By Ramzy Nasrallah on November 22, 2023 at 1:15 pm
jordan hancock and tommy eichenberg

Ohio State was not championship-caliber over the previous three seasons.

Two CFPs and a Rose Bowl trophy might suggest otherwise, but let's be objective.

Any talented, resourced, well-coached team can win a title in a game featuring college kids and college refs, but the Buckeyes in particular were too glitchy. Our beloved program has ancient drinking songs with lyrics like we'll win the game or know the reason why. You know all the reasons.

Painful realities, effective sutures. Don't think too hard - that's a closure metaphor. Keep up.

The 2020 Buckeyes were primed for a title coming off the looted 2019 run that ended in Glendale, a B1G CFP locale owned and operated by SEC officiating (Michigan visitors rubbernecking 11W articles this week - you got a taste of this on New Year's Eve, you get it). Anyway, that 2020 team looked fierce.

Except the pandemic halved the schedule and lopped a third off the roster during pre-game warmups in each of the games the Buckeyes were able to play. They were rewarded with Nick Saban's best team ever while having only half a defensive line and no kicker on their sideline.

Ohio State only got half a runway and two-thirds of a roster to reach a cruising altitude. And that was not Jeff Hafley's defense. Still not sure what it was, but it was the beginning of something gross. We always know the reasons why. Not championship-caliber.

Painful reasons. Who knows how 2020 goes in a world without the novel coronavirus.

The 2021 Buckeyes broke in a new quarterback but equipped him with the nation's best receiving corps, a recent annual tradition. Unfortunately that gross defense was still attached, forcing them to win video games by outscoring all opponents. A golden era for smashing the Over.

This strategy nearly worked, and Ohio State reached Ann Arbor with another CFP invitation in play. But Michigan scored on its final five drives. Sure, the Wolverines likely knew all of the Buckeyes' signals before kickoff and decoded by halftime - but scoring on Ohio State didn't carry a high degree of difficulty in 2021 for any opponent. Objectivity.

This Saturday IN ANN ARBOR, one team will prove a haunting and horrifying point to the other.

The Buckeyes lost 42-27. Michigan's 42 wasn't weird, but Ohio State's 27 was. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave sat out the consolation Rose Bowl and Ohio State proceeded to win a video game 48-45. That made sense. Gross, but logical. We know the reasons why.

Painful reasons. Who knows how 2021 goes if the Buckeyes had a serviceable defense.

The 2022 Buckeyes brought back another ferocious offense but lost its best player in the home opener. Defense was destined to be a transitional with wholesale philosophical changes being installed into mismatched personnel, but it performed admirably.

They were arguably the nation's best team for six games. Then they puckered for the following five in anticipation for a rematch, which they lost 45-23. Michigan's 45 was kind of weird, but Ohio State's 23 was...definitely weirder.

The Wolverines scored touchdowns on four of six 2nd half drives while the Buckeye offense couldn't stay on the field. Michigan was always one step ahead, especially after halftime.

Ohio State still made it to the CFP, where it lost 42-41 to the eventual champion Georgia Bulldogs. Another video game. That made sense. Gross, but logical. Painful reasons. Who knows how 2022 goes if...yeah that's enough loser talk.

Win the game or know the reason why is fun to sing after some victorious post-game pops with your friends. It's less fun to relive. The 2023 team hasn't allowed over 17 points in a single game. The offense is hitting its stride and arrives at Game 12 in peak health.

Offensive line is shaky, but serviceable. Special teams are an unending catastrophe, but since when has that unit ever affected an Ohio State-Michigan game? Don't look that up.

Recent teams were too glitchy for championships, but what they have right now should be good enough. Playmakers on offense. A stifling defense. No more video game shootouts. Ohio State football in its purest form. This is how it's supposed to look.

On Saturday, one team will prove a haunting and horrifying point to the other. Let's get Situational.


low-level junior lone wolf staffers are always attached at the hip to the head coach
Sept 23, 2023: Connor Stalions stands with Jim Harbaugh during the Michigan-Rutgers game in Michigan Stadium.© Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you need a quick summary of what's happened with former Michigan "junior staffer" Connor Stalions, twice-suspended-by-his-employer-this-season Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, fired-for-destroying-evidence Michigan linebackers coach Chris Partridge and Michigan co-defensive coordinator and lead recruiter Steve Clinksdale who just deleted his Twitter account a month before signing day, bad news - this isn't the column for that.

It's not just an Ohio State web site, this is a homer column. Not journalism. Look elsewhere.

But those things above are all true and verified, and there's a lot more to what's been stinky in Ann Arbor the past few seasons. You can read about that wherever you choose, but if you do - scrutinize your sources. As a country we've been devouring fabricated news for the better part of the past decade.

Bias and slanted points-of-view are hard to avoid in a world run by humans, but wholesale manufactured bullshit should tell on itself via inescapable pungency. We'll get back to reputable sources in a bit. Hold that thought.

I threw quotation marks around junior staffer above because that's Stalions on the left in the photo. You can find him within whispering distance of 1) Harbaugh 2) Michigan's offensive coordinator whenever Michigan has the ball, and 3) Michigan's defensive coordinator whenever Michigan's opponent has the ball in any game film of consequence since the pandemic.

Multi-millionaires taking critical instructions from a "junior staffer." You can make that a smoking gun or you can marginalize it out of relevance. You decide how to interpret this.

Stalions never needed to be within whispering distance from Michigan's high priest or cardinals though, because he conspicuously shouted instructions for the whole sideline to see while holding large, elaborate printed assets containing opposing coaches' signals, procured over the course of previous games not involving Michigan.

The NCAA has proof of this and it's been published by reputable media outlets. Watch clips from games and see for yourself. Ignore the bourbon columnist. Find a capital-J journalist instead.

Stalions would bark out what he had decoded at each coordinator, and the players around him would mimic his instructions. And it looks like he may have secured the funds to conduct his off-campus reconnaissance - sometimes sending delegates to act on his behalf - from a prominent Michigan booster:

You can decide if what Michigan did is cheating, if it's merely gamesmanship or potentially absolutely nothing but clickbait to drive internet traffic. I'm just a guy who roots for Michigan's rival.

Whatever route you choose, the executive summary sounds bad for Michigan. It's paper-traily, to use a sophisticated legal term. B1G commissioner Tony Pettiti is forced to deal with an in-season scandal without precedent, and we know from media reports he has a double-digit number of non-Ann Arbor conference presidents angrily spitting in his ear to do something.

Because the integrity of the game is at stake. I agree with that. Also, player safety is compromised. I think that's conflated. Football is a dangerous game without espionage. You get to decide for yourself.

Back to "junior staffer" - if you need a quick summary of the evidence showing Stalions performing his in-game codebreaking, this isn't your source - you can find that just about everywhere now, because it's extremely clickable. If you're bored by this scandal, that's a you issue. This isn't boring all. That's the only element to which everyone agrees.

Stalions was spotted on the CMU sideline dressed as a CMU staffer wearing glasses that record footage while the Chips were facing future Michigan opponent MSU. CMU could have quickly closed the speculation by issuing a statement saying oh that's just Larry. But it didn't. It's not Larry. There's no Larry. It's Stalions disguised as a CMU staffer.

That's an ongoing investigation, probably. CMU has three former Michigan staffers who worked with Stalions at U-M, including its head coach. Smoking gun or nothingburger, you decide.

It is worth noting Stalions-era Michigan players have a penchant for focusing on opposing sidelines while standing in his orbit, which as someone who has spent several years standing on sidelines of football games is odd behavior. Generally, the sideline watches the game.

Guys on sidelines stare at the action, diagnosing formations and pre-snap movement themselves - that's generally-accepted sideline behavior. I will admit I have never looked at how Michigan's sideline behaved prior to Stalions, so I have no control group overlay. Maybe Michigan's sideline has a sideline-gazing culture. I decided that's unlikely.

