The Joke's on Hoke - This Year's Game Not Pivotal for Rivalry
By Tom Orr
One of the most unusual Ohio State football regular seasons in memory will end Saturday with the Buckeyes in an unusual position – out of the Big Ten title race, and a big underdog to archrival Michigan.
It also has the Buckeyes in an incredibly rare spot; playing the Wolverines with almost nothing to lose.
Sure, a loss would cost OSU fans a chance to watch the “Days Since Michigan’s last win over OSU” ticker roll past 3,000. Some third graders in Ohio would learn for the first time in their lifetimes that a Buckeye win over Michigan isn’t quite as automatic an autumn event as the changing of the leaves. It would also help salvage the way this season is remembered years or decades from now.
But in the more immediate future, Saturday’s result won’t meaningfully change the Buckeyes’ bowl destination one way or the other. It likely won’t change who’s in charge of the program next season, and contrary to the wishful thinking of many fans up north, it won’t meaningfully change the tide of the rivalry, either.
First-year coaches tend to do pretty well in The Game. Jim Tressel won in his first try. So did Lloyd Carr, Gary Moeller, Earle Bruce, Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes. Some of those guys went on to enjoy tremendous success in the series. Tressel went 9-1 (I’m happy to show Michigan fans highlights from last year’s game if they don’t believe it happened.) Hayes was 16-11-1. Moeller went 3-1-1.
Others just fared okay. For all the deification of Schembechler, he finished his career barely above .500 against the Buckeyes (11-9-1), and was 9-9-1 before his two matchups with John Cooper. Bruce was 5-4, Carr finished 6-7.
History indicates that it’s far more telling when a first-year coach loses The Game. Rich Rodriguez (0-3) and John Cooper (2-10-1) both lost their first tries, and then lost a whole bunch more after that.
In short, even setting aside the records of the teams, location of the game and relative trajectories of the programs this month, Brady Hoke should win Saturday. He’s supposed to win. If he does, history says he’ll probably hold his own in the series, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee long-term dominance. If he loses… well… that could be a problem.
Michigan is favored by more than a touchdown, they’ve got the game in their stadium, are fielding a more experienced team, with a more experienced head coach, a veteran quarterback and a two-deep that doesn’t feature 15 freshmen and sophomores on defense. They come in off two decisive wins, at Illinois and at home over Nebraska.
Ohio State, on the other hand, has experienced a whole lot of… unpleasantness… since Braxton Miller’s last-minute heave fell into Devin Smith’s arms against Wisconsin. Slow starts, sluggish offense, poor tackling, and crippling penalties have left the Buckeyes with two losses following a wholly unimpressive win against 1-10 Indiana.
These days, good news in Columbus has been limited to basketball, hockey (which just swept Michigan in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1986) and some very persistent rumors about a certain football coach with two national championship rings.
That last part makes this Saturday even more “must-win” game for Michigan than it appears.
Hoke, as beloved as he is now, was far from a universally-acclaimed choice earlier this year. Most of the reservations came from people who noticed that in eight seasons as a head coach, he hadn’t ever actually won anything meaningful.
Yes, there was that 2008 MAC West Division title at Ball State, and a Poinsettia Bowl win over Navy in a virtual home game in 2010. But there was a time that schools that fancied themselves national powers were knee-deep in resumes that included modest achievements like conference championships and trophies from bowl games played after Christmas Day. Hoke’s did not.
Since then, he has certainly bought himself some goodwill, thanks to OSU’s issues handing him temporarily-friendlier recruiting territory and the Big Ten office handing him a Penn State-less and Wisconsin-less schedule. A win Saturday would certainly be another big plus in the eyes of Michigan fans.
But even if they do win, after the fans channel their counterparts at Northwestern or Purdue and storm the field following a glorious triumph over a 6-6 team, it likely wouldn’t mean all that much long-term.
It’s not exactly a secret that Luke Fickell is unlikely to keep his job past this season. Also not a mystery: his likely replacement.
Assuming every media outlet this side of Al-Jazeera and the Cartoon Network is correct, the moment Urban Meyer walks into the WHAC, the situation changes. The uncertainty around the Buckeye program ends, recruiting returns to its normal levels and OSU implements an offense more nuanced than the one featured in Tecmo Super Bowl.
Brady Hoke goes from recruiting and coaching against a guy with no job security or experience in his position to doing so against a guy responsible for more national championships than Michigan has wins over OSU since 2003. And that’s still true, even if they win this weekend.
If the Buckeyes pull off the upset – and it happened in a very similar situation in 1987 – then Katie bar the door.
From day one, Hoke made it clear that beating the Buckeyes was his top priority. In his first press conference after being hired, he said, “It is the most important game on that schedule.”
If he can’t capitalize this year – at home against a reeling team with an unstable coaching situation and an almost laughably inexperienced roster – then what’s going to happen next year in Columbus against a more veteran team and a coach with a championship pedigree?
All the questions that lingered after Hoke’s introduction return immediately. The narrative shifts to how Michigan once again lost to both MSU and OSU. The “Ohio” thing gets a lot less cute. Another class of Michigan seniors graduates a la Hart, never beating the Buckeyes. Fans start wondering if perhaps he really is a combination of Glen Mason’s “okay, but not quite good enough to get us there” coaching ability and Jeff Garlin’s looks.
And then he gets to go out and explain to high school kids why he’s a better choice to coach them for four years than a guy whose players tend to leave school with rings and the occasional Heisman Trophy.
Perhaps he’ll find a niche recruiting kids with metal allergies.
Brady Hoke can certainly make a lot of Michigan fans happy on Saturday, but he can’t definitively turn the tide of the rivalry. He can however, in three hours, deal a crippling blow to all the momentum and goodwill he has spent a full year building.
He’s got a little to gain, but a lot to lose.
Related Story - Meyer Says He Would Have to Consider OSU Job if it is Available.