, Long and crew than ever.

Recall that, immediately following last year’s game, a hurt and confused Mike Hart, with all the maturity of a third grader who had just lost a dodge ball game at recess, stated, “If we played again it would be a whole different story,” or words to similar effect. This doesn’t say much for his sportsmanship, but it speaks volumes about how bad they want to beat the Bucks. And if a victory over the Buckeyes were the only way to salvage their season, and prove that Hart, Henne and Long weren’t complete idiots for passing up millions by foregoing last year’s draft…well, that’s a rabid Wolverine if I’ve ever seen one.

This alone should provide a compelling reason to root for “that state up north” during the regular season, even though I know how tempting it is to wish pain and humiliation on our archrival. But like a junkie satisfying his base urge with a short-term fix, such behavior might not be in the best interest of the overall organism.

Still not convinced? Tune in to the next posting for reason number two.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Poisonous Nuts and Overgrown Weasels: A Symbiotic Relationship

Like most Ohioans, I learned to walk, talk, and cheer for Ohio State at an early age, and not necessarily in that order. This ingrained Buckeye fanaticism came with a corollary: a natural inclination to abhor all things Michigan. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with Michigan. It’s just that they were, well, Michigan.

The rivalry was hard to ignore. In my 35 years on the planet, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have combined for 28 Big Ten titles and 35 top ten finishes in the AP rankings. And that pales in comparison to their accomplishments in the years before I sprang into existence. To say the teams have dominated the college football landscape is to barely hint at their influence on the game—and on each other. At least twelve times in the last forty years, one or both of the teams have been undefeated going into their annual November match-up. And as history has shown, the team that has the most to lose usually does. In the early 1970s, Michigan had five out of six perfect seasons ruined by a loss to Ohio State. Three times in the 1990s, Michigan returned the favor.

Having two such competitive teams in the same conference would alone be enough to constitute a world class rivalry, but it took the genius and conscious gamesmanship of legendary coaches like Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler to create what ESPN deemed the greatest rivalry in all of sports, edging out Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier for the honor.

Woody’s disdain for the Wolverines was legendary. He refused to call Michigan by name, instead referring to it as “that state up north”. When his car was low on gas during a recruiting trip to Michigan, he forbid his assistant coach, who was driving, to pull over to fill up, preferring instead to coast into Ohio on fumes rather than give one cent of revenue to a Michigan gas station. By such stories are great rivalries cemented.

Naturally, the rivalry has fluctuated over the years, with Michigan sometimes dominating (the dreaded Cooper years), and Ohio State currently enjoying a decided edge under Jim Tressel, whom many consider the second coming of Woody. Just swap the eyeglasses for a sweater vest, and instead of punching opposing players, extol their merits.

But at the end of the day—or season, if you will—the outcome of the game is quite beside the point. Michigan sucks not because they beat us, or because they lose to us, but simply because they are Michigan. And naturally they feel the same way about us. In this way, we have established a wonderful relationship. We complete one another, much like Superman could not exist without Lex Luthor, or Austin Powers without Dr. Evil. (Note: Michigan shall assume the role of Luthor and Dr. Evil in above examples.)

This rivalry now looms so large, it even has the power to bring people together—bonding like immature middle school cliques over our common disdain for another group. A few of my friends and our families, who have all scattered to far flung parts of the country, get together each year to cheer the Bucks against Michigan. It’s a great excuse to see everyone, and reaffirms our faith in one another and a certain poisonous nut. So far we’ve cheered the Bucks together in New York and St. Louis, and this year will do so from my home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 15 miles from Boone, North Carolina—a town still given to spontaneous bursts of moonshine-induced celebrations over a noteworthy football upset earlier this season. As this will be my first year hosting the gathering, I wanted to have a little pre-game entertainment for my guests. Thus, the song: That State Up North.

I’d like to think it’s written just as much for Michigan fans as Buckeye fans. Because really, guys, when I say you suck, I’m sort of saying…thank you? Consider it a term of endearment.