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?