Why the stakes for Ohio State-Michigan are high as ever
Hey everybody. It’s Monday. Time for Immediate Recovery.
(Note: To send questions for my Wednesday Mailbag, email Stewart.Mandel@fox.com)
The buildup to Saturday’s showdown between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan began Dec. 30, 2014.
As Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes prepared in New Orleans for their playoff matchup with Alabama, Michigan held a press conference in Ann Arbor that day to introduce new coach Jim Harbaugh. Meyer was days away from restoring Ohio State’s stature as a premier program nationally. It seemed only a matter of time before former Stanford and 49ers savior Harbaugh did the same for the then-mediocre Wolverines.
And once they were both rolling, Meyer and Harbaugh could commence a 21st century version of Woody and Bo’s famed “Ten Year War.”
So here we are.
Meyer got a three-year head start on Harbaugh. He’s not only won a national championship already, but his five-year record now stands at a staggering 60-5. This season, he’s taken a team that lost 16 starters from the year before to the brink of a possible second playoff berth in three seasons.
Meanwhile, in less than two years’ time, Harbaugh has wiped away the stench of the disastrous Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras before him, winning 10 games in his first season and 10 and counting the next. The Wolverines this season have fielded the nation’s top-rated defense, allowing just 10.9 points per game, while beating three of the Top 10 teams in last week’s committee rankings.
But for all the attention he’s garnered, there’s one noticeable thing missing from Harbaugh’s college resume to this point — a championship of any kind.
Which is precisely why Saturday could be a defining moment for America’s favorite bespectacled coach in khakis.
At Stanford, he took over what was then one of the worst programs in any power conference and elevated it from 1-11 the season before his arrival to 12-1 four years later. That 2010 team finished fourth in the polls and won the Orange Bowl but finished second in the Pac-10 behind Oregon. He left for the NFL shortly before successor David Shaw led the Cardinal to three Pac-12 championships.
At Michigan, he took over a program that had regressed from 11-2 in Hoke’s first season to 5-7 three years later. He immediately flipped it into an overachieving 10-3 squad last season that routed SEC East champ Florida in the Citrus Bowl. Few could dispute the man is a master program builder.
But now comes the part where fans will rightfully start expecting more tangible returns.
The opportunity is there this week for Harbaugh to deliver the program’s most significant victory since at least 2003 — the last time Michigan beat a Top 5 Ohio State team and in doing so claimed a Big Ten championship. The satellite camps, the sleepovers, the rap video, the milk with his steak — all filler that kept Michigan in the news until it could win something of consequence on the field.
This is his moment to formally turn that page.
If not, Michigan loses to Ohio State for the 12th time in 13 years and the Wolverines possibly finish third in the Big Ten East.
That’s what’s at stake here.
As recently as two weeks ago, Michigan was near-universally seen as the better team. Then it lost to Iowa and lost QB Wilton Speight to injury. Now the Wolverines are touchdown-underdogs.
But Ohio State is itself coming off a late escape at Michigan State. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has been up and down all season, and now he’ll be facing his toughest opposing defense to date. Clearly this one could go either way.
But there’s no understating just how drastically perceptions will change either way depending on the outcome.
If Michigan wins, they’ll say Harbaugh has caught up to Meyer. That theirs will be a truly equal rivalry going forward.
If Ohio State wins, the Harbaugh hype machine fizzles considerably, while Meyer’s legend grows another notch.
And all of that is before we even address the playoff implications.
Michigan’s path is clear: Win this game and win the Big Ten championship. The Wolverines (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) would then finish in the top four, no questions asked.
Ohio State’s (10-1, 7-1) is muddier given Penn State (9-2, 7-1) can squeeze the Buckeyes out of the conference title game with a win over 3-8 Michigan State. However, I don’t for a second see the committee leaving out an 11-1 team whose resume includes wins over AP No. 3 Michigan, No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 7 Oklahoma and No. 17 Nebraska and only a close road loss at No. 8 Penn State.
This is not 2006, when the teams’ memorable 1 vs. 2 game was a straight up play-in to the BCS title game, but the stakes are still massive. And Lloyd Carr vs. Jim Tressel was hardly as glamorous a sideline showdown as Harbaugh-Meyer.
It’s what we’ve been waiting for.
And now, a few more takeaways from Week 12 as we reset the landscape for Week 13.
We’re headed for a Lone Star coaching shakeup
Charlie Strong’s three-year Texas tenure will mercifully come to an end this week following a stunning loss to Kansas, and Houston’s Tom Herman — coming off yet another showcase win against No. 5 Louisville — will likely replace Strong. Couple those with Baylor’s ongoing vacancy and at least three notable Texas programs will be changing coaches this offseason.
But what about Texas Tech? Once-revered fourth-year coach Kliff Kingsbury is now on thin ice following a mind-numbing 66-10 debacle at the hands of 2-8 Iowa State. The Red Raiders fell to 4-7, their second losing season in three years. Native son Kingsbury may still be safe thanks to a hefty $9.4 million buyout, but if enough boosters want him gone, AD Kirby Hocutt will be able to find the money.
