CHICAGO – No current player on Michigan’s football team has ever won a game against Ohio State.
Going into the 2018 season, Ohio State has won six straight games against Michigan – every game in the annual rivalry since Urban Meyer became Ohio State’s coach, and each of the first three since Jim Harbaugh became Michigan’s coach – with the Wolverines’ last win over the Buckeyes coming in 2011.
Combine that with the fact that Michigan has also struggled against its other rival, Michigan State – losing four of its last five and eight of its last 10 games against the Spartans, including a 14-10 loss in 2017 – and Harbaugh and the Wolverines’ three players who met with reporters at Big Ten Media Days earlier this week faced a barrage of questions about their lack of success in their biggest games of the year.
Although they were sick of hearing those questions by the end of the day Monday, they understood why they were hearing them.
"It’s our fault, we’re not winning the games," said Michigan safety Tyree Kinnel. "You don’t do something, you’ll get told about it. So I mean, it can get annoying at times … but at the end of the day, if you don’t want to hear that, you got to go out and win. And that’s what we want to do. We want to go out and beat them, and then we can start talking about them not beating Michigan."
While Harbaugh’s Wolverines haven’t been bad teams – winning 10 games in each of his first two seasons in Ann Arbor, before going 8-5 last season – they haven’t lived up to the expectations that come with being one of college football’s most storied programs. They have yet to contend for a conference championship – in fact, Michigan still hasn’t made a single Big Ten Championship Game appearance since the conference became divisional in 2011 – but perhaps even more problematically, they haven’t been able to win a game against the Buckeyes.
Fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich is among those who feels pressure to end both of those droughts this season.
"We’re not shying away from the fact that we’ve really struggled against our rivals," Winovich said. "We have a standard, and we’re not at that standard. I personally feel a lot of pressure, and I think our team feels pressure about that too."
Kinnel, a native of Huber Heights, Ohio, says he feels added pressure to beat the Buckeyes as a native of the Buckeye State.
"Obviously I would be lying if I said there was no pressure, because we haven’t beaten them in awhile," Kinnel said. "So it definitely gets to you after awhile, knowing you haven’t beat them in a long time, especially me personally, being from Ohio. So I mean, that’s the game I want. That’s the game I want to win. It’s always in the back of my mind throughout the season."
“We’re not shying away from the fact that we’ve really struggled against our rivals.”– Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich
Harbaugh – who perhaps faces as much pressure to perform as any coach in the Big Ten entering the 2018 season – did not give a direct answer when asked whether he feels pressure to beat Ohio State, and for that matter Michigan State, this year. He did say, though, that he feels his team needs to get better, and if it does, he believes that will make them a title contender.
"We need to improve," Harbaugh said. "And that’ll lead to success, it’ll lead to championships. It’s that simple."
Although the Wolverines haven’t even won a Big Ten championship since 2004, they’re nonetheless setting their goals high for the upcoming season.
Senior running back Karan Higdon said earlier this month that he has a "national championship or bust" mindset going into this season, and he didn’t back down from that expectation on Monday.
"That’s accurate," Higdon said. "That’s how I feel. You got to shoot for that. Why not? It’s either all or nothing. So if you’re not going to go for it all, why are you doing it in the first place?"
It might sound ridiculous for the Wolverines to be talking about trying to win a national title when they haven’t even been able to win a division title. Winovich, though, said he believes the pieces are in place for this year to be one of Michigan’s best opportunities to compete for a title.
"If we don’t win a national championship, I think it will be a disappointment, because that’s just our mentality," Winovich said. "We return basically everybody on defense except for (defensive tackle) Mo Hurst and (linebacker) Mike McCray, and when you factor in the fact that our offense is at the very least, going to be marginally better than it was from a production standpoint last year, I think there’s a lot of things to be excited about, at the very least.
"You can’t necessarily wait for the perfect storm," Winovich added. "We have a lot of pieces that are there, and it’s as perfect of a storm as you’re going to get."