Harbaugh’s big chance? Meyer’s last hurrah? It’s all on the line in Michigan-Ohio State

Dan WetzelColumnist

The hope when Jim Harbaugh was hired to coach the University of Michigan in 2014 was that the Ten-Year War II was about to break out with Ohio State and Urban Meyer.

The original was the legendary decade (1969-78) when Bo Schembechler led the Wolverines and Woody Hayes coached the Buckeyes and every game felt like something larger than life. (Schembechler edged out the series 5-4-1). Meyer and his three national titles were waiting in Columbus. Harbaugh and his Super Bowl appearance as a coach, plus 14 years as an NFL quarterback, were arriving in Ann Arbor.

One a son of Ohio. The other a Michigan Man.

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Thus far, it hasn’t emerged. There were blowouts by the Buckeyes in 2015 and ’17 that took the momentum out of an epic 2016 Ohio State double-overtime victory over the Wolverines. Ohio State has been superior, a national contender. Michigan hasn’t. The Buckeyes have won six in a row in this series under Meyer and 13 of 14 overall, dating back to Jim Tressel. The only Michigan victory came when the Buckeyes had an interim coach in 2011.

So here comes Saturday for the 115th meeting in this series. Michigan is 10-1. Ohio State is 10-1. Harbaugh’s Wolverines look better and are arriving at the Horseshoe as the favorite. If not now, when? Michigan has everything to play for: the Big Ten East title, the playoff chase, pride, history.

“This is our year, baby,” said Tom Brady, Michigan Class of 1999, on Boston’s WEEI Radio. “I think we’re going to kick their butt.”

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer share a moment after last year’s game. (AP)
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer share a moment after last year’s game. (AP)

Typical alum.

There’s more to it than that, though. This feels like more than the typical game, even one in which one rival can swing the fortunes back in its favor.

While Harbaugh arrives gathering strength, Meyer is a picture of discomfort and uncertainty. The record is still stellar, but the ship is wobbling. More troubling, Meyer seems beset by sideline health issues on a near weekly basis.

This past Saturday, he once again spent time bent over during a tight victory over Maryland, hands on his knees, rubbing his head. This has been a recurring image this season and even dates back to him falling to the field after the 2016 victory was assured. He detailed his health issues earlier this season, telling Yahoo Sports he suffered from a congenital arachnoid cyst in his brain that required surgery in 2014. He said medication has helped.

If so, there appear to be further issues.

It’s fair to speculate on Meyer’s future because having him hunched over during critical parts of the game feels untenable. At 54, Meyer needs to make his health a priority. He is one of the greatest pure coaches that college football has ever seen. It’s still just a game.

He’s previously suffered from stress and obsession that led to health scares. He was relentless in building Florida into a two-time national champ. In the 2009 SEC title game, though, he saw a 22-game winning streak snapped by Alabama and hours later was admitted to the hospital due to heart issues. Prior to the game, the pressure to prepare was so great he later admitted losing 20 pounds in 10 days.

A few weeks later he briefly retired on Christmas only to return the next day. He finally called it quits after another season. Then after a year working for ESPN, he took over at Ohio State, claiming he had his priorities rooted. Who knows though? He was suspended for the first three games of this season for mishandling an assistant coach who was accused of domestic violence. It hasn’t been a smooth year.

With Meyer, there is always something.

And now it’s a fully operational Michigan, as fixated on beating Ohio State as possible. Michigan has dubbed this season and its return to the role of Big Ten bully as a “revenge tour.” There is no question who they want revenge from most. “It’s a good [motto],” Harbaugh said Monday. “Anger has proven to be a powerful motivator.”

While the Wolverines couldn’t beat Notre Dame, they’ve had their way with everyone else, showing that all the money and all the recruiting antics and all the media hype from Harbaugh was worth it.

In 1986, as a player, Harbaugh guaranteed a victory over Ohio State, then delivered it. There are no questions about how important this game is to him — and everyone in maize and blue.

“Is this just one more game on the schedule for you?” he was asked Monday.

“Of course not,” he grunted.

And how much does Meyer, who has in the past banned anyone from entering the Buckeyes football building wearing blue, want to win again?

“We’re working so damn hard for this,” he said Monday.

Does a Michigan victory push Meyer to retirement? Or would it make him return seeking to avenge the loss? Is he destined to step down anyway?

If Meyer can hold off a Wolverine team this strong, dashing its playoff dreams and thrilling Buckeyes fans who get to revel in a rare moment as a Midwest underdog, does that give him the impetus to say his work is done and he needs to get right? Or does it just inspire him to stay and chase another national title? And if Michigan can’t win this year, if Harbaugh can’t clear this hurdle in Year Four, does the feel-good story stop in its tracks?

It’s all on the line, Saturday at noon ET, as always. No, Harbaugh-Urban hasn’t been Woody and Bo, it hasn’t been the Ten-Year War. It may not make it to five.

But this is one heck of a ball game coming up.

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