- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
The theory was spawned sometime after the 2011 season, as Michigan celebrated Brady Hoke's successful debut and new Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had Columbus buzzing with optimism.
Both programs signed top-10 recruiting classes in February 2012. Both coaches had clear visions and lofty goals and standards. The rest of the Big Ten, the theory held, was in serious trouble.
The Big Ten was headed back to the Big Two and everybody else. Some college football observers said it publicly; many others said it privately. They pointed mainly to recruiting, but also to other factors.
At the very least, the gap separating Ohio State and Michigan from 2008 to 2010 -- and also from 2005 to 2009 -- would narrow as both programs were poised to take up residence in college football's penthouse.
Two years later, Ohio State has renewed its lease. Michigan, meanwhile, has been evicted.
Ohio State and Michigan seemingly are worlds apart as they gather this week for The Game at Michigan Stadium. The Buckeyes, headed for the league championship, lead a group of Big Ten elites that includes No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin. Michigan is a rung or two below.
The last time the longtime rivals met at the Big House, Michigan ended its seven-game losing streak against Ohio State. The Wolverines went on to win the Sugar Bowl and finish 11-2, but the victory over Ohio State, from an emotional and symbolic standpoint, arguably meant more to Hoke, his players and Michigan fans sick of hearing about The Streak.
Two days after the Michigan loss, Ohio State named Meyer head coach. The Buckeyes went on to lose their bowl game under Luke Fickell before Meyer took full control. They have yet to lose under Meyer, setting a team record Saturday against Indiana with their 23rd consecutive win.
Ohio State is No. 3 in the BCS standings, and with two more wins could make the trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship game on Jan. 6. The Buckeyes rank third nationally in scoring (48.7 ppg) and boast arguably the nation's most dynamic offensive backfield: quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde.
Michigan is fortunate to be bowl-eligible, is unable to run the ball and, barring a major surprise Saturday, is headed for its worst stretch under Hoke (losses in four of its final five games). Hoke, along with his offensive staff, is feeling the heat. While Ohio State has reached historic milestones under Meyer, Michigan has endured historic lows in recent weeks, from the lowest net rushing total in team history (minus-48 against Michigan State) to becoming the only FBS team in the past 10 seasons with consecutive games of minus-20 rush yards or fewer (minus-48 against MSU, minus-21 against Nebraska).
The win over Ohio State in 2011, followed by the Sugar Bowl triumph, have been high points in the Hoke era. Since the bowl win, Michigan is just 15-9, including a 2-5 mark against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.
Even after a 2012 season filled with close losses to good teams, Michigan seemed ready to join Ohio State in the elite when it thumped Notre Dame, the 2012 national runner-up, in Week 2 this season. Quarterback Devin Gardner and the offense were rolling, star linebacker Jake Ryan would soon return from injury, and a favorable schedule put Michigan in great position to meet Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
Then the turnovers started. Michigan nearly lost to Akron at home and Connecticut on the road. Defensive woes surfaced in an overtime loss to Penn State and a shootout win against Indiana. The offense then fizzled against Michigan State and Nebraska. Michigan's lone win since Oct. 19 -- an overtime triumph at Northwestern -- wouldn't have happened if officials had called illegal motion on a tying field goal at the end of regulation.
Sure, the Wolverines are young at some spots, namely offensive line, but the clear vision that seemed to be in place two years ago is cloudier now.
"Is the goal always to win the Big Ten championship? No question about it," Hoke said Monday. "We won't make excuses nor back down from it. Have we played and coached as well as we needed to? Obviously not."
Both Meyer and Hoke are taking the correct approach to the week and have put the rivalry on a pedestal. Ohio State began its Michigan prep a day early, while Michigan, typically off on Mondays, went to work today.
There's plenty at stake for both teams, as Ohio State can keep its national title hopes alive and Michigan can lessen the disappointment of the season by beating its rival on senior day and handing the Buckeyes their first loss under Meyer. On paper, The Game looks like a mismatch, but rivalry games can spark surprises, especially when the underdog is playing at home on senior day.
"This game has always been different in some ways," Hoke said. "Are they a good football team? Yeah. They're a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we've played? I don't think there's any doubt about that."
Meyer doesn't put much stock in the Wolverines' record and expects "their best game."
When national signing day rolls around in February, Ohio State and Michigan will be in the same category, both likely signing top-10 recruiting classes (possibly top-five). It might refuel the Big Two theory in the Big Ten. After all, the original argument was heavily rooted in recruiting success.
But the real gauge comes this week on the field. Michigan must close the gap.
Otherwise, it's just another Big Ten program looking up at the Buckeyes.
22hDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman