Sympathy for the Devil

By Ramzy Nasrallah on February 14, 2018 at 1:05 pm
Sep 16, 2017; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh high five with fans after defeating the Air Force Falcons at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Original: © Rick Osentoski | USAT Sports

Last week the only Big Ten team to lose a bowl game signed the 3rd-best recruiting class in its division.

Seven teams make up the B1G East, and the winningest program of all time is one of them. Maybe you care about this, maybe you don't, maybe you referred to the 247 composite rankings and noticed there was as much space between Ohio State and Michigan in terms of 2018 recruit grade quality as there is between Michigan and the triumvirate of Arkansas State, Southern Methodist and Bowling Green.

Maybe that will eventually matter. Remember this is a sport that operates entirely on wistful maybes eight months out of every year. During its active four months a precious few of them get converted.

The Wolverines still signed a top 20 class nationally, which would produce a celebration for the majority of non-winningest programs of all time. It features a dozen 3-star recruits, which is as many as the Buckeyes have signed over their past three classes combined. But stars are merely indicators, not guarantees. Results and track record are better references, which unfortunately for Michigan haven't been a differentiator for awhile.

Signing Day wasn't much of a celebration in Ann Arbor. The local team lost its top recruit, 5-star Otis Reese to Georgia that day after he had been committed for a year and a half. Reese had no plans to be in Ann Arbor during Michigan's monster recruiting weekend when Ohio State visited last November, but here's what became of the recruits who did:

Eyabi Anoma Yes Alabama
Michael Barrett Canceled Michigan, over App State, UCF, East Carolina and Georgia Southern
Ja’Marr Chase  Yes LSU
Kevin Doyle Yes Decommitted from Michigan to sign with Arizona. Also visited for MSU game.
Sammy Faustin Yes Michigan (already committed)
Tyler Friday Yes Ohio State
Talanoa Hufanga Yes Southern Cal
Aidan Hutchinson Yes Michigan (already committed)
Jalen Mayfield Yes Michigan (already committed)
Alim McNeill Yes NC State
Joe Milton Yes Michigan (already committed)
Jake Moody Yes Michigan (non-scholarship K)
Jayson Oweh  Yes Penn State
Nicholas Petit-Frere Yes Ohio State
Mychale Salahuddin Canceled Pitt
Rick Sandidge Canceled South Carolina
Alexander Segerfeldt Yes  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ google says he's a wide receiver from Sweden?
Myles Sims  Yes Michigan (already committed)
Leonard Taylor Canceled Cincinnati. Decommitted from Michigan in 2016.
Tommy Tremble Yes Notre Dame
Taylor Upshaw Yes Michigan. Committed the day before The Game; Florida flip.

Michigan landed one and lost one from that massive list, despite having everything to offer. Super Bowl celebrity coach. World class institution. America's biggest stadium. Winningest program ever, with a Secretariat-length lead on everyone else. Objectively lovely college town (hate is an effective blindfold). Iconic helmet. Plenty of opportunity along the current roster to contribute early.

And net zero commitments, only if you include a guy who wasn't able to make it to campus that weekend. Ohio State landed more uncommitted players from Michigan's giant visitor list than Michigan did.

It didn't net any commitments from its rivalry game with Michigan State in 2017 either, which was a miserable rainy experience not to mention another non-win for the home team. But it's simplistic to tie the outcome of a game to commitment probability; high school recruits take Ls all the time. Matt Burrell, Demario McCall, Nick Bosa and Jonathan Cooper all visited Columbus for the Virginia Tech game as uncommitted prospects in 2014. They all came back and stayed longer.

touchdown Andre Weathers
Ohio State handed Michigan the 1997 Big Ten title.

Michigan should be better than this. Uninvested non-stakeholders disparage what's become of the rivalry with Ohio State, how being mired where it is has negatively impacted the prestige of the conference (there are people outside of the Big Ten offices who actually care about this, for free) or how a strong Michigan is good for college football.

