ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When will everyone learn their lesson? Every year -- whether it’s the off-season or the week leading up to The Game -- segments of the college football community seem to convince themselves that this is the year Michigan can knock off Ohio State.
This season, Michigan was picked to win the Big Ten in the preseason. Last year, the Wolverines were favored heading into Columbus. The combined score of those two games was 118-66 in favor of the Buckeyes.
Jim Harbaugh era
There was reason to believe Michigan could compete with Ohio State at the start of the season. Shea Patterson was returning as starting quarterback and the Buckeyes were breaking in a new head coach and a new starting quarterback.
But as Jim Harbaugh -- who has revived the Michigan football program and achieved a consistency that was previously missing for a decade -- fell to 0-5 against his school’s most hated rival, the clear, undeniable truth shone through: Michigan is nowhere close to catching Ohio State, and the gap is only getting wider.
When Harbaugh arrived in 2015, he took over a Michigan team that had lost to Ohio State 10 of the last 11 years. In Brady Hoke’s tenure, Michigan went 1-3 with two losses by a total of six points and one loss by two touchdowns in Columbus.
Michigan came one play from winning in Columbus in 2016, then stuck with the Buckeyes again in 2017. But the last two seasons have been national embarrassments for the Wolverines.
The problem: Ohio State is on the best run in school history and one of the most dominant stretches college football has ever seen.
Ohio State’s dominance
Since a transition year in 2012, Ohio State has gone 98-9 with a national championship, two playoff appearances and six straight New Year’s Six bowl appearances. The only time Ohio State didn’t got to an elite bowl game, it finished the season 12-0 in Urban Meyer’s first year.
Ohio State has reached the top two in the AP poll each of the last seven seasons. It has never lost more than one game in the regular season. Every single year the Buckeyes are either in the College Football Playoff or among the first handful of teams on the outside looking in.
Sure, Ohio State has slipped up against Iowa and Purdue the last couple years. But that type of performance will never happen against Michigan. As Justin Fields said after Saturday’s beatdown, this rivalry has their full attention 365 days a year. That focus starts with the head coach, consumes the players and infects the entire fan base.
For Michigan to catch up to Ohio State, it has to join the elite tier of college football -- one only occupied by the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. And while 10-win seasons are nothing to scoff at, there’s no sign Michigan is ready to take that kind of leap.
Look no further than next year’s recruiting rankings to see how much the gap is widening between the two programs. Michigan is consistently recruiting among the top teams in the nation, but there’s no comparison to what Ryan Day is doing in Columbus.
Michigan has the No. 13 recruiting class for 2020, with 12 four-stars and 12 three-stars. The highest-ranked player in Michigan’s class is wide receiver A.J. Henning, the No. 90 player in the country.
Ohio State has eight players committed to the 2020 class that rank higher than Henning. Eight. Four of those are wide receivers. That means Michigan’s top recruit for 2020 would be the fifth-best player in the class at his position for Ohio State.
Since 2016 -- the oldest recruiting players who could still be on rosters next season -- Ohio State has ranked fourth, second, second and 14th in recruiting. Michigan has ranked eighth, fifth, 22nd and eighth. In the years when Michigan was close to Ohio State in the rankings, it was based more on quantity than quality, as the Buckeyes have had a significant, consistent edge in terms of average player rank.
Michigan is landing really good players. Ohio State is landing elite players. That’s why Michigan is a good program and Ohio State is an elite program.
What’s the reason for these recruiting struggles? For one, the players considering both Michigan and Ohio State have only seen the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes once in their lifetime (that they can remember). Think about the high-end recruits sitting in the stands Saturday, watching Ohio State win by 29 points in Ann Arbor. If they have a choice between the two schools, they can see the gap just as well as we do.
The state of Ohio is also churning out more elite players than the state of Michigan, and those players almost never escape Ohio State’s grasp. Look at five-star defensive end Zach Harrison last year. Michigan thought it had the edge in that battle, but he ultimately landed with Ohio State.
For Michigan to beat Ohio State in recruiting, it needs to win on the field. To win on the field, Michigan needs to beat Ohio State in recruiting. It’s a vicious circle with very little opportunity to turn the tide. The coaching change this off-season looked like a possible opportunity for Michigan to make a move, but then Ohio State fielded the best team in the country. Again.
What can Michigan do?
The biggest problem facing Michigan in this rivalry is there appears to be very little room for improvement in terms of coaching and management of the program.
Michigan isn’t going to find a better coach than Harbaugh. Is Dabo Swinney going to leave Clemson? Is Bill Belichick going to leave the New England Patriots? The coaches out there who are better than Harbaugh aren’t going to leave their current positions. Gambling on an unknown is way too big of a risk after what Michigan experienced with Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke.
The Wolverines will likely make some staff changes, primarily on the defensive side. Anyone can come in and give up an average of 59 points to Ohio State. That can’t continue, and Harbaugh knows it.
But how much does replacing Don Brown close the gap between Michigan and the football factory in Columbus? Michigan upgraded immensely at offensive coordinator this season and The Game didn’t get any closer.
Harbaugh has taken Michigan from the depths of irrelevance to a very healthy spot. The Wolverines are right there with Penn State and Wisconsin near the top of the Big Ten. Nationally, Michigan has been among the 10 most consistent programs in the country since Harbaugh arrived.
Those are reasons Michigan can’t and shouldn’t make a change at the top. Harbaugh is absolutely the right coach for the job. But that’s not getting Michigan any closer to Ohio State.
The bottom line is the discrepancy is much more about Ohio State’s dominance than Michigan’s struggles, but that won’t make anyone in the Maize and Blue feel better.
The all-time series is closer than it’s ever been since Michigan started out 13-0-2 in the first 15 meetings. Ohio State will likely take the lead in the next decade.
Michigan is recruiting well, playing well and putting up solid seasons under Harbaugh, but Ohio State is doing everything much better. This isn’t the “new norm” for Michigan football because it isn’t new. It’s been two one-sided decades, and every time Michigan seems to have an opening, the door is slammed shut.
Next year it will be Michigan breaking in a new quarterback as Fields and Day lick their chops in Columbus. The Buckeyes have already circled the date. It’s hard to blame Michigan for not wanting to think about it.