Saturday, August 18, 2012

Michigan's Most Important Game In 2012

Before writing this article, I took a long look over the schedule and thought about the impact each game could have on both this season and the future.  I say this because there are some pretty big differences between a game’s impact on this season and its impact on the future.  A win that may seem huge at the time may turn out to be much smaller than originally thought and the reverse scenario can be true as well.  To explain what I mean, I will go through a couple examples.

Flash back to 2009.  Two key games of the season were Notre Dame and Illinois.  When Michigan played Notre Dame and upset the Irish, Notre Dame was ranked and the win appeared to be the one that would put Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan on the map.  Without a doubt, Michigan was one of the stories of the nation after the win and actually ended up ranked.  However, the 2009 win over Notre Dame looked pretty unimpressive when Notre Dame flopped the rest of the year and Michigan ended up going 5-7 overall and failed to make a bowl game for the second straight season.  The win was huge for the season and the team, but had little, if any, impact on Michigan’s long-term program.

The Notre Dame game is a perfect example of a game that has an enormous impact on a season, but little to no impact on the program’s long-term success.  Michigan’s 2009 match-up with Illinois gives us a perfect example of the opposite scenario.  The game would have given Michigan a bowl berth and would have helped to stop the late season slide, but the impact of the loss was much deeper than originally believed at the time.  Some, including John Bacon, who wrote Three and Out, identify this as the game that was the continental divide of the Rich Rod era.  After this loss, Rich Rod’s tenure at Michigan officially started coming to a close.  Both because of the devastating effects it had on the 2009 season, but also because of the pressure it put on the 2010 season.  The game alone didn’t do it, but it was the “straw” that broke the back of Rich Rod’s coaching tenure at Michigan.

This brings us back to Michigan’s 2012 schedule.   Obviously, a few games jump off the sheet, but this alone will not determine the game or games that have the biggest impact on this season and the program.  In fact, as we just discussed, some of the smaller games like Illinois could end up being the most important games.  Along with this, we have to specify the aspect we are discussing before we can identify the “most important” game for 2012.  For instance, a win over the Spartans may be the most important to the fans because of the losses over the last four years, but a win over Nick Saban could do the most to put Michigan on the national map.  Considering this, I’ve selected two games from Michigan’s 2012 schedule.  The one I believe is most important for the 2012 season and Team 133 and the one I believe is most important for the Michigan program in the long-term.

Most Important Game For Team 133 – Michigan State
 There are a multitude of reasons one could pick this game as the most important for this season.  You could look at the four straight losses Michigan has suffered to MSU, the likely performance by the Spartans in Big Ten play, and the fact that this game could likely determine the Bo (Legends) Division.  All of these reasons would be valid, but I think the most important aspects of this game deal with the likely implications on the Big Ten race and more specifically, the Bo Division.

Michigan has not won a Big Ten Championship since 2004 and even then, it was a shared title.  Needless to say, winning the Big Ten is one of the most important goals for this season.  Hoke, the staff, and players constantly say that the goals of the team every year are to win the Big Ten and “Beat Ohio”, but I think with the current situation, the first goal is more important this year.  Yes, Michigan is just 1 year removed from a 7 year losing streak to the Buckeyes and nobody is eager to start another one, but if there was ever a year to win the Big Ten and lose to Ohio State, it’s this year.  OSU is banned from both the Big Ten Championship and a bowl game.  Even if the Buckeyes were able to beat Michigan, I’m not sure if it would be enough to recover from those bans.  Granted, Michigan fans will want the team to achieve both of these goals, but with the current situation, I think the Big Ten title is the biggest goal for next year.

In terms of the Bo Division, it seems to be a virtual lock that Michigan, MSU, or Nebraska will win the division.  Yes, a team like Iowa or Northwestern could make a decent run, but given what they will be returning, odds are pretty low that either will do anything significant.  That leaves us with three teams.  Yes, there is a chance Nebraska could make some noise, but given the major question marks for their team, some difficult Big Ten games including Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State, and the fact that they were killed by Michigan last year and have to face MSU on the road this year makes it look pretty difficult for Nebraska to win the division.  Of course they can, but for me at least, it will be a race between Michigan and MSU for the Bo Division title.