It might feel virtuous to say or think things like that, but that doesn't make them true. Michigan could be underwhelming forever. College football would be fine with it.

Ohio State will measure itself against Michigan's superior ghosts whenever the current form isn't a strong enough analog, because that's how rivals operate. The rivalry will be passed down, intact, by fans and coaches. It doesn't need recruiting classes or competitiveness to maintain the animus that makes it so great. Michigan's struggle to recapture tradition is its current tradition.

Embrace it. Your empathy is wasted. Gratitude is more appropriate.

The sport's greatest enemy is brain damage, followed by the football industrial complex, the media distribution bubble, the tenuous state of amateurism in a billion-dollar business and threats from tax legislation impacting donations to programs. The team of the 1940s failing to return to its past glory is not on the threats list.

College football survived Minnesota, Pitt, Arkansas and Miami fading. It got over Chicago's exit, Princeton, Army, Navy, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Harvard and Yale (that's your 2nd winningest football program of all time, by the way) taking a step back. Michigan consistently being in the middle of its own division is beyond survivable, it's preferred. Let's enjoy and sustain it, however possible.

Last week's Signing Day was merely an indicator of that sustainability. It's not a guarantee. This is why maybes thrive whenever stadiums are empty.

If the current Wolverines are going to be better than they have been for awhile, their 2018 class will need to overachieve while Ohio State's and Penn State's, both ranked significantly higher, will have to underachieve. And that very well could happen. The Buckeyes had significantly better recruits than the Iowa Hawkeyes did last season and lost by 31 points, if you hadn't heard. Maybes have been known to roost on occasion during their four-month offseason. They just haven't for the Wolverines in awhile.

Michigan could be underwhelming forever. College football would be fine with that.

But waiting for Michigan to permanently re-emerge both regionally and nationally is almost a teenager now. The worst year in program history has its 10-year anniversary this fall, and there's been little to no recourse for the lumps it has taken trying to figure out what it should become in the post-Carr era. Michigan has cycled through leadership, chaos, controversy and coaches. The only consistency has been disappointment.

We've been there before. I've been there - I spent my formative years there. It's their turn to agonize over close losses and whatabout single-frame nightmares like The Spot, Josh Metellus dropping gimme interception right before J.T. Barrett's first touchdown, injuries at the worst possible positions, shitty position coaches, anything that provides a glimmer in the darkness.

I grew up whatabouting everything from John Kolesar to Desmond Howard to Greg Frey Running the Option on 4th down to Terry Glenn's Comment Being Taken out of Context to The Slip to Stan Jackson Just Taking the Fucking Sack Instead of Handing Andre Weathers the Deciding Points to whatever I could cling to that transformed Michigan's command of the rivalry into something correctable, self-inflicted or controlled by the cosmos rather than inherent superiority. 

Ohio State went six years without winning The Game, whether it was less talented, equally talented or more talented than Michigan was. That era was built entirely on wistful, unfulfilled maybes. When that drought finally ended we thought that was it. John Cooper was carried out onto the field as the seconds ticked away from the 1994 game, which produced the rivalry's most conspicuous omen to date:


Coop's next three teams - all ranked in the top five - would lose their Michigan games in succession.

Nothing changes in a single season or game, despite how we look back so fondly on Jim Tressel's introductory speech at Ohio State. It took years to re-establish and change course. Michigan has more than established what it is over the past decade, which is a wistful reminder of what once was. It's been chasing maybes ever since Lloyd checked out.

Coop's 1994 team turned the corner and promptly ran smack into another corner. Michigan in 2018 has every instrument necessary to pull off what Ohio State did in the 1990s, from cultivating a resurgence in talent to agonizing flirtations with greatness. Maybe its 2018 class can lead the change. Maybe Ohio State, Penn State and Wolverines' counterparts in the B1G East's midsection will maintain the status quo.

And maybe Michigan will just continue to be a year away from being Michigan again.

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