And then there’s Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. He’d seemingly put the hot-seat rumors to rest after the Aggies debuted at No. 4 in the playoff rankings. But then they lost consecutive games to Mississippi State (now 4-7) and Ole Miss (now 5-6). If 6-4 LSU hands A&M a third straight conference loss on Thanksgiving night, the anger around College Station will begin anew.
Throw in the fact that SMU’s Chad Morris could be a candidate at Baylor, among others, and we could be looking at massive turnover in the Texas coaching ranks.
Oklahoma is on the verge of making Big 12 history
It’s not every day that a team allows 331 yards to an opposing running back an still wins 56-28, but that’s exactly what Oklahoma (9-2, 8-0 Big 12) did Saturday night against Justin Crawford and West Virginia (8-2, 5-2). The Sooners keep finding ways to win in spite of their defense, and now they’re one Bedlam win against Oklahoma State (9-2, 7-1) from winning the Big 12 outright.
Not only that, OU would become the first Big 12 team to finish undefeated in conference play since the league moved from eight to nine games in 2011.
But the Sooners still face an obstacle-filled path to the playoff. They need three-loss Washington State or USC to win the Pac-12 and/or 10-1 Clemson to lose in the ACC championship game. They also likely need Ohio State to beat Michigan, because the committee can’t reasonably move 10-2 Oklahoma ahead of 10-2 Ohio State given their lopsided head-to-head result in Norman.
Jim McElwain is trolling the SEC East
Georgia was the overwhelming favorite to win the division in 2015, as Tennessee was in 2016. Yet despite a never-ending churn of quarterbacks, a rash of starters lost to injury, a home game moved to Baton Rouge and LSU needing just 1 yard to win, there go the Gators (8-2, 6-2 SEC) back to Atlanta again following their 16-10 upset at LSU (6-4, 4-3).
“I'm happy for the Gator fans that, you know, don't think we're very good, but all we do is end up back in Atlanta,'' said Florida’s coach. “This time of year is pretty in Atlanta. This will be the second year we'll go and see it.”
Florida’s win sealed another disappointing season for Tennessee (8-3, 4-3) — and yet the Vols may still get the last laugh. The Gators will be heavy underdogs the next two weeks against 8-3 Florida State and 11-0 Alabama. If the Vols beat Vanderbilt (5-6, 2-5) and Florida loses both, Tennessee may wind up the highest-rated SEC team not named Alabama and thus, end its year in the Sugar Bowl.
Not that beating Vandy is a given. The Commodores just housed Ole Miss by three touchdowns, and the Vols just allowed 740 yards of offense to 3-8 Missouri.
Colorado is one step closer to (at least) the Rose Bowl
People keep waiting for Colorado's rags-to-riches rise to reach its end point, but the Buffs (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) just keep getting better. QB Sefo Liufau threw for 345 yards and ran for 108 on Saturday to end Washington State’s eight-game winning streak, 38-24. Now, if they beat an up-and-down Utah team (8-3, 5-3) that just lost to 4-7 Oregon, CU advances to the Pac-12 championship game.
The same CU that went 5-40 its first five years in the conference.
If the Utes win, torrid USC (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12) heads to Santa Clara to meet the winner of Friday’s Washington-Washington State Apple Cup. Which means the Trojans aren’t far removed at this point from earning their first Rose Bowl berth in eight years. Not bad for a coach, Clay Helton, whose fans wanted fired a month into the season.
Navy proving its Worth
Navy (8-2, 6-1 AAC) on Saturday clinched a spot in its Dec. 3 conference championship game, which automatically puts it on a short list of Group of 5 teams that could wind up in the Cotton Bowl. Undefeated Western Michigan remains the clubhouse leader, while Boise State, which moved above WMU in last week’s committee rankings, is one Wyoming win away from missing the Mountain West championship game.
The Midshipmen eliminated Houston from contention. They’ll face either USF (9-2, 6-1) or Temple (8-3, 6-1).
It’s a remarkable achievement for a team that lost Heisman Top 5 finisher Keenan Reynolds from last year’s 11-2 squad. Replacement Will Worth is tied for first nationally with 22 rushing touchdowns.
Just for fun …
Last Thursday, sensational Houston freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver absolutely blew up Lamar Jackson and fifth-ranked Louisville. His performance — six tackles, three TFLs, two sacks, three pass breakups and a forced fumble — prompted me to move him into my Heisman Top 5.
It prompted Houston Associate AD David Bassity to compare Oliver’s season to date with that of the last D-tackle to garner Heisman consideration, Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh, through his first 11 games in 2009.
To both of our surprise, they’re very comparable.
(Note: Suh played in a 4-3 defense; Oliver is considered a 3-4 nose tackle.)
Suh, 2009: 65 tackles, 15 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 10 PBUs, 1 FFs
Oliver, 2016: 61 tackles, 19.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 9 PBUs, 3 FFs
Now the requisite disclaimers: Suh’s most dominant performance of all came in the Big 12 championship game against Texas. Oliver won’t get that chance. And while Oliver has acquitted himself just fine against Top 10 foes Oklahoma and Louisville, he racked up much of his production against AAC teams.
End of day, though, the fact that an 18-year-old true freshman would even enter a conversation like this at a position where most players spend at least a year or two to develop is astounding.