The 2023 meeting will be the last time this truly is The Game.
Oh yeah, they are going to keep playing every year.
The animosity will still be there, especially between the fans, and the desire to win won’t be decreased.
But starting in 2024, Ohio State-Michigan will be more of a game than the game because of the Big Ten’s decision to drop divisions beginning next season. That means the top two teams in the standings will play in the conference title game rather than the best in the East against the best in the West so seasons such as this one would match up the Buckeyes and Wolverines again next week no matter what happens Saturday.
Will OSU-Michigan still be big? Sure. Probably still bigger than the rest even — but not like the first 119, or at least the last 88.
Expansion of the Big Ten and the College Football Playoff will water down every elite team’s regular season, but no college football tradition will be hurt worse than big regular season games.
And since at least the late 1960s, Ohio State-Michigan has been the biggest of those not only because it draws the biggest ratings and has the most hype but mostly because of what is usually on the line when they close the regular season against each other.
According to research by the Michigan Department of Athletics, at least a share of the conference championship (or division title) has been on the line 49 times since the teams began playing the last regular season game of the season annually in 1935.
That includes 24 times they decided the Big Ten championship between themselves before the conference went to divisions in 2011.
So that is 24 times The Game was the Big Ten championship game before there was one and another 25 the outcome had a direct impact on whether or not one of the teams had a successful season or not.
According to my research, the teams would have played 24 immediate rematches if the Big Ten’s future format had been in place since 1935, and at least 14 of those times they would have already known there would be a rematch regardless of the winner, including this year.
This season would make three in a row when instead of winner take all, The Game would be … winner take nothing.
That also would have happened in 2006 when the teams were ranked No. 1 and 2 for the first and so far only time, and eight times during the “10-Year War” of 1969-78 when the drama generated by coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler facing each other took the rivalry to new heights.
If you don’t think that’s a big deal, hey, think harder.
If you are tempted to say, “Oh well, time marches on. Change is inevitable…” Well, none of the coming changes are going to benefit Ohio State or Michigan — or make the Big Ten or college football better for the average fan for that matter.
The only thing worse than sacrificing tradition is giving it away for nothing, which is what is about to happen.
Yeah, bragging rights will still be on the line, though I guess if one team only gets to keep them for a week or a month that’s not really the same, is it?
Each side will still savor every win, and I don’t think you’ll see them resting starters like NFL teams in the last week or two of the regular season.
But the stakes are what made Ohio State-Michigan the greatest rivalry in all of sports.
Every rivalry has drama and disdain.
They all have nastiness and a shared history.
But the ones that are played in September or October don’t have the same immediate consequences so the stakes can’t be as high.
The season-ruining aspect is what made Ohio State-Michigan what it is.
Every year. Once. Usually for a conference title. Often for more. That is what Buckeyes vs. Wolverines is all about.
The Game used to ruin Thanksgiving for one whole state before they moved it back a week.
The Game still hangs over a team and its fans for 52 weeks, something that comes up during the NFL Draft, spring football and summer recruiting along with, you know, every other time fans of each side interact.
In the future, I don’t think Ohio State and Michigan will play back to back every season or close to it, but once is too many.
So savor this last Ohio State-Michigan game for all the marbles because Saturday marks the end of an era.