Key to The Game: Talent or passion?

As Big Ten blog loyalists know, I rarely let Rich Rodriguez off the hook for Michigan's struggles the past three seasons, but I also came to his defense about one common criticism.

(After all, someone needed to defend for RichRod. Ba-dum-ching! I'll be here all night, folks. Be sure and tip your waitress).

OK, here's the deal. I never understood the incessant desire by media members and fans to have Rodriguez prove how much he valued the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. Every Monday before The Game, Rodriguez received a barrage of questions about his view on the rivalry. No matter what answers he gave, no matter how he responded, how passionate his voice sounded, it was never good enough.

Each Michigan loss to Ohio State fueled the belief that Rodriguez simply didn't get it and never would. That's why Michigan kept losing.

Sorry, folks. Never bought that argument. Michigan lost to Ohio State because Michigan wasn't good enough to win. When Michigan had the better team, it would start beating the Buckeyes more often.

Why bring this up now?

Because of what Ohio State coach Luke Fickell had to say Tuesday about The Game.

"It's about passion and will," Fickell said. "You don't win these types of games based on talent."

Really? Superior talent certainly appeared to be a factor in Ohio State's seven-game win streak against Michigan. The Wolverines didn't seem to lack passion or will when they missed countless tackles against Ohio State during the last three seasons.

"There's a fine line between better teams in college football sometimes," Fickell said. "It still comes down to playing. When you have the rivalries and the different things and two obviously great programs, they've got players on both sides. Whether one side's playing better than the other, it's still not about talent. It's about a team. It's about a passion. ...Take talent and those things out of it."

I get that rivalry games are different, and inferior teams win them more often than they do other games. I also get that playing up rivalry games is important, not only to fans but to players as a motivational tactic.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel always put The Game on a pedestal, and his approach played a role in his sparkling record against Michigan. New Michigan coach Brady Hoke, with his "Ohio" references and his countdown clock and his refusal to wear red, has placed a great emphasis on The Game for his players, who never have beaten Ohio State.

But if Michigan wins Saturday, to say it's solely because Hoke never says "Ohio State" or never wears red or puts countdown clocks around the football building would be shortsighted. Michigan would win because it has the better team than Ohio State.

An Ohio State win might add credence to Fickell's case. The Buckeyes undoubtedly would display great passion and willpower to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. But Ohio State isn't exactly void of talent, either.

Intangibles matter in rivalry games, and Ohio State-Michigan is no exception. But in most cases, talent is the deciding factor.