The final outcome was ugly — surprisingly so, really. Going into this season, Michigan wasn’t expected to beat Ohio State. Even with college football and the national media getting swept up in the cult of Jim Harbaugh to nearly embarrassing lengths. (I mean, a bus outfitted in khakis? Come on.)
It was pretty well understood that a team that went 5-7 last year wasn’t going to turn around and beat the defending national champions the following season. Not when the Buckeyes were returning 15 starters and began the season ranked No. 1.
Yet going into last Saturday, Michigan fans thought they had a chance against Ohio State. Some experts were even picking the Wolverines to win, taking the further step of projecting them to win the Big Ten championship and go to the Rose Bowl. That wasn’t based entirely on belief in Harbaugh, of course. The Buckeyes looked bad in a 17-14 loss to Michigan State the previous week, and a similar performance would surely result in another defeat.
In light of Ohio State’s dominating 42-13 victory, those expectations look absolutely silly. The game was a definitive reminder that these two programs aren’t yet equal. One of college football’s biggest rivalries hasn’t been restored to the point where the outcome isn’t pre-determined. Not when one team has won 11 of the past 12 games, and 13 of the previous 15.
That was easy to overlook in the short-term, especially when the Buckeyes looked like a team in disarray following the loss to Michigan State. Several players tweeted that they’d played their final game in Columbus, with eyes on the NFL rather than the task directly ahead of them. Ezekiel Elliott criticized the coaching staff’s play-calling, lamenting that he wasn’t given the ball enough. Even if it was true, to voice that displeasure publicly was surprising. This wasn’t a team that appeared united in one direction. Many were paying more attention to their own agendas.
On the other side, Michigan was coming off a convincing victory over Penn State in Happy Valley. Even if the Nittany Lions turned out to be a disappointment this year, a road win in a nationally televised game against a seemingly formidable opponent trying to salvage its season looked impressive. The Wolverines’ defense pummeled quarterback Christian Hackenberg so thoroughly that he just wanted to get off the field. Meanwhile, Michigan’s Jake Rudock seemed to be getting better with each game, the latest beneficiary of Harbaugh’s magic touch with signal-callers.
The narrative was already forming, becoming so clear to some observers that the story had practically been written. Michigan was going to beat Ohio State.
Harbaugh had lifted his alma mater back to its previous heights, fulfilling what so many fans saw as his birthright. Urban Meyer was no longer the top dog in the Big Ten, nudged off his pedestal by the conference’s — and college football’s — brightest new coaching star.
But writing a story ahead of time and deciding on its ending before the actual results have been determined usually works out badly. The outcome can change, sometimes drastically from what was imagined. Narratives have a way of falling apart, especially when they were thinly constructed to begin with.
Perhaps it looked like Meyer had lost his team, failing to get his star players to focus on winning another national championship instead of looking ahead to professional prosperity. But shocking losses have a way of waking a team up, making it realize the effort and attention necessary to win a game. In college basketball, you often see stories about an undefeated team or one on a long run of success needing to lose, requiring a reminder of its vulnerability. That doesn’t apply in college football because one loss can ruin a season.
And indeed, losing to Michigan State cost the Buckeyes a chance at second consecutive national championship and, at the very least, a second straight conference title. But matched up against its fiercest rival, Ohio State had an opportunity to reset and silence the doubters with one game left to play. Michigan fans could be excused for wishful thinking, for believing that Harbaugh had improved his program ahead of schedule. But everyone else should have known better.
For Michigan, what should be most important is that Saturday’s game between the Wolverines and Ohio State mattered. More than bragging rights and the continuation of a one-sided rivalry were at stake. Both teams had the same 6-1 record in the conference. A win meant a chance at the Big Ten championship, dependent on a Michigan State loss.
Being in that position, along with fans and observers believing that Michigan could actually win that game, meant that Harbaugh lived up to the insane hype that surrounded him going into the season. He accomplished his objective. He fulfilled the wishes of Michigan supporters who wanted their team to be significant again, to earn recognition based on merit instead of national profile or past success.
Harbaugh himself surely doesn’t see it that way. The true objective is to contend for national championships, to be considered one of the best teams in the country on a perennial basis. Obviously, the Wolverines are not there yet, and have a long way to go before attaining that status. Plenty of fans will point out that Michigan lost to its two biggest rivals this season. As of now, Michigan might be the third-best team in the Big Ten, maybe fourth. That’s not good enough. That’s not what everyone expects, least of all Harbaugh himself.
But in his first season, the coach lived up to the hype, to all the relentless coverage in print, on television and online. He got more out of his players than his predecessor. There was a clear philosophy on both sides of the ball. Michigan football once again became a recognizable product to players, coaches and fans accustomed to winning games a certain way.
No, this story isn’t over yet. Far from it. But the first couple of chapters were page-turners. Harbaugh has fans excited to read the rest of the book, which is what Michigan needed above all.