Friday, November 29, 2019

Nothing's been the same since New York

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Iron Man 2 is still the better movie.  This is my most controversial MCU opinion. (Disney/Marvel Studios)

"Nothing's been the same since New York."

Perhaps because the holiday season is upon us, this simple expositional quote from Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 has been resonating in my head. Because the Michigan football version of this has been "Nothing's been the same since Bo died."

Let me unequivocally state before we go any further that this is not an effort to elicit pathos from the reader. Michigan fans know damn well no one will shed one tear for a program that has built its reputation and veritable mythos around being the leaders and best, the winningest, the very top of the heap. The Michigan man thing is mocked, and perhaps we could stand to be knocked down a peg, maybe that's true. Many Michigan fans are more than willing to laugh at themselves and the notions of what Michigan thinks it is, especially relative to what it is and has become.

But as Michigan fans also tend to be sentimental and romantic about the past, that day, November 17, 2006, is an easy thing to point to as defining. The moment when everything changed.

Ohio State does not get enough credit for it nationally. Still, the reality of the Buckeyes is simple: They never go fallow. Their "down years" are when they only win ten games.  Only one team since 2004 has failed to win double-digit games, the 2011 team interim coached by Luke Fickell, the season that led immediately to the hiring of Urban Meyer. Ohio State never misses a beat. There were those dreamers, and even realists, in the Michigan fan community that thought 2019 would be the year. New coach, even with the talent, you never know what could happen. Nope, Ohio State looks every bit the Big Ten juggernaut it has since the turn of the millennium, maybe even more so given their defensive improvement.

There are plenty of practical reasons why you can point to Ohio State's dominance in the rivalry this century, with nary an aspersion cast at OSU. You can look to their generally excellent recruiting year in and year out. You can cite tremendous player development during this time. You can credit a single-minded Cato the Elder-like devotion to destroying Michigan and salting the earth. You can look at the shifts in population trends in Michigan, Ohio, and the greater Midwest and how that impacts recruiting in this day and age. You can look at other factors that sound a bit whiny and cheap. In the end, it still comes down to a straightforward thing, Ohio State wins, Michigan loses.

Not to relitigate the past decade and a half of Michigan football, but I think the reason the sentimentalists old enough to remember even the Cooper-era Michigan upsets of OSU point to Bo's passing as the turning point is that nothing felt right for so long after. Bo "restored order" to use a simple shorthand. The 24-12 upset of what was considered to be one of the greatest Ohio State teams of all-time in 1969 did not begin an era of dominance but brought the rivalry into clear focus for so much of the nation of how good classic midwestern football can be. Nor did Michigan not have its share of hilarious to the outside heartaches during the Bo era, like, for instance, bowl games. But Bo, it can be argued, kept Michigan, the once-mighty Michigan, from fading into the recesses of history like say pre-2019 Minnesota. Bo begat Mo who begat Lloyd. There was a through-line. It was clear, it was understood.

But the untethering made moments that any program has in its history, those the tantalizing moments of something so close but then slipping away, seem like cuts so much more profound. Starting with Shawn Crable's hit on Troy Smith with just under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter of that 2006 game. Would things have turned out differently without it? We can never know, but all Michigan fans are left with are possibilities. The four-game losing streak that began on that day carried into the Rose Bowl, and then "The Horror" against Appalachian State and then the decimation by Dennis Dixon's Ducks. It felt so untethered and continued to drift. The Rodriguez era saw Michigan score just 24 points total in three years against OSU. The Hoke era beginning on that high note of false promise, eking out a victory over, as mentioned earlier, the interim coached Buckeyes and wildly celebrating because it had been gone so long. But then it was poor damn Devin Gardner's broken foot and still coming within a two-point conversion of a significant upset of an OSU team riding a 24-game winning streak (Fun fact: The S&P gap that year between OSU and Michigan was closer than this year.) But surely next year, when Gardner would go over to an injured J.T. Barrett and console him would bring some sense of order. No.

So, when Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, it felt like the moment. Here it was. A Michigan man in the mold of Bo, coming home with a lofty resume and an understanding of what it was going to take to get things back in shape. 2016 felt like it. #3 Michigan at #2 Ohio State. Ten years after that moment, here it was again, he was the closing of one chapter, the beginning of a new one. And lo, it was not to be. It's not about 4th and 1 and whether JT was short….[breathe]…it's the 3rd and 9 when Michigan's defense allows Barrett to scramble and complete an eight-yard pass after having him dead to rights and needing just one more play, a victory that would have propelled Michigan to Indianapolis for the first time. But no. The very next play, touchdown Ohio State, ball game.

Since that moment, it's easy to see how some fans would say it's become untethered again.  62-39 rings in the ears and echoes in the soul. A flawed Michigan team comes into the game this year, but perhaps not as flawed as it first appeared.  Since Jim Harbaugh declared at halftime of the Penn State game that this would be Michigan's finest hour, which at the time seemed laughable at best and potentially eye-rolling hubris at worst, it really kind of has been Michigan's finest hour this season.  They were inches away from tying the Penn State game late, and have rolled to significant wins over Notre Dame and Michigan State (admittedly, at home, where Jim Harbaugh does not seem to lose.  29-0 at Michigan Stadium against teams not named Michigan State or Ohio State, 1-4 to the Spartans and Buckeyes.) and a solid road win against the always pesky Hoosiers.  The offense finally looks like what was promised in the offense, speed in space, and the like.

A month ago, this moment seemed hopeless, resigned to another data point for a specific narrative.  It may still very well be just that.  But college football trades in hope.  There's a reason that Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown resonates with so many people, especially football fans.  It happens, and it happens, and it happens, but every time, every year, you tell yourself that it can be different, and it will be different.  Because hope is the necessary condition.  The sufficient condition may never arrive, but you have to start somewhere.

Go Blue.  Beat OSU.

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