I have no reference for standing among players who were transfixed on the opposing sideline trying to hack what the opponent's play was as it was being called. That's something staffers and analysts do. Analysts like Stalions, who garnered quite the reputation for being right a lot. Players hack snap counts and in-game tendencies. That's normal.

The wolverines did not beat the buckeyes the past two seasons only because they cheated.

Attempting to hack coded signals being delivered in triplicate as a player is distracting and odd behavior. It's also close to impossible, unless your sideline is equipped with decoded signals procured prior to kickoff from multiples games, since teams deploy multiple signals packages to avoid having their play calls hacked on a given Saturday.

Stalions was a "junior staffer" with a 24/7/365 reserved parking space on an elite college campus in America. Just happened to land on the staff right as Michigan transformed from a decent program at a university where decent is not in the vocabulary - to the reigning two-time champions who always seem to be one step ahead over every conference opponent they've played since his arrival.

Just not non-conference opponents. And definitely not bowl game opponents. Though, objectively, those tend to be stronger teams. That said, Michigan's winter futility is...interesting.

Former OC Josh Gattis was in his third season at Michigan in 2021 when he suddenly became prescient. Mike Macdonald was on-loan from John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens and brought plenty of bonafides to the Wolverines' defense.

Matt Weiss replaced Gattis in 2022 and Jesse Minter replaced Macdonald in 2022. The Ann Arbor machine kept humming. The OCs didn't matter. Two straight seasons, after decades in hell.

Humans are cursed with zero-sum minds, which is why the lede section above acknowledges I would not have allowed the 2021 Ohio State defense to defend my garden from weeds, let alone an endzone from Minnesota or Purdue (two mediocre teams who scored 62 points against the Buckeyes in 2021, which is 11 more than the current OSU defense has allowed over the past six games).

Michigan did not beat Ohio State twice because it cheated. Cheating aided Michigan in both victories and helped it against every other team it cheated to gain an unconventional advantage over in an abrupt turnaround from demand head coach take a pay cut to two-time conference champ. That makes sense to me. I can explain how I landed on that conclusion without turning colors or stuttering.

Relevant adjacency, a TL;DR of the aforementioned Gattis, from his hiring to present day:

Hello Josh. Hope Pep Hamilton left some snacks for you in his desk.

Hey, congrats Coach Gattis. Kicked Ohio State's ass. Michigan hasn't done that in ages.

Oof, right after signing day. Well, at least Ohio State doesn't have to deal with him anymore.

A mysterious and inexplicable fall from grace. Gattis had one good season. The one with Stalions.

He went from literally Scoring on the Buckeyes on Every Single Possession to lasting only one season in Miami without any known "junior staffers" standing next to him during games, to his current job running Maryland's offense.

The Terps haven't scored 30 points in a game since September. They have an NFL quarterback and NFL receivers. Here's what watching Maryland's clunky offensive strategy in Columbus earlier this season looked like through Michigan eyes.

Gattis isn't a war criminal, but he might be an accessory to an NCAA crime. He's not a good coordinator without Stalions. He was a Broyles winner with him - that's the highest honor the sport has for non-head coaches.

Speaking of head coaches, here's where the garden variety Michigan fan was at with the Wolverines' football boss prior to Stalions' elevation to "junior staffer" realm where he actively consulted the highest-ranking coaches with play calling guidance:

That's how it started, after five seasons of the Michigan's dream hire. He was 0-5 against Ohio State and barely holding serve with Little Brother. Rocky Lombardi went into Michigan Stadium and did what CJ Stroud, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and TreVeyon Henderson could not. Lombardi is now in his seventh college year (not a doctor yet) having left East Lansing for the greener pastures of Northern Illinois.

The national storyline then was about the fading novelty of Jim Harbaugh. Here's how it's going.

From Lombardi's team to America's team. The human mind is freer than the air we all breathe.

This juncture is where inescapable facts intersect with coping. Coping is healthy. Michigan fans are coping with the Stalions fallout. Ohio State fans are coping with the Stalions fallout.

I'm all for coping - it's healthier for me to believe Michigan cheated than believing Hassan Haskins almost scored as many touchdowns in The Game as Dwayne Haskins did through Pure Michigan superiority. Recasting the past two Novembers through the lens of Michigan cheating feels better than what they were, which is Ohio State eating shit and abruptly ceding its two-decade command of the rivalry.

If you need an explainer of why the NCAA banned traveling to future opponent games to scout them in person, this is not that column. That rule is 30 years old, unmysterious and unambiguous. Stalions is the starting point for the Michigan renaissance, born out of a futility stretch two decades in the making and previously barreling toward unfettered despair in 2020.

So, back to those reputable sources - you're reading an Ohio State blogger telling you Michigan is embroiled in a cheating scandal (it's true, the NCAA is actively investigating it) and that's the subject, object, predicate, whipped cream and the cherry of this story. Uncomplicated. One guy's opinion.

It's different if you've inserted yourself into a pro-Michigan echo chamber in search of comfort, where this whole contrived story is the work of an Ohio State head coach desperate to save his job and reputation.

That's a Michigan regent parroting a story circulated by Michigan enthusiasts. The short version is this all started because Ryan Day had his brother investigate the Michigan football program and hack into university computers to seize incriminating data showing Stalions' actions were known and budgeted.

There's a mysterious web site they've been actively monitoring. Company was founded in 2021, very interesting. It's called Third Day Investigations. Day. It's right there in the name! 3DI's slogan:

The Father, The Son & The Holy Spirt. Three in one. One in All.

A resurrection-themed private investigator. It's right there in plain site. The only nefarious character in this story who covers his tracks sloppier than the Day family's private investigation services is, well, he had his own parking space at Schembechler Hall until recently.

In that echo chamber, this is a story about Michigan doing what every other team does - smart, strategy, gray area reconnaissance not punishable by any legitimate governing body or in the court of public opinion.

It's a tale of snitches and sore losers sore losing. And there's absolutely nothing worse than a snitch. This whole Stalions affair is about snitching. This is an Ohio State scandal.

snitchers snitch

Good for him indeed.

Every Michigan accusation has been an awkward confession. You're cheating and snitching and obsessed and covering it up because you'll do anything to win okay, okay, sure, guilty.

Michigan fans have been devouring bad, comforting information since the news broke their team might have behaved badly. And while Third Day Investigations is unknown outside of #BlueAnon conspiracy circles, Harbaugh is suspended, again. His coaches are getting fired. His coaches are going dark on social media and the social mediaiest time of the year for recruiting.

They have kept winning while underperforming post-Stalions vs. their unconstrained Stalions production era - but again, we are cursed with zero-sum minds. The Wolverines are playing better teams post-Stalions and are shorthanded due to suspensions. Of course production is going to slip, cheating or not.

But this should still be enough information to accept the walls are closing in on this brief Michigan football renaissance. They're firing people with cause and suspending head coaches who were previously set for lucrative contract extensions.

You can accept those actions for what the reality they probably represent. Or, you can blame the Deep State and some nefarious smoky room overlord who controls all you hold dear for manufacturing a distraction to try and impair the unstoppable Wolverines.

If the fragile fan psyche can't accept the walls are closing in, just replace this story:

Michigan was caught cheating and the football program is now compromised and destined for significant punishment, let alone diminishment of what it achieved while cheating

...with something more palatable:

Ohio State's head coach was tired of losing and had his brother hack U-M servers

That's definitely healthier if you're a Michigan fan. Maybe Day's family is behind all of this. The walls are closing in, but they're doing so in Columbus and definitely not Ann Arbor.

That would be news to the investigators in possession of the allegedly ill-begotten evidence against the Michigan football program. Walls? There are no walls. Walls don’t exist.

This section, like this scandal, is all over the place. Michigan fans who refuse to believe the abrupt turnaround of their beloved football program was due to anything other than good old fashioned Michigan excellence and Michigan Men will continue to hold that position, no matter what you say or think or read.

They get to choose the lens through which they view the world. We have the same privilege.

But only the NCAA gets to rule on what happens next. The current teams face each other on the field Saturday for the final East Division title. This is theater none of us have ever seen or could have conceived. We should enjoy the actual football part of this.

When the news initially broke, I was skeptical because Day has a bad habit of holding his play-calling sheet for all the world and Getty photographers' 4K cameras to see. He rarely covers his mouth when he communicates during games, and lip-reading can't be that hard if you're committed to it.

Ohio State doesn't figuratively lock its doors. Never liked that. I hope this episode changes that.

But then the "junior staffer" and his network were revealed - in part because Stalions actually told on himself by bragging about his work on LinkedIn like a huge dork, without the benefit of Third Day Investigations' billable hours - and the NCAA, B1G and University of Michigan all took actions that responsible institutions of size only take in the face of immense pressure supported by hard evidence.

I choose to believe all of them. Michigan cheated in a brazen and shameful manner and it's a stretch of the imagination to deny the whole staff knew about it. I can also believe Ohio State should do a better job guarding state secrets, and that its defense sucked out loud for three seasons. These positions can coexist.

Which means my conclusion is Michigan was humiliated for two decades by Ohio State and resorted to doing anything possible to change its fortune. I believe its success will be short-lived and unsustainable now that its methods have been uncovered.

I apologize for this manifesto, as I've avoided writing about this since it broke knowing that the Buckeyes and Wolverines would unite to end the schedule as they always do in the absence of manufactured covid outbreaks. It turns out you don't have to be a Michigan Man to author one.

In conclusion, Michigan football cheated with cartoonish SEC-level chicanery, and then they fumbled it with their hubris. And they're going to get hammered by the NCAA for it. Leaders and Best? That's a bygone relic. They're Cold Miss now.


The Solo

CONTENT NOTE: This season Situational enthusiasts are controlling the Intermission jukebox, and as is the case in your local tavern - nobody knows who's choosing the songs. You have the right to get mad. If this goes off the rails, good.

You're still here? Look at the stamina on you. Don't allow anyone to doubt your resilience.

I tuck personal stories and confessions into this section because the hard truth is nobody actually reads The Situational. We 21st century humans lack the endurance for 2,000+ word run-on sentences - that was serviceable entertainment in a bygone era with no other distractions besides cholera. Reading is exhausting. TikTok is effortless.

Thousands of people will click on this article, scroll through looking for GIFs and then move on. Nobody is reading these words, which means my dark confessions are free to flow.

I owned High Voltage by AC/DC on vinyl, then cassette, then CD - it's one of those albums that never left me. Its songs are on my current Spotify playlists. I used to shout along to She's Got Balls while driving alone in my 1987 Chevy Cavalier beater through Upper Arlington (windows up, obviously).

So when this reader submission came in, I was excited to break down a synth solo I've had committed to memory for decades. But then I watched the music video for this song for the first time in my life, and I gasped.

Reader, I had no idea. Synth solo. You may revoke my fake music critic credentials forever. It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock N' Roll) actually contains a bagpipes (!) solo. Let's answer our two questions.

Is the soloist in this video actually playing the bagpipes?

This is OG AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott, who legitimately played the bagpipes on the record. This was apparently such a challenging arrangement for the band to perform live they only did so a couple dozen times prior to Scott's death in 1980.

As for the video, we've got some bagpipes guys playing in what appears to be a fake parade, and Scott might actually be holding a bong disguised as bagpipes. No evidence here. VERDICT: Inconclusive

Does this bagpipes solo slap?

As a synth solo I always found it hollow and tinny, like the piano in When In Rome's The Promise, a deliberately simple bridge to avoid overwhelming one of the decade's greatest hooks. But as a bagpipes solo, the context and perspective are shaken.

This isn't Amazing Grace at an Irish wake, which is peak bagpipesing. It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock N' Roll) will not play during my funeral, even with this revelation.

It will be on the afterparty playlist. Bagpipes. Unreal. I've been thunderstruck. VERDICT: Slaps

hey kids looks what's back in stock in all sizes

The Bourbon

There is a bourbon for every situation. Sometimes the spirits and the events overlap, which means that where bourbon is concerned there can be more than one worthy choice.

Panty melter. You're welcome.
Michigan: That long black cloud is coming down.

The most covered Bob Dylan song is Knockin' on Heaven's Door, which he wrote for a movie about Billy the Kid that wasn't Young Guns - which means I haven't seen it. These days he's lending his songwriting talent to whiskey promotion.

Just like the song, there is a veritable cornucopia of Heaven's Door whiskey varieties, two of which showed up at my house this season. The straight bourbon is described as a Tennessee bourbon aged for at least six years, non-chill filtered and Kosher certified.

No mash bill, no cheat sheet. Thanks, Bob.

By taste it's obvious we're dealing with high-rye content, I'll guess ~20%. It's smokey and has some nuttiness to it, suggesting barley is in the mix. I really enjoyed it. Baking spice, apricots, a really nice Thanksgiving selection.

But the barreling is what makes this unique - Heaven's Door uses what's known as an alligator char. If they're going by the old Buffalo Trace standards, that means barrels burned for nearly a minute. The most common whisky barrel chars only get 30 seconds to burn.

This lends more smoke to what's already quite pungent. Heaven's Door isn't overwhelming, and yet different and memorable. I had low expectations - not because it's from Tennessee; Tennessee whiskey is fine - but because it just seemed like a marketing ploy. A pleasant surprise.

You can knock on Heaven's Door while getting tangled up in blue this weekend.


julian fleming, carson hinzman and cade stover
Julian Fleming, Carson Hinzman and Cade Stover celebrate following a touchdown earlier this season in West Lafayette.

The wildest accusation coming from Michigan in what's been a tough month for the brand is that Ohio State will do anything and everything possible to get out of having to play the Wolverines again.

We can have fun with their conspiratorial descent into jarring and cultish behavior but we need to talk about this accusation. The Buckeyes had the Wolverines in a headlock for two decades, and that glorious run followed an era known in Columbus as 2-10-1. That was the bottom. We've survived far worse than the past two Novembers.

And at no point in that dark, miserable time did any Ohio State player, coach or fan want anything more than another shot at the evil empire. When Oregon coach Mike Bellotti interviewed to succeed John Cooper following his termination, he executed a classic interview gaffe that eliminated his candidacy from consideration.

He asked if Ohio State had to play Michigan every year. Thanks for your time. We'll call you.

In the depths of the Cooper era, all we wanted was another chance to lose to That Team. In the heights of the Tressel era, all we wanted was another shot at beating Michigan. During the bleakest moments of the pandemic, all we wanted was the Ohio State-Michigan game to not become another casualty of a lost year.

Ohio State's identity was welded to the Michigan game by our dead ancestors. Earlier:

Every Michigan accusation has been an awkward confession.

There's one program that wants to get out of playing in the The Game, and it did so recently.

That Team either faked an outbreak or violated pandemic protocols to get out of playing in a game where it was a 30-point underdog. That Team won the game the following year by 15 points.

That Team dramatically reversed its position in the rivalry in one season. And now That Team wants to play, again, and there are accusations their opponent is uninterested in participating. This is projection. And it's categorically false.

There's nothing Ohio State wants more than to play Michigan in football. This is true in 2023 and it's been true since the Buckeyes were a club team that could not wait for the opportunity to lose to its aspirational state in Ann Arbor by 85 points.

This will always be true, no matter how college football evolves. And no matter what happens on Saturday, life in Ohio will continue to be about the afternoons where the Buckeyes play Michigan. All of those boring days in between are just a distraction.

Thanks for getting Situational today. Go Bucks. Beat Michigan.

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