The title won’t be decided in a single game, but this game will undeniably have the biggest impact if Michigan and MSU finish 1st and 2nd in the division, which many are predicting at this point.  Along with this, in my recent list of Michigan’s 5 toughest games on the schedule, this is the only game that will occur in the Big House, which means it’s a “must win” if Michigan wants to do anything significant this year.  A loss could also devastate a Spartan team led by some inexperienced players.  There’s no way to guarantee that this is the game that will decide the Bo Division, but looking at the schedule right now, it sure seems likely.

I also considered the Alabama and Ohio State games as the most important game for this season, but because of other factors, I selected MSU.  A win over Alabama would be huge and would immediately vault Michigan into the top 5 in the country and perhaps even higher, but with Michigan’s tough schedule down the stretch, I’m not sure if the Wolverines could really do a ton with the momentum.  Perhaps Michigan could win a few of the difficult road games, but Michigan would have to win just every game to get into national title contention, which seems unlikely.  Even if they lose, they would still be in play for a BCS berth, so a loss here isn’t devastating.  Ohio State is always going to be “The Game”, but the fact that they are suspended from postseason play and lost to Michigan last year does remove a tad bit of the intensity to win.  At least enough for me to put MSU as #1 for this year.

Most Important Game For The Program – Ohio State
This one was a lot tougher for me.  I considered the same three games that I considered above; MSU, Alabama, and OSU.  Breaking the losing streak against the Spartans, going to Indy for the Big Ten title game, a potential Big Ten title, and a potential bid to the Rose Bowl would be monumental for a program coming out of the Rich Rod years.  Similarly, a win over the Crimson Tide would vault Michigan into the national scene and into national title talks.  On top of this, Michigan hasn’t beaten a team like Alabama in quite some time.  Yes, they beat some tough teams recently, but there’s a difference between a good team and a great team and Alabama is certainly a great team.  Despite all of these considerations, I had to select the Buckeyes.

“The Game” is always going to be “The Game”, but that alone isn’t the reason to pick this game as the most important for the program in the long-term.  Michigan hasn’t had a winning streak against Ohio State since 2000, hasn’t won in Columbus since then either, and most importantly, doesn’t want Urban Meyer to get rolling and start another streak against the Wolverines.  A loss to the Spartans would be pretty painful in 2012.  A 5th straight loss, the likely removal from the Big Ten title race, and what might bother people the most, the Spartans would have a great chance at going to Pasadena to break their 24 year Rose Bowl-less streak.  A loss to Alabama, although expected by many, would also be pretty painful because of the negative national perception and coverage.  However, neither of these would have a ton of impact down the line.  It would help legitimize MSU, especially if they go to the Rose Bowl, but it’s not going to pull Michigan down that much.  Most still believe it’s only a matter of time before Michigan’s massive recruiting success catches up with the Spartans anyway.  Alabama is also already expected to beat Michigan, so losing isn’t going to hurt Michigan too much in the long-term. 

A loss to Ohio State would also hurt now, but would almost be a guarantee to hurt in the future.  If there’s one thing Michigan fans want to prevent, it’s the successful start of a new tenure with Urban Meyer.  He’s already shown that when his programs are running successfully, the teams are absolutely deadly.  His record is incredible, he’s been to BCS bowls, and has won two national titles.  Even though he can’t go to a bowl game, if the Buckeyes can get a good record and beat Michigan in year one of Urban Meyer, watch out.  Not only will it give the team momentum, but it’s going to help them on the recruiting trail too, where they have been fiercely battling the Wolverines.  Giving Urban Meyer more and better recruits isn’t going to guarantee he wins more, but it’s certainly going to help, especially if he’s taking recruits from Michigan.

A win over the Buckeyes could also do some massive damage in Columbus.  If Ohio State doesn’t start 2012 hot and falls in the Michigan game, doubts could start about Urban Meyer.  It’s pretty unlikely they would lead to anything major, but it could impact things like recruiting and the general morale of the players and program.  With the sanctions against OSU already there, this situation could give Michigan a tremendous advantage over the next few years.  Winning this year’s OSU game isn’t essential to keeping the rivalry competitive, but it could be the game that swings the balance one way or the other.  This is easily the most important game on a consistent basis and making sure Michigan can stay relevant in the same is essential to the program’s health.  This is why this is the most important game for the program’s health.

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