ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The Michigan football team's magical run through the Big Ten came to a screeching halt in Columbus as Ohio State served up a heavy dose of reality.
Jim Harbaugh's team looked like it was ready to play among college football's elite teams. It had won 10 games in a row, most in dominating fashion, and entered the Horseshoe as the favorite to represent the East Division in the conference championship game.
By the time the final seconds ticked off the clock, those feelings were distant memories, replaced by an all-too-familiar feeling of helplessness and doom.
Michigan still isn't on Ohio State's level, and it's not even close.
During a year in which the Buckeyes appeared vulnerable -- thanks to a 29-point loss at Purdue and embarrassing near-misses against Nebraska and Maryland -- "The Game" fell pathetically short of its namesake.
A defense that was ranked No. 1 in the country allowed 567 yards and 55 points. Michigan's best defensive player was OSU quarterback Tate Martell, who came into the game and turned two Buckeye touchdowns into field goal attempts.
A muffed kickoff was the only reason Michigan even stayed within breathing room at halftime, but those watching knew which team would come away with a win. It was demonstrated by the ease with which Urban Meyer's team drove to the goal line in 41 seconds before the break.
The third quarter was a dagger, and the fourth quarter was just salt in many wounds.
College football's elite
What Ohio State demonstrated by flexing all over Michigan was the still-massive difference between the former and the latter.
It was a stark reminder that before the season, it was unquestioned that Ohio State would beat Michigan in the season finale because of the talent discrepancy and history of winning at an elite level.
A half-dozen lackluster performances masked the Ohio State team everyone was expecting, and it took "The Game" to bring it out.
The Buckeyes are one of the few teams among college football's top tier. Only three teams -- Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State -- are undoubtedly included, with a few others in the mix.
Has Georgia done enough to be considered among the elite? What about Oklahoma? The list stops there, though Notre Dame could enter that conversation in the near future.
Nobody else has much of an argument, especially after Michigan was knocked unceremoniously from the discussion. It's an exclusive club, and the gap between it and the second tier is only growing.
The College Football Playoff era is in its fifth year, and of the 16 semifinalists, Alabama and Clemson have taken up seven spots. Ohio State and Oklahoma have each participated twice. Those four teams, Notre Dame and Georgia are the only ones left standing in contention this year.
Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State and Washington -- all of which have been to the playoff -- are nowhere near the discussion this season. It's a sobering reminder of how few teams actually belong on top.
Michigan in second tier
There's a dark cloud over Ann Arbor this week, but frustration shouldn't get in the way of an honest assessment of the program Harbaugh has built in just four years.
Michigan fans are kidding themselves by downplaying the mess Harbaugh inherited in 2015. The program was coming off seven years of national irrelevance. There was no continuity from the Rich Rodriguez era to the Brad Hoke mess, and in today's era of college football, digging out of a hole isn't easy.
Harbaugh's rebuilding job was nothing like what Meyer inherited -- a fully loaded roster one year removed from six straight double-digit win seasons. Ohio State never missed a bowl game before Meyer. Michigan missed bowl games three times in seven years.
But since 2015, few programs in college football have been as consistently successful as Michigan. Harbaugh has won 10 games three out of four years and has a total record of 38-13.
As it stands, there are no programs definitively better than Michigan outside the top tier.
The goal for Michigan is to win championships, but for now, it's still one step away. The Wolverines are among a group of teams -- along with Washington, Penn State, LSU and others -- that appear right on the cusp of doing something special but fall short.
Michigan has come a long way in four years, but the step from the second tier to the first tier is the most difficult to take.
Teams such as Washington, Oklahoma and even Georgia last season can get to the playoff without having to play one of the elite programs, but Michigan will never have that luxury.
When every season begins, no matter how well Michigan plays for the first 11 games, the players know Ohio State is looming. That's a daunting task only Auburn and South Carolina -- who play Alabama and Clemson every year during rivalry week -- can truly appreciate.
Michigan is closer than most of the country to getting into the elite tier, but it also has one of the toughest roads to get there.
Saturday was proof it certainly hasn't happened yet.
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