Why Not Take The College Football Attendance Crown?

There’s a chance that, this year, Ohio State might take the college football attendance crown from the University of Michigan.

Well, why not?

IMG_1825Michigan is in disarray.  In fact, that’s putting it mildly.  So far this year, the Buckeyes are averaging more fans than the Wolverines, and Michigan’s recent struggles — in pretty much every facet of college football, from player safety to basic concepts of Public Relations 101 — are causing its fan base to wonder why in the hell they are paying to watch a train wreck.

As an Ohio State fan, I want to beat Michigan in every possible way — but as a person, I want to see the Wolverines take a licking because they are just doing things the wrong way.  The University of Michigan is a great institution, but it is one that has lost its way.  If it is risking player safety, through sheer ineptitude or for some other reason, it needs to reassess its priorities and and return to what it once was.  If its hated rival — namely, the Buckeyes — seize the college football attendance crown while Michigan dithers about canning an athletic director and a head football coach who are incompetent boobs, maybe that will help to convince the U of M Administration that it has lost its way.  That would be a good thing for Michigan, for the Big Ten, and for the world of college football in general.

If embarrassing the University of Michigan in yet another contest produces some good, it’s the least we can do.

Michigan Is A Mess

If you are an Ohio State football fan, you naturally pay attention to what is happening with That Team Up North.  If you’ve been doing that this year, you know it’s not a pretty picture.

Michigan football is a mess right now.

Three weeks ago the Wolverines were crushed by Notre Dame, 31-0, in the last currently scheduled game of a long and storied rivalry.  Last week they got pasted, at home, by Utah, 26-10.  And yesterday they were crushed — again at home — by Minnesota, 30-14.  Michigan now stands 2-3 for the season, and they haven’t even played any of the Big Ten’s power teams (to the extent that the Big Ten has any power teams this year, which admittedly is a very debatable proposition).

Michigan’s offensive statistics are abysmal.  They are 104th in the BCS in the points scored category and 108th in passing yards.  The fan base is up in arms, Michigan’s home sellout string is at risk, and there are rumors of growing discord in the locker room.  To make matters worse, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke seems overwhelmed, confused,  and absolutely clueless about how to fix the problems.  Yesterday Hoke continued to play a wobbly and apparently injured player, which causes some fans to wonder whether he’s paying attention and whether he’s really got the players’ best interests at heart.

Michigan’s woes have been going on for years, since the end of the Lloyd Carr era.  Two bad coaching hires, and resulting years of bad records and frustrating losses, have left a once-premier program teetering on the brink.  It just shows you how, in college football, the line between dominance and mediocrity is a thin one.  A bad hire, a few lean recruiting years, and any elite program could be suffering mighty Michigan’s embarrassing fate.

The Michigan Question

This week was a bye week for the Ohio State football team, so the Buckeye Nation had to wrestle with deeper, almost philosophical questions — like whether it is ever appropriate to root for Michigan.

Normally, the notion of supporting Michigan would be anathema to most Ohio State fans.  They despise the strutting Wolverines and everything they represent.  Asking purists Buckeyes to root for Michigan would be like asking Ted Cruz to do whatever he can to ensure that “Obamacare” is a great success.

This year, though, the issue is slightly different.  The Buckeyes have won every game, but they haven’t looked particularly impressive in doing so.  And their schedule is weak.  It’s apparent that the Big Ten, top to bottom, just isn’t that good this year, and if Ohio State hopes to play in the BCS championship game it needs some signature wins.  Pragmatists argued that if Michigan goes undefeated then Ohio State would gain credibility by beating them.

The debate between the pragmatists and the purists raged in Columbus this past week.  Alas, it was mooted by yesterday’s results, as the Penn State Nittany Lions beat the Michigan Wolverines in four overtimes, 43-40.  Now everything can go back to normal and Buckeye Nation can root for teams to beat the pants off Michigan every week.

Wondering If The Worm Has Turned

All in all, the last 10 years have been a pretty sweet ride for Ohio State football fans.  The team won a national championship, dominated the Big Ten, and repeatedly qualified for BCS bowl games.  Sure, there were two national championship game beatdowns mixed in with the good stuff, but for the most part the Jim Tressel era was high-flying time for Buckeye Nation.

We all remember, however, that this Era of Good Feeling started abruptly.  After years of gagging against Michigan and stumbling in bowl games under John Cooper, it seemed to take only one change — the hiring of Jim Tressel — to convert failure into glorious Buckeye success.  Suddenly, the team that couldn’t beat the Wolverines or win a bowl game began to routinely thrash the Team Up North and win BCS games against the toughest competition.

