The “Ten Year War” between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler trained college football fans to view the Big Ten in two dimensions. It was Ohio State vs. Michigan each fall — the Big Two and little eight.
This is better. As Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh get ready for their first clash in this great rivalry Saturday, the Big Ten resonates in 3-D now, at least. There’s a cold-blooded coach at Michigan State named Mark Dantonio who is every bit as good as Meyer and Harbaugh, if not better.
And if you’re a Big Ten West fan, Iowa is paving a whole new path of possibilities. Kirk Ferentz’s finely tuned team has taken advantage of a favorable schedule to crash the College Football Playoff discussion. The Hawkeyes will put their undefeated season on the line Friday, at Nebraska, before heading to the Big Ten title game against Michigan State, Ohio State or Michigan.
The buildup dissipated last week when Michigan State, playing without quarterback Connor Cook, stopped Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak on a last-second field goal.
Before that, the similarities to 1969 seemed almost eerie. Hayes had guided the Buckeyes to the 1968 national title and arrived in Ann Arbor the next fall with a 22-game winning streak, only to lose to a first-year Michigan coach named Schembechler.
That was the first of 10 meetings between Hayes and Schembechler, all with a Rose Bowl berth on the line. Michael Rosenberg’s book “War as They Knew It” brilliantly describes the Hayes and Schembechler personas, while putting the rivalry into the context of U.S. society, from 1969 to 1978.
You’re reminded, for example, of the close friendship between Hayes and President Nixon. Mike Lantry isn’t just the All-America kicker who missed crucial field goals in the 1973 and ’74 Ohio State games. He’s a Vietnam combat veteran, who had returned to witness the protest movements on the Michigan campus.
The 1973 game was a battle of undefeated teams and ended in a 10-10 tie. Harbaugh was 9, living in Ann Arbor, where his dad, Jack, was one of Schembechler’s assistants.
“It’s one of the greatest games I still have ever seen,” Harbaugh said. “So from there, it was something that I had to watch every year. It would be the best day … even better than Christmas.”
The stakes aren’t quite as high for Saturday’s 11 a.m., kickoff. The winner will still be alive, temporarily, in the Big Ten East race. Michigan State can clinch the division by winning at Penn State in a game that starts at 2:30 p.m.
Think about this: Michigan State didn’t lead Michigan or Ohio State until the very last play in both games. The Spartans returned a muffed punt for touchdown to beat Michigan and used Michael Geiger’s field goal to silence Columbus.
But as Dantonio noted, “We didn’t finish the Nebraska game,” referring to the Cornhuskers’ late touchdown in his team’s only loss.
Penn State has the potential to be another mighty Big Ten East program, but it’s unclear if James Franklin has the chops. Including his time at Vanderbilt, his teams are 0-18 against teams that have finished the season in the Top 25.
Dantonio, meanwhile, has led the Spartans to a 5-1 record against top-10 teams the past three years. Is a letdown possible this week? Sure, but Dantonio’s teams are 5-0 in games after those top-10 showdowns.
Harbaugh is the Big Ten’s new shining star. Meyer has won three national titles. Dantonio has shown capable of taking down both. And here comes Ferentz, with this season’s Cinderella.
This isn’t war. This is better.
• Urban Meyer let Ezekiel Elliott, above, off the hook for criticizing the play calling after Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State last week. “This will be an old story,” Meyer said. “If we find a way to win this game [against Michigan], I imagine we won’t be talking about this much longer.”
• Iowa sold out 70,585-seat Kinnick Stadium for six entire seasons ending in 2011, but interest was down entering this year. The Hawkeyes have had a storybook season, but the Gophers game was their only sellout among seven home games. With last week’s snowstorm in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes clinched the Big Ten West title against Purdue before an announced crowd of 62,920. Their average attendance was 63,142.
• Northwestern went 10-3 in 2012, reaching a bowl game for a fifth consecutive year. Pat Fitzgerald’s team suffered through back-to-back 5-7 seasons before bouncing back in a big way this season. The Wildcats are 9-2 heading into Saturday’s Illinois game, two wins from a school record. Northwestern is 7-0 this year in games decided by 10 or fewer points. The previous two years, the Wildcats were 3-9 in those games.
BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS
1. Iowa (11-0, 7-0): Eleven wins are the most in Hawkeyes history, matching the 11-2 seasons in 2002 and 2009.
2. Michigan State (10-1, 6-1): A win over Penn State would send the Spartans to third their Big Ten title game in six years.
3. Ohio State (10-1, 6-1): The defense is playing at a championship level. But the offense is surprisingly stagnant.
4. Michigan (9-2, 6-1): Jake Rudock is the first Michigan quarterback with three straight games of at least 250 yards passing.
5. Northwestern (9-2, 5-2): Pat Fitzgerald, after the Wisconsin win: “I don’t know who just won. What just happened?”
6. Wisconsin (8-3, 5-2): The Badgers average 138.2 rushing yards per game, down from a Big Ten best 320.1 last year.
7. Penn State (7-4, 4-3): The Nittany Lions gave up 10 tackles for loss, including four sacks, against Michigan.
8. Nebraska (5-6, 3-4): Tommy Armstrong Jr. has thrown 12 interceptions to go with his 21 touchdown passes.
9. Gophers (5-6, 2-5): KJ Maye averages 6.1 catches per game in Big Ten play, tied for second most in conference.
10. Illinois (5-6, 2-5): The Illini can still reach a bowl game with a win over Northwestern on Saturday at Soldier Field.
11. Indiana (5-6, 1-6): Hoosiers need to win the Old Oaken Bucket at Purdue for their first bowl bid since 2007.
12. Purdue (2-9, 1-6): The Boilermakers likely won’t have QB David Blough (concussion) for the Indiana game.
13. Rutgers (4-7, 1-6): Hard to focus on work with all the anticipation for Saturday’s Rutgers/Maryland tussle.
14. Maryland (2-9, 0-7): At least Terps fans have basketball season now. The football team has been an abomination.