Most if not all fans of both these schools know the story: Michigan and Ohio State met in Columbus eight years ago this month for the first 1 vs 2 clash in the history of the rivalry. The night before, Bo Schembechler walked into a Detroit television studio to tape an interview. He began to grimace and collapsed on the studio floor, and died shortly thereafter. The man at the center of Michigan football for four decades was suddenly gone, and no one was going to fill his shoes, or try for that matter. The game was still played, with a respectful, quiet honoring of the man before kickoff, and it had come out that a few nights prior, Schembechler addressed the team in their locker room and gave them a rousing speech to inspire them against the Buckeyes. Still to this day, only the players in that room know what was said, morphing it into an urban legend or lost relic of time, of sorts.
Billed as "The Game of the Century," it seemed fitting it would be Michigan and Ohio State. More times than any other rivalry in college football, it has determined either the Big Ten champion, the potential national champion, or both. This was one of those times it would be both, and with the Bowl Championship Series in the mix, everyone hoped for a rematch.
That rematch didn't happen of course, but a lot of other things fell like dominoes around both of the programs and college football at large. It caused eventual coaching changes, made and broke the careers of players, and gave way to the scrapping of the whole postseason system. It is still remembered for the rematch it never produced. A look back at the biggest edition of The Game:
ESPN went to the trouble of putting a countdown clock on their shows that week, and it rarely went off. Brent Musberger achieved peak Musberger-ness with the lead-in to the broadcast. College Gameday visited Columbus, Lee Corso picked the Buckeyes, and Kirk Herbstreit got to call the game.
In the days leading up to Saturday, the debate shifted toward a central question: should these two teams play again in the BCS title game? The majority of ESPN analysts crowed about the SEC not getting their fair shot no matter whether Michigan won or lost because clearly Florida was a better team despite a weaker schedule. That was largely the same Florida team that Michigan thumped two years later in Orlando. The BCS in 2006 was skewed toward the computer rankings and the human polls, and both favored Florida. Michigan couldn't have had a better resume, and had the on-the-field performance carried more weight, that's some intriguing hindsight.
During the game broadcast, Musberger and Herbstreit repeatedly called the idea of a rematch silly, yet give validity to the argument that Michigan and Ohio State are the two best teams. Then Bob Davie chimed in, saying it's not fair to have a 50-day layoff, so therefore no rematch.
Up to that point in the season, both Michigan and Ohio State had formidable schedules. The Buckeyes came into the season as number one, and beat Texas by 17 points. That same Vince Young-led Texas team that would squeak by Michigan in the Rose Bowl and then a year later dethrone the USC dynasty. A close game against Illinois was their test, but rampaged through the rest of their slate.
Michigan, meanwhile, crushed Notre Dame in South Bend (The Yakety Sax Game) in week two, climbed to the two-hole eight weeks into the season, had a close call against Iowa, and had an impressive win at Penn State midseason. It became inevitable that these two were going to meet as unbeatens in the season finale, because the beauty of The Game is that it continues to give us things that we've never seen.
Michigan's 2008 team was loaded. Ohio State's team was just as loaded. Chad Henne, Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, Lamarr Woodley, Mike Hart. Troy Smith, Beanie Wells, Ted Ginn. The hype was excessive, but the game didn't disappoint. It felt like a game of the century, but it wasn't the same with Bo gone. Schembechler served as the face of the football program even after leaving coaching, and he made his mark in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry that elevated him from legend to a king.
This was a time when Michigan was better at staying in games, and after getting down by two scores in the first half, Henne threw down the left sideline to find Arrington wide open to close the gap. I remember that during this game, besides the eternal feelings of dread and anxiousness, I marveled at Michigan's ability to continually hit back at Ohio State. The second half tilted toward the Buckeyes, as the lead ballooned to ten with five minutes left in the game. Despite a costly Troy Smith turnover, Michigan couldn't reclaim the lead.
Moments before that, came the hit.
6:59 left in the fourth quarter, Troy Smith running toward the Buckeye sideline with Alan Branch chasing him. Smith tossed the ball away from harm, but Shawn Crable didn't stop. Crable's winged helmet slammed into Smith right into the space between pad and helmet, as he was stepping out of bounds, and the yellow penalty flags signaled the end of Michigan overtaking that lead. It was like one of those moments when time grinds to a halt, and you can see the bad thing that is about to happen, but no matter how loudly you shout at the television or how hard you try to will it into not happening, it rips your soul out. That hit is part of the lore of this rivalry, and it's part of why Michigan didn't get what they were so painfully due for, in a chance at the level of championship success this program hasn't tasted for going on 16 years now.
Tressel then sank his teeth in, and that was it. Michigan couldn't stop what was coming. The worst way to lose a game like this is being helpless as Tresselball took over, calling a run off the left tackle for a gain of a few yards to bleed the clock out.
Both schools may have lost their bowl games, but more remarkably, the cascade of things involving this game that are no longer around is staggering. Jim Tressel: gone. Lloyd Carr: gone. BCS: summarily executed. Ohio State stumbled for a season, Michigan has stumbled for seven seasons and counting. The SEC got their national championship rematch six years later with Alabama and LSU, and the same arguments against a rematch were strangely absent.
Saturday's game is still Michigan-Ohio State, and as we settle in for the 111th version, don't ever forget the 103rd, because it may not happen that way again.