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The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is all about mutually assured destruction

Two rivals enter Saturday’s biggest game with Playoff shots. One will lose its chance, and the other will be spent. That’s just the way they like it.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Ohio State Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Jonah had his whale. Captain Hook had his crocodile. And I have January 1.

Let’s be honest here: my bowl record stinks. [...] In the seventies, the Michigan-Ohio State game was so big that, to be honest, the Rose Bowl seemed anticlimactic. We were never able to reach the same peak twice. [...] We peaked for each other. Some years, we were so emotionally wrung out after that game, I’m surprised we had enough energy to board the plane.

— Bo Schembechler in Bo: Life, Laughs, and Lessons of a College Football Legend

Schembechler's Wolverines lost their first, third, and fifth Rose Bowls to USC, all by one possession. They lost their second and fourth in upsets by Stanford and Washington, respectively.

Every rivalry in college football is built around a sense of schadenfreude: we want to beat you because it's fun to win, but we also really enjoy you losing.

But over the last five decades, since Schembechler showed up at UM, no rivalry in the country tops Michigan-Ohio State at putting two entire seasons on the line. You must lose, and we will destroy ourselves to make that happen.

(Hell, as if to further prove this, Schembechler actually missed his first Rose Bowl because he suffered a heart attack. He was 40!)

In his first 10 years on the job in Ann Arbor, Schembechler went 96-15-1: 0-6 in bowls, 5-4-1 against Ohio State, and 91-5 against everybody else.

That speaks a bit to the general weakness of the Big Ten in the 1970s; Michigan and Ohio State sucked all the oxygen out of the room, and almost no other program was able to maintain a particular level of quality.

However, it also speaks to the power of Michigan-Ohio State.

Nothing has matched the Ten-Year War between Schembechler and Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes. But on Saturday at noon ET, the No. 2 Buckeyes and No. 3 Wolverines will kick off in what is a College Football Playoff elimination match. Sure, you could craft a complicated scenario in which the loser still squeezes into the top four, but it would be awfully tricky.

For the first time in 10 years, a top-five team is guaranteed to lose this game.

And for many within these programs, staying alive in the national title race is only equally important to making the the other's hopes die.

On Nov. 23, 1968, both the present and future tense were accented in scarlet and gray. The previous decade had been one of shocking parity within the Big Ten. Everybody from Wisconsin to Indiana had surged to a conference title. Michigan had generated just one top-five finish since 1948, and Ohio State had averaged just a 6-3 record from 1962-67.

Led by a legendary 1967 signing class, the Buckeyes bounced back earlier than planned. They suffocated top-ranked Purdue, 13-0, to move to No. 2 in the country, and in the season finale in Columbus, they rushed for 421 yards and obliterated Bump Elliott's fourth-ranked Wolverines, 50-14. Unsatisfied with scoring merely 50, Hayes elected to go for two after the Buckeyes’ final touchdown, but failed.

Ohio State won the national title that year with a sophomore-laden team: quarterback Rex Kern was a future All-American (he twice finished in the top five of the Heisman voting), defensive tackle Jim Stillwagon would win the Outland Trophy in 1970, and Jack Tatum and Mike Sensibaugh would become one of the best safety duos in college football history. They were all second-year guys. This looked to be the first of many titles.

Instead, it was Hayes' second and final national champion. A month after the devastating loss, Michigan replaced Elliott with Miami (Ohio)'s Schembechler. The Wolverines whooped the top-ranked Buckeyes, 24-12, in the 1969 season finale, and the Ten-Year War was on.

From 1968-77, a top-five team lost the Michigan-Ohio State game seven times. In five of those seven instances, it was the loser’s first loss of the season. In 1973, the teams tied, and an infamous vote of Big Ten athletic directors gave the crown to the Buckeyes.

Michigan or Ohio State went to the Rose Bowl 13 straight times ... and lost almost every year.

By the 1980s, Hayes had retired, and Ohio State was less stable. The Buckeyes managed just two top-10 finishes in that decade to Michigan’s six. But they still beat the Wolverines four times, twice in Ann Arbor. UM ran the conference but couldn’t secure a national title.

In the 1990s, the rivalry defined itself in a different way. Michigan was still good after Schembechler’s retirement, but the Wolverines were rarely title contenders. Still, they constantly figured out ways to wreck the Buckeyes’ plans. They handed OSU its first loss of the season in 1993, 1995, and 1996, then took down another awesome, fourth-ranked Buckeye team in 1997.

John Cooper had a strong run in Columbus, winning 10 games five times in a six-year span but losing to the Wolverines four times in that stretch. For the decade, each finished ahead of the other in the final polls five times, but Michigan won 7-of-10. To add insult to injury, in 1997, the Wolverines claimed the national title that was always just out of Cooper’s reach.

At the turn of the 21st century, the teams took turns being inconsistent. Ohio State finished unranked for three straight years from 1999-2001 and did so again in 2011 amid a coaching change. In between, Jim Tressel ripped off a wonderful stretch of seven top-five finishes in nine years. Up north in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines haven't finished in the top five since 1999 or in the top 10 since 2006.

The schools combined for an all-time classic in 2006, when unbeaten No. 1 Ohio State survived a late charge from unbeaten No. 2 Michigan, days after Schembechler's death.

(Perhaps as a nod to history, the Buckeyes then laid a giant egg in the BCS title game.)

It’s been more about near-misses of late. No. 4 Ohio State survived over No. 20 Michigan by a 26-21 margin in 2012, eked out a 42-41 win over the unranked Wolverines in 2013, and lost their starting quarterback to injury and nearly derailed their College Football Playoff prospects in a 42-28 win in 2014.

Still, the Buckeyes have won 11 of their last 12 in the series, their most impressive run since winning seven of nine in the years preceding Schembechler’s arrival.

Jim Harbaugh was brought to town to change this.

The former Schembechler quarterback raised Stanford’s program from the dead in the 2000s, then took the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. He returned to Ann Arbor in 2015 and has begun his tenure 20-4; the Wolverines went just 20-18 in the three years before he came back.

Harbaugh has restored Michigan’s program to nearly full vitality, but in his first game against Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes, the Wolverines were pummeled, 42-13.

Their offense has begun to crack in recent weeks; can they turn the tables on Saturday, or will they falter again?

The Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry is nicknamed “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.” Michigan-Ohio State is a little bit more raw and a lot more petty, deliciously so.

And on Saturday, “The Game” will end someone’s national title hopes, just as God, Woody, and Bo intended.


Michigan at Ohio State: Advanced stats tale of the tape

November 26, 2016 ( 12:00 PM ET, ABC )
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
S&P+ Projection: Michigan (25.1-22.6)
The Basics
Category Michigan Ohio State
S&P+ (Rk) 2 3
Category Michigan offense Ohio State defense Ohio State offense Michigan defense
Yards per play (Rk) 6.04 (34) 4.08 (3) 5.92 (42) 3.95 (2)
Yards per game (Rk) 452.2 (37) 274.0 (3) 475.0 (28) 248.5 (1)
Points per possession (Rk) 3.37 (8) 1.01 (3) 3.44 (6) 0.86 (2)
Category Michigan offense Ohio State defense Ohio State offense Michigan defense
S&P+ (Rk) 36.1 (25) 15.1 (7) 38.6 (14) 5.6 (1)
Rushing S&P+ (Rk) 112.4 (28) 117.9 (20) 134.4 (2) 144.8 (2)
Passing S&P+ (Rk) 127.8 (11) 134.1 (5) 107.0 (52) 171.7 (1)
Standard Downs S&P+ (Rk) 116.9 (19) 127.6 (5) 126.3 (3) 149.7 (2)
Passing Downs S&P+ (Rk) 120.5 (23) 124.1 (16) 106.8 (56) 163.2 (3)
Q1 S&P+ (Rk) 129.0 (13) 113.8 (27) 129.9 (12) 151.5 (4)
Q2 S&P+ (Rk) 134.4 (5) 140.6 (7) 121.7 (18) 146.5 (5)
Q3 S&P+ (Rk) 125.4 (17) 169.6 (2) 134.5 (7) 137.5 (4)
Q4 S&P+ (Rk) 108.7 (37) 138.9 (1) 109.4 (33) 124.7 (8)