Michigan football is desperate.
I know that traditionally in the week leading up to The Game, it's de rigueur for college football internet opinion-havers like myself to wax poetic about sports and life and whatever. We sling crap and make jokes for the entire rest of the season, but for one week a year we get very serious indeed to make sure that everyone understands the gravity of the rivalry in a sociocultural sense, stretching back over time and space as it has for well over a hundred years now. An invisible thread that goes past you, and your dad, and his mom, and her family, and... well, actually that's probably as far back as it goes.
At its most base level, this is just football. It has meaning, but that meaning only exists to the extent that we're willing to ascribe meaning to it (Ohio State's rivalry with Illinois has just as much history as its rivalry with Michigan, for example, but years of the Illini being terrible has led to me and J.T. Barrett being evidently the last people alive who really love that damn wooden turtle).
Which is just a fancy way of saying that one of the neat things about The Game is that it kind of serves as a mental barometer for how the respective fanbases are doing at the moment.
So you know how I know that Michigan football is collectively on their heels?
This past weekend, Michigan won its 1000th game as a program, beating Maryland 31-24 in a sort-of nail biter. They are, as far as anybody can tell, the first organized football program to do this anywhere ever. And normally this would be absolute manna from heaven for Michigan writers and fans. Pretending to have a deeply emotional connection to wins against local beer league teams in 1881 is a huge part of the Michigan Man brand, so you'd think that the internet would be flooded with Wolverines going on and on and on about what Michigan football means to the sporting world at large and how we should all be grateful they exist and whatever.
Not this week! Instead of an avalanche of tepid retrospectives about Fielding Yost's bowel movements, what I see right now is a giant bundle of nerves from a fanbase humbled by their coach being "suspended" and just waiting for the other shoe to drop (the university has done some admittedly cool things to commemorate the milestone).
And hey, Ohio State's been there; I had to write (a lot) about Tattoogate and the Zach Smith scandals as they developed, and it sucked. It's just not a fun place to be as a program.
Especially when you know, despite a weeks-long temper tantrum from fans, writers, players, coaches, and administrators, that you deserve what might be coming next.
THE ABSOLUTE STATE OF MICHIGAN FOOTBALL
In this season's first edition of the Threat Level, I asked if Michigan football should be allowed to exist.
I listed the various scandals and misdeeds by Harbaugh and company, of which there are many, going back to just a few seasons ago. I was kidding, of course: lying to the NCAA and hiring idiots and felons isn't a reason to completely disband a football team, despite what Michigan fans themselves have been saying for the past couple of decades.
But then you throw cheating and an honest-to-God FBI investigation on to the pile, and... hell, I don't know! Maybe Michigan football really shouldn't be allowed to exist! Is that institution being controlled right now? How many creeps have to be hired, how many rules have to be broken, how many boosters have to have their thumbs in the pie before it kind of looks like the Wolverines are just using their ill-gotten veneer of respectability to do whatever the hell they want?
As a side note, another funny thing about the last month is that Ohio State, ostensibly the Goofus to Michigan's Gallant, is currently obsessive about keeping its nose clean as an institution. Not because (as the Wolverines would claim about themselves) that OSU is some paragon of virtue, but because it has screwed up often enough to not want to keep doing damage to its brand.
It's entirely possible that the Buckeyes are doing something incredibly shady and stupid this very second, but the posture that Ohio State takes when something like that gets discovered is that nobody is above the brand. If you do something that damages said brand, they'll burn your house down.
Which is why it's been so weird watching Michigan circle the wagons this hard for an offense that could've been laughed at and forgotten in a couple of weeks if they had just rolled with the punches. Harbaugh is suspended and linebackers coach Chris Partridge has been fired because instead of just shrugging their shoulders and owning up to it, Michigan stamped their feet and pouted and complained and filed restraining orders and allegedly destroyed computer evidence in the face of overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing.
It's as if institutionally they had been huffing their own farts for so long that they genuinely couldn't accept the idea that someone really did screw up. And if you can't believe that you're even capable of screwing up, then suddenly every action you take can be justified with the same flimsy defense you started with.
CONNOR STALIONS DRAMATIC REENACTMENT OF THE WEEK
I haven't talked about actual football at all yet, so I might as well get this out of the way: I think Michigan is going to win on Saturday. It won't be because they're cheating (that we know about); instead it'll probably be because J.J. McCarthy has a 55 yard scramble sometime in the 3rd quarter of a tied game that makes us tear our hair out.
I've maintained from the beginning of this whole fiasco that, in principle, I don't really care that much about Michigan breaking a rule that everyone else has spent a ton of time and energy bending as far as possible. However, I've also maintained that the most important thing to remember here is that everything about Michigan's sign-stealing scandal, from the name of the guy who did it, to him going incognito to spy on the sidelines of another team, to a mysterious benefactor who goes by "Uncle T", to a vacuum repair business somehow being a big deal, to the possibility of a Michigan employee defrauding a star player, everything... is very, very funny.
Michigan football today pic.twitter.com/mg1RLpkqKM— ajs (@ajsstormchaser) November 17, 2023
Remember, this is a school that spent a week shirtless and belligerent, challenging Tony Petitti to a legal cage match and threatening to leave the Big Ten, before rolling up like a cheap carpet when confronted with evidence of what they had done. This is objectively hilarious!
So the best part is that even if Michigan is victorious on Saturday, there is no possible way, none whatsoever, that anything that happens on the field will be able to make people forget about the entire-ass month Michigan was the laughingstock of college football.
Unless Ohio State goes ahead and does the funniest thing possible and actually wins. Here's hoping that next week the Threat Level is a little less SEVERE.