New Big Ten could force changes on 'The Game'
Adding to the pressure and importance of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is that the teams have always played the last game of the season.
It's final. There's no disputing the winner. And the winner has bragging rights and the loser awful memories for an entire year.
Well, maybe not anymore.
Starting in 2011, ''The Game'' will still be the final one on the schedule. But the teams will be in opposite divisions of a 12-team Big Ten, with a title game the following week.
Finality? It's possible that the 108th showdown could be followed by yet another meeting of divisional champion Michigan and Ohio State in just seven days.
''I'm not sure that when we line up next year for the Ohio State-Michigan game there will be any less excitement or anything will be taken away from it,'' said Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, a sterling 8-1 against Michigan. ''Maybe some of those byproducts will be added, but I don't know how you could lose anything from this game. I just can't conceive of that.''
Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon played for the iconic Bo Schembechler at his alma mater. He also doesn't believe things will change.
''Next year, when it's Ohio State week, if you ask me if there has been any diminution of the rivalry, I guarantee you it will be every bit as intense as it has ever been,'' he said.
Most of the players feel the same way.
''A lot of people say Michigan has stumbled, not been at the top of the pyramid the past couple of years, but I don't think that you can hold a Michigan team down for that long,'' said Ohio State defensive lineman Dexter Larimore, referring to the Buckeyes' record run of six consecutive wins against the Wolverines. ''They're going to be in the next couple of years a very dominant team. Having us in two different divisions will make it even more of a rivalry.''
Others aren't so sure that Saturday's matchup between the Wolverines (7-4, 3-4) and eighth-ranked Buckeyes (10-1, 6-1) won't be the end of an era.
''It is going to be different with a championship game next year?'' asked former Ohio State and NFL offensive lineman Jim Lachey, now a radio analyst for the Buckeyes. ''Historically, if you beat Michigan you felt good because all you had left was your bowl game. Now, you beat Michigan and you have to go lay it on the line on the field one more time the following week.''
Ex-Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, who was 5-4 from 1979-1987 against Schembechler and the Wolverines, is a traditionalist who has seen ''The Game'' almost every year.
''It changes it a lot, really - more than I would like to see it changed,'' Bruce said.
Whether it's the end of an era or adds flavor to the game remains to be seen. There's no question that this year's meeting has a lot of risk and reward.
The Wolverines and lightning-quick quarterback Denard Robinson need a signature win to show that coach Rich Rodriguez is making progress in his rocky three years at the helm. A win would silence a lot of critics who say Michigan - with a world-class offense and a porous defense - is no longer a top-tier team in the Big Ten and years away from vying for a title again.
Even in the days leading up to this week's game, there were rumors floating around that one more loss to the Buckeyes and the coach of the maize and blue might get a pink slip.
History is on Ohio State's side. Besides extending their own mark for domination in the series, the Buckeyes need a win to tie the Big Ten mark (set by Ohio State from 1972-77) for consecutive conference titles. They enter the game tied for first with Wisconsin and Michigan State, which is in the uncomfortable position of actually rooting for its biggest rival.
A win would also likely stamp the Buckeyes' ticket to a Bowl Championship Series game.
No matter the impact of the ''new'' Big Ten next season, no one believes there will be any less passion, any less enmity surrounding the game.
Rodriguez, more than most people, knows that won't change. He cites an example from a year ago, when his team was busing to the Ohio State game.
''I saw a couple of elderly women, probably in their late 60s, give us the middle-finger salute,'' he said with a laugh.
Some things never change.