Buckeyes, Wolverines settle for Big Ten championship

In a season that began with the Big Ten's preseason favorite losing to a Division I-AA team, and which at last look gave us the league's lone remaining unbeaten losing at home to an unranked, 15-point underdog, there can be no more fitting finish than what will transpire Saturday (ABC, noon ET).

No. 7 Ohio State (10-1, 6-1) and No. 21 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) will meet in Ann Arbor with many of the familiar trappings of the rivalry in place, but with a distinctly different sound than we've heard before.

Listen closely and you can make out the distinct beeping of both the Buckeyes and Wolverines backing into their 104th installment of a series that 42 previous times has determined the conference championship.

Not since 1959 have OSU and Michigan met with each coming off a loss the preceding week, but Wisconsin's 37-21 beating of the Wolverines and Illinois' stunning 28-21 upset of the Buckeyes dimmed the spotlight on a matchup that could have been so much more.

If Michigan had won in Madison, it would have brought a nine-game winning streak into the Big House, continuing a remarkable turnaround from the devastation of consecutive losses to Division I-AA Appalachian State and Oregon in the season's first two weeks.

If Ohio State had survived the Illini, it would have been playing to defend the nation's No. 1 ranking and to advance to the BCS championship game for a second straight year.

Instead, OSU-Michigan has become "Rocky VI" -- still with the original stars, but not with much compelling allure.

Somewhere, the men who made this border battle an epic are fuming over what it's become. Back in their day, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler set their clocks by mid-November meetings with the outright Big Ten title and a trip to Pasadena on the line.

If you think the BCS era hasn't changed that thinking, just listen to a few Ohio State headliners on the topic of what's left in the aftermath of realistic national championship hopes having vanished on Saturday.

"It's not what you want at the beginning of the season, but I think a Rose Bowl and a BCS game and winning the Big Ten is one of the goals," OSU linebacker James Laurinaitis said.

"If we have to go to the Rose Bowl, that's what it is," safety Jamario O'Neal said. "We're not going to downplay it."

Presumably, Hayes and Schembechler won't come out of the grave to set them straight.

Of course, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr or OSU's Jim Tressel will gladly take a trip to Pasadena.

Carr, a Schembechler assistant back in the day, refocused his team on the Rose Bowl after starting 0-2 and held the Wolverines together despite mounting injuries and the immediate disappearance of their national championship dreams.

"If there's a greater bowl than the Rose Bowl, then I'd like to see it," Carr said. "I'd love to be there."

Getting there would mean a victory for Carr over Tressel, who's become every bit the thorn to his Michigan counterpart that Carr was to Tressel's predecessor, John Cooper.

Carr won five of his first six to hasten Cooper's departure in 2001, and Tressel has since returned the favor to level Carr's record in the rivalry at 6-6.

Because of those frustrations, because Carr has never openly denied that this season might be his last, rumors are swirling that this could be his final regular-season game on the Michigan sideline.

Only Carr will make that choice. He won't be forced out, no matter the outcome, nor should be be. He is 17-8 against top 10 teams and 8-3 against the top five.

"The only thing on my mind is this game," Carr said Monday, when asked about his future.

The Michigan coach was no more enlightening on the health status or availability of tailback Mike Hart, who sat out at Wisconsin and has missed two of the past three games, or quarterback Chad Henne, who played two series in Madison and who has been battling a separated right (throwing) shoulder since midseason.

Asked if either, or both, would be ready for the Buckeyes, Carr said: "We'll have to see on Saturday."

Tressel expects Henne and Hart to be out there, fighting to accomplish the only goal remaining among the lofty goals that served as motivation for Michigan's returning seniors (All-American tackle Jake Long is included in that group).

"I want to beat Ohio State and win a national championship," Hart said, speaking for his teammates in August. "How can I go down as one of the best running backs in Michigan history if I haven't beaten Ohio State? You just can't do that. You have to beat Ohio State, you have to win a bowl game. The whole offseason, that's what we pushed for."

His high ankle sprain, and Henne's balky shoulder, weren't in the plan back then, nor was a thigh bruise Hart suffered in the opener.

Without that, maybe there's no Appalachian State upset, and maybe Michigan wouldn't have been flat as a fallen soufflé the following week for Oregon, when Henne suffered the knee injury that sidelined him the next two weeks.

Hart can't answer those unknowns, or any other question this week, because Carr kept him and Henne off limits.

If they can't play all the way to the finish Saturday, Michigan will end the year perfect in one respect -- the Wolverines will have played every single game this season with either Hart or Henne missing significant time.

Could Michigan pull the upset without them? That's unlikely since Hart gives Michigan the physical rushing presence Ohio State hasn't seen often and didn't handle well at all last week in surrendering 260 yards on the ground to Illinois.

Henne's backup, Ryan Mallett, may be a game-changer some day. That day isn't now, however, or at least it's never been for a true freshman quarterback in this series.

Henne failed to defeat OSU in his initial college season, as did Rick Leach before him in 1975. The Buckeyes tried and failed with Art Schlichter as a rookie in 1977 and haven't thrown a true freshman into the fray since.

Ohio State's Todd Boeckman will be making his first start in the series, but he's a 23-year-old fifth-year junior who the Buckeyes hope will be hardened by the three costly interceptions he threw in the loss to Illinois.

That defeat ended OSU winning streaks at 20 in a row within the Big Ten and 28 straight regular-season games overall.

A second consecutive outright Big Ten title and a second Rose Bowl berth in the past 22 years awaits the Buckeyes if they can win for a third time in four trips to the Big House under Tressel.

"Our whole season is riding on this game," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said. "If we win, we win the Big Ten, go to the Rose Bowl or wherever else. But if we lose, we don't get any part of the Big Ten. We just become another Ohio State team, basically. Nothing will be special about the 2007 team. So this game is the game of the season."

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is the host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.