I read Duane Long’s post about the perfect storm hitting Ohio State football with some interest. I don't share Long’s positive view of Hoke’s ability to reinvigorate Michigan football, but this paragraph struck me as interesting:
Back in January I did a blog about the rivalry being back. That the hiring of a true Michigan man, and a fine coach, in Brady Hoke would reignite the greatest rivalry in American sport. As usual, Buckeye fans dismissed it. That happens a lot when fans don't want to hear something.
Reignite, eh? That verb implies that the fire has gone out of the rivalry as Michigan has circled the drain since the 2006 #1 versus #2 game. And that’s when it occurred to me: Alabama-Auburn has surpassed Michigan-Ohio State. I don’t see how anyone can claim with a straight face that Michigan-Ohio State is the best rivalry in college football right now, let alone in all of American sports.
Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-Auburn are similar in lots of ways. There is great history for the games. Anytime something major happens in the game, fans from both sides can usually recall a similar situation in a game in the past. Both rivalries have a fixed spot on the calendar: the last regular season game. Both rivalries feature a good amount of antipathy between the fan bases, with rampant stereotyping to make things saucy (although Alabama-Auburn truly goes the extra mile into Celtic-Rangers territory).
The one factor that always gave Michigan-Ohio State an edge was that the stakes were usually higher. Throughout the years, conference titles were more often at issue for one or both teams in the Michigan-Ohio State game. To use another footie analogy, Michigan-Ohio State was Barca-Real because the two teams dominated their league, whereas Alabama-Auburn was Liverpool-Manchester United, a top rivalry that suffered a little bit because it took place in a deeper league. With Michigan’s decline and Auburn’s rise, this is no longer the case. Alabama and Auburn have won the last two national titles. Their last two games have been classics. Meanwhile, Michigan hasn’t been in the national title picture since 2006 or the Big Ten title picture since 2007. Moreover, with a dark cloud hanging over the Ohio State program, it’s possible that the Bucks will be joining Michigan on the sidewalk as the parade goes by.
The other comment by Long that bears scrutiny is the concept that Michigan will be back because Dave Brandon hired a “Michigan Man.” Again, this concept annoys me. Why is Alabama-Auburn so hot right now? Because Alabama hired Nick Saban, who had no connection to the school before he took the head coaching position, and Auburn hired Gus Malzahn, who not only had no connection to Auburn, but also represented a repudiation of Auburn’s traditional offensive approach.
The South has a reputation for being provincial, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the hiring decisions made by Alabama and Auburn, as opposed to Michigan. Michigan overreacted to a good decision that had bad consequences (hiring Rich Rodriguez) by elevating program ties over all other criteria in its coaching search. That’s not how Alabama and Auburn won national titles, not to mention LSU and Florida, both of which hired head coaches who had no prior ties to those schools. There’s no doubt that the Rodriguez disaster took the sheen off of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry and denied advocates of the rivalry their best argument in distinguishing it from Auburn Alabama. That said, if the lesson that Michigan and Ohio State take is Ausländer Raus!, then the rivalry will remain second fiddle to Alabama-Auburn.