Now, change has come again to the Ohio State football program.  It is unwanted change.  Coach Tressel is gone in the wake of an NCAA investigation, players are suspended, and a new, young, interim coach in the person of Luke Fickell is at the helm.  In the meantime, change has come to the Michigan program, which also has a new head coach, and change has come to the Big Ten, which has added Nebraska and split into the pretentiously named Legends and Leaders divisions.  These are the kinds of changes that mark the beginnings and ends of eras.  Some pundits are predicting as much, by forecasting that the Ohio State Buckeyes will be mediocre this year, in the 7-5 or 8-4 range.

And so, Ohio State fans everywhere anxiously follow the news about the Buckeyes’ fall camp, and the competition to be the new starting quarterback, and the efforts to plug the other holes left by suspensions and graduations, and wonder:  has the worm turned once again?

Ya Think?

Former Michigan head football coach Rich Rodriguez has told CBS Sports that you could look back and conclude that his leaving West Virginia for Michigan was “a mistake.”

Rodriguez had been successful at WVU, which was his alma mater.  When he decided to leave for Michigan, he earned the everlasting enmity of Mountaineer fans and became embroiled in litigation about his departure.  At Michigan, he quickly made some gaffes that hurt his reputation and, of course, his record with Michigan was dismal — marked by blowout losses to archrival Ohio State, a pathetic record in the Big Ten, and a crushing defeat in the Wolverines’ bowl game this year.  Rodriguez became the whipping boy for a huge swath of Michigan fans and was drummed out of his job after only three seasons at the helm.

So yes, I think you could fairly say that Rodriguez’s decision to take the job at Michigan was “a mistake”– just like you could say that the captain of the Titanic made a “minor navigation error” and Marie Antoinette’s comment about eating cake was “ill-advised.”

The State Of Michigan (Football)

The University of Michigan Athletic Director, Dave Brandon, is facing a tough decision:  what to do about the Michigan football program and its coach, Rich Rodriguez.

Brandon is getting viewpoints from all sides. Rodriguez’s detractors cite his overall losing record during his three years at Michigan, its terrible Big Ten record during that same time period, and the team’s shockingly poor defense this year.  His supporters say that Rodriguez is bringing a new kind of football to Michigan, that the cupboard was bare when he arrived and he needs time to recruit athletes for his new system, and that the team’s success on offense this year shows Rodriguez’s system can and will work in the Big Ten.

If I were a Michigan fan, I’d be in the former category.  Three years is a long time in intercollegiate sports, and there really hasn’t been much progress.  Sure, Michigan’s offense was great this year, but as good as its offense was, its defense was even worse.  You simply cannot win football games in a major conference when you consistently allow opponents to score more than 30 points a game.  Rodriguez has shown no talent for coaching defensive football or being able to recruit or develop great defensive players.  Why would Michigan fans think the defensive side of the ball is going to be appreciably better in 2011?  And, as bad as Michigan’s defense was this year, it is going to take a night-and-day change to even bring the Michigan D back to minimal levels of respectability.

On the offensive side, Rodriguez’s scheme clearly has produced yards and points, especially this year.  He seems to recruit smaller, quicker players who can break big plays, which certainly happened this year.  It is fair to ask, however, whether such players can stand up to the pounding of a 12-game schedule when most of the games are against big-time schools.  Denard Robinson, as terrific as he was this season, missed lots of playing time with little injuries.  You also have to wonder how much of Michigan’s offensive output this year was due to Robinson’s exceptional play, rather than Rodriguez’s scheme.  When Robinson went out on Saturday and Tate Forcier came in, Michigan went from being a dangerous offensive team to a pretty ordinary one.

Finally, there are intangibles that should be considered.  Michigan is one of the most storied football programs in the country, rich with tradition and lore that helps to make Michigan Michigan, rather than some other school that has recently had a good run on the gridiron.  Does Rodriguez really “get” Michigan’s traditions?  And, speaking as an Ohio State fan who suffered through the John Cooper era, I would be leery about sticking with a coach who has gone 0-3 in his first three games against the school’s archrival when none of the games was particularly close.

Brandon has said he won’t make a decision on Rodriguez’s future until after Michigan’s bowl game.  I think it is wise to take some time for careful reflection.  It will be a big decision for a big-time program that has fallen on hard times.

Seven In A Row, And Counting

Yesterday, on a cold and blustery day in Columbus, the Ohio State Buckeyes pulverized the Michigan Wolverines, 37-7.  The win in The Game was the seventh in a row for Ohio State over its archrivals.

Buckeye bagpipers at French Field House

At Ohio Stadium it was a festive atmosphere from start to finish.  A troupe of bagpipers walked among the tailgaters at the French Field House lot playing Carmen Ohio.  Brutus rode by, hanging out of the window of a pickup truck and pumping up the raucous crowd.  Inside the Horseshoe the 105,000 fans also had their game faces on, heckling and booing the Michigan band, cheerleaders, fans, and anyone else who dared to wear maize and blue.

When the game finally began, Ohio State started slowly.  Michigan, on the other hand, moved the ball.  Then the Ohio State defense forced a crucial turnover, Ohio State finally broke through to score 10 points, and when Michigan answered with its one touchdown Jordan Hall broke Michigan’s back with a return for a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.  After that it was no contest.  The Buckeyes methodically ground up the Wolverines, forcing two more turnovers and pounding Michigan on the ground.  The only thing that kept the game even remotely close was the absurd refereeing, which punished college kids for making the “O” sign and negated Boom Herron’s brilliant 99-yard touchdown run with the worst downfield holding call in college football history.

The team and band sing Carmen Ohio after the win

Although Michigan has struggled this year, this nevertheless was an impressive win for the Buckeyes.  The offense did not play its best game, yet still Terrelle Pryor, Boom Herron, Dane Sanzenbacher, DeVier Posey, and their teammates scored 30 offensive points — and could easily have scored more if Coach Tressel had not called off the dogs in the fourth quarter.  The defense, on the other hand, played one of its best games.  It held the high-powered Michigan offense to its lowest point total of the season and pretty much shut down the Wolverines after they scored their lone touchdown.  The Buckeyes clearly wanted to contain Denard Robinson, and for the most part they succeeded.  When Robinson went out with an injury, every Buckeyes fan breathed a sigh of relief.  Although Tate Forcier is a decent quarterback, he is a much easier player to defend.

At the end, as we listened to the team sing Carmen Ohio and looked at the scoreboard memorializing a decisive victory over the Wolverines, it was a sweet moment.  Beating Michigan never gets old.

The Game, 2010 Edition

Tomorrow is The Game.  I’ll be there, sitting in the Horseshoe in Section 12A.  The game will have the traditional noon start and the weather will be crisp and cold, with highs in the 30s and lows in the 20s.

Other than the start time and the weather, I don’t think there is much that is predictable about this edition of The Game.  Michigan has a great offensive player in lightning quick QB Denard Robinson, who is rewriting the Michigan record books.  Robinson is easily the most explosive offensive player that Buckeyes will have faced so far this year.  With Robinson at the helm, the Wolverines have scored points in bunches.  Michigan’s offense will pose tremendous challenges for the Ohio State defense.  No team that has faced Michigan so far this year has shut down the offense, and I don’t expect the Buckeyes to do so, either.

On the other side of the ball, it is fair to say that the 2010 Michigan defense is not very good.  In fact, for those of us who grew up with the rivalry in the ’70s when Michigan always fielded a stout, hard-hitting defense, Michigan’s current defense is virtually unrecognizable.  The 2010 Wolverines have given up an average of more than 39 points per game in Big Ten play and have — statistically, at least — one of the worst defenses in college football.  In last week’s Michigan loss, Wisconsin ran the ball again, and again, and again, and Michigan simply could not stop them.  You have to think that Ohio State will be able to move the ball and put points on the board.

There is a lot to worry about in this game.  Teams that can score always have a shot at an upset; if Ohio State gets sloppy and puts the ball on the ground or wastes scoring opportunities, Michigan could get ahead and stay ahead.  Although Ohio State is a prohibitive favorite, this rivalry has seen lots of upsets over the years, and Michigan may be due.  The Wolverines have lost six in a row to the Buckeyes, and must be wondering whether a loss tomorrow would cost head coach Rich Rodriguez his job.  Let’s hope that this year isn’t the year the Wolverines break the streak.


Spare The Rod, Spoil The Program

I’ve posted before on the potential NCAA violations committed by the Michigan football program, which initially were reported by the Detroit Free Press.  Some nine months later, Michigan has now completed its “internal investigation” and admitted to certain violations.  It concluded that there was a breakdown in communications and it fired one staffer and reprimanded seven other people involved in the football program, including Head Coach Rich Rodriguez.  It also put itself on two years of probation (although not of the double-secret variety). The school clearly hopes that its self-administered punishment will cause the NCAA to refrain from imposing other tougher sanctions that further sully Michigan’s reputation. 

It’s hard to believe it took nine months for Michigan to figure out that there was a breakdown in communications, but it doesn’t surprise me that Michigan didn’t ultimately hold Rich Rod accountable for the failings in his program.  Michigan took a big risk in hiring Rodriguez rather than a “Michigan man,” and so far it has been an embarrassment and a disaster for one of the most storied, respected programs in college football.  The team has been terrible, players have transferred and raised questions about Rodriguez, and scandals like the Free Press articles seem to be lurking around every corner.

Let’s hope Michigan has fixed those communications breakdowns and established appropriate supervision over its football program, because Rodriguez surely understands that if the Wolverines don’t win this season he is gone.  Coaches whose jobs are hanging by a thread often are more attentive to wins than compliance.