With its history going as far back as the 19th century, the Ohio State versus University of Michigan rivalry stands as one of the fiercest competitions in college sports. In fact, their annual meeting is so significant it’s often solely referred to as “The Game.”
This rivalry is revered partly due to the league-wide implications each game often has, regularly deciding Big Ten Conference titles, Rose Bowl Game matchups, and college football championships.
So why are Ohio State and Michigan a rivalry anyway? Keep reading to learn what started this legendary rivalry and why it continues to burn today.
The Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes played their first game in 1897; however, the history behind this rivalry goes back even further than that.
In 1835, before Michigan was admitted into the Union, both states claimed a piece of land 468 square miles in size. The dispute over this land resulted in the Toledo War. While this war was mostly bloodless, a sense of rivalry remained between the two states.
This rivalry led to another—the war between the prized universities of each state. But instead of land, this war, which has persisted for over 100 years, is fought for Big Ten Championships.
The first meeting between the two resulted in a 34-0 Michigan win over the Buckeyes. It wasn’t until three years later that the two teams met again in 1900. Over the twelve years, Michigan proceeded on a dominant streak, boasting a record of 12-0-2 by 1912.
However, when did OSU Michigan rivalry start? The rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State didn’t truly start until 1918, when the two teams played their first game as members of the Big Ten Conference in the season finale. This game, which Michigan won in its eleventh shutout over the Buckeyes, marked the beginning of an annually-scheduled rivalry game between the two schools.
After winning their first game against Michigan in 1919, the Buckeyes began to turn the tide with subsequent wins in 1920 and 1921. Legendary halfback Chic Harley was largely responsible for this paradigm shift.
By 1933, Michigan boasted a record of 22-6-2 over Ohio State, as well as two national championships. This dominance continues up until the mid-century mark. However, in 1934, Ohio State notched a win that remains significant to this day.
After the Buckeyes’ new coach Francis Schmidt was challenged on whether they would beat Michigan that year, he responded, “Those fellows put their pants on one leg at a time, the same as everyone else.” Ohio went on to win that game, and since then, every Ohio State player has received a gold pants pendant after a victory against Michigan.
Until 1950, Michigan held a dominant record over Ohio State of 30-12-4. The 1950 game, now known as the “Snow Bowl,” continues to live in college football lore. Played during one of the worst blizzards in the state of Ohio’s history, this game featured 45 punