Familiar rivals round out the top five in the latest Associated Press top 25 major college football rankings this week, as the Ohio State Buckeyes, and rival Michigan Wolverines check in at numbers four and five, respectively.
For Michigan, the college football program is ranked top-five nationally for the first time since pre-season polls in 2007. Of course, the Wolverines went on to lose their first game of the season that year at home against then Division I-AA Appalachian State, and had plummeted to #23 in the national polls by the time they lost to Ohio State in the ’07 regular season finale.
That 2007 pre-season top-five rank also came on the heels of The Game of the Century, a showdown between then top-ranked Ohio State and the second-ranked Wolverines in Columbus. The game was an instant classic, a 42-39 Buckeyes victory that punched Ohio State’s ticket to the national championship game.
For Michigan, little has been the same since.
Now on their third head coach since that 2006 slugfest with the Buckeyes, Jim Harbaugh appears to have his alma mater Wolverines on the cusp of seriously competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. And Michigan’s relevance as a national college football power is good for Ohio State, good for the Big Ten Conference and good for the sanctity of The Game.
Michigan has beaten Ohio State four times since 1999 (we’re being generous here as two of those wins occurred consecutively in 1999 and 2000.)
Since ‘99 Ohio State and Michigan each have been ranked in the top 25 on the last week of the regular season eight times. Though the Buckeyes and Wolverines were each ranked in the top 25 in five of six editions of The Game between 2002-2006, that has only twice been the case since 2007.
Fresh off its most lopsided victory in over 40 years, a 63-3 victory against Hawaii to kick-off this season, Michigan has again solidified itself as a legitimate contender for both conference and national championships.
Not to be outdone, the Buckeyes turned in a record-setting performance all their own racking up 10 offensive touchdowns and amassing 776 yards of total offense. Quarterback J.T. Barrett cemented himself in Heisman Trophy conversation, throwing for six touchdowns, rushing for another and accounting for nearly 400 all-purpose yards.
In the age of playoffs and a selection committee, obviously AP rankings don’t mean much, especially now with an entire regular season and about 10 other opponents targeting both the Buckeyes and Wolverines between now and Nov. 26.
Road games at Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan State are obvious hurdles. The Buckeyes also host Nebraska before Michigan makes its way into Ohio Stadium to conclude the regular season.
Likewise, Michigan plays Michigan State on the road, and also hosts Wisconsin. The Wolverines’ other big road test comes in the form of a Nov. 12 date at Iowa.
With four teams ranked currently in the top 15, the Big 10 is in the best shape as a credible major college football conference since, not coincidentally, the mid-2000s when the Buckeyes and Wolverines routinely were nationally ranked and generally on a collision course to determine a conference champion every year.
This year, unlike, say during the run-up to the magical national championship push in 2014, Buckeyes fans won’t feel like the team is playing to some unspoken handicap.
Such-and-such one-loss SEC team plays Alabama this week, how many points is Ohio State going to beat Rutgers by?
Two quality football coaches in Harbaugh and the Buckeyes’ Urban Meyer have helped to bring in a series blue chip recruiting classes capable of making an immediate impact. For Michigan, 16 scholarship freshman played Saturday against Hawaii, including running back Chris Evans who rushed for 112 yards and a TD in limited carries.
The old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” rings true here, but not as a justification for declaring that: My two favorite teams are Ohio State, whoever’s playing Michigan.
The enemy in this case isn’t Michigan, but an elitist national college football press in love with college football south of the Mason-Dixon line. The enemy here is a fear the College Football Playoff selection committee won’t offer as much consideration to a Big 10 team because half the conference can barely be taken seriously as major college football programs.
While it is generally OK to maintain a healthy level of disdain for the Buckeyes’ chief rival, it is important to remember that Ohio State’s national profile is elevated when they are beating quality competition, and a regular season finale against a top-five Michigan team is one last chance for Ohio State to bolster its playoff chances on the last week of the regular season.
In the words of fictitious French Nascar driver Jean Girard in the work of cinematic brilliance “Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby” God needs the Devil. The Beatles needed The Rolling Stones. Even Diane Sawyer needed Katie Couric.
Paraphrasing now: Jim Harbaugh, will you be Urban Meyer’s Katie Couric?