ANN ARBOR, Mich. – It’s hard to put into words what this win over Ohio State means for the Michigan football program and fan base.
Where do I even start? With the 10-year losing streak? The constant national ridicule? Having to listen to middle-aged men wearing gray and red face paint talk smack season after season?
I write for a living, but this -- this is a lot for even me to unpack.
Losing, losing and more losing
Let’s just start with the obvious: It’s been absolutely brutal for Michigan fans to watch losses to Ohio State over and over and over.
You know the numbers: Eight in a row. Fifteen out of 16. It got to the point where every Michigan football season felt like it started with an 0-1 record, because that last game of the season wasn’t going to be competitive. Beating Ohio State was a pipe dream -- like Jamaica bobsledders trying to win the gold medal in Cool Runnings.
The last few seasons have been especially embarrassing. In 2018, Michigan was unfathomably favored to win in Columbus and proceeded to give up 62 points. The following year, Ohio State won by 29 in Ann Arbor.
When Jim Tressel left, we thought Michigan had an opening to get back into the rivalry. Urban Meyer was even better. He also became a victim of scandal, and Ryan Day stepped in and nearly went three full seasons without losing a single Big Ten game.
How was there never a hiccup, a bump in the road? The program trotted out elite quarterback after elite quarterback, from Terrelle Pryor to Braxton Miller to J.T. Barrett to Cardale Jones to Dwayne Haskins to Justin Fields.
Like, would it kill them to have one John O’Korn? Just one?
While Michigan floundered under the likes of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, Ohio State grew into a football empire that dominated the Big Ten, frequented the playoff and won national titles. Yet somehow, while they sat upon the throne and Michigan scrapped and clawed for every ounce of respect, it was still the Buckeyes who seemed to take this rivalry more seriously.
And it showed.
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but uh, people don’t really like Michigan. It’s not just Spartans and Buckeyes, but Fighting Illini and Nittany Lions and Longhorns and Volunteers and Gators and all kinds of various people and animals. Michigan is one of the most nationally hated teams in the country.
So when all those fan bases are given reasons to pile on each and every November, it creates a bit of a toxic desperation around the program, especially on social media.
Michigan coaches, players and fans have to listen to “experts” across the country eviscerate the program year after year. From the smug Ohio State media to SEC hacks like Pete Finebaum -- the Wolverines have taken body blow after body blow without the ability to punch back.
The responses were always the same: “Third place in the Big Ten East.” “Do you even know how to get to Indianapolis?” “Keep being Ohio State’s (you-know-what).”
The vitriol with which they target Jim Harbaugh makes it even more personal. People love to see Harbaugh fail, and as Michigan’s head coach, he’s failed a fair share of the time.
Over the last seven years at Michigan, whenever Harbaugh lost, he became a punching bag. When he won, it was back to ole reliable: “So what? He still can’t beat Ohio State.”
Even through the lens of just this season, Saturday’s game between Michigan and Ohio State had high stakes. Two top-five rivals clashing with the Big Ten East and College Football Playoff implications all on the line.
But then you add everything else on top of it. Suddenly, understanding the magnitude of this win takes a bit more perspective.
Saturday was Michigan’s best chance for a meaningful win over Ohio State since 2003. Sure, the teams had met as top-five opponents twice since, but both were in Columbus, as was the 2018 matchup.
So in a way, two decades of frustration, embarrassment and anxiety boiled down to Saturday’s game. If Michigan couldn’t beat Ohio State now, would it ever?
As Cade McNamara kneeled out the clock, all of that baggage was lifted off the shoulders of the Michigan fan base, and it was replaced by joy, vindication and hope. The prospect of a year of misery and ridicule was replaced by a week of praise and Big Ten title prep. Instead of arguments about whether Michigan really deserves the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize, conversation centers around a possible playoff appearance.
So many times before, the aftermath of this exact scenario could only be described as deep, unadulterated dread. When the opposite came true, the natural response was bliss. For many Michigan fans -- as “Pump It Up” and “Mr. Brightside” blared from the Big House speakers and everyone celebrated on the field -- it was their first taste.
Biggest win ever?
Is this the biggest regular-season win in Michigan football history? I know it’s an old and storied program, but it’s hard to argue otherwise.
In one afternoon, Michigan football snapped the longest losing streak in the history of the Ohio State rivalry, clinched its first ever trip to the Big Ten championship game and cleared itself a path to the playoff.
Michigan has never played for an official national championship. There was no BCS or College Football Playoff back in 1997. Michigan went to the Rose Bowl and had to rely on voters win the title. To this day, Nebraska claims half of it.
If Michigan beats Iowa on Saturday, it will earn a chance to play for an official national championship for the first time in school history -- and that’s all because it found a way to vanquish its greatest enemy when almost nobody thought it was possible.
This win will help Michigan in recruiting, in how the program is viewed nationally and even in the way people inside the program view themselves. All it took was one team to remind everyone that Michigan can beat Ohio State. That mental hurdle has been cleared, and I’ll admit, I needed to see it to believe it.
Instead of losing for the ninth time in a row, playing in a disappointing bowl game and listening to the haters for another 12 months, Michigan football shut everybody up and earned a chance to win the Big Ten title. One game was the difference between the offseason being a nightmare or a victory lap. It’s easy to forget that after a decade of losing.
Michigan’s job isn’t done. It still has to take on a strong Iowa team in the Big Ten title and then, possibly, turn its attention to the playoff. But for now, the fan base should bask in the long-forgotten but emphatically deserved glow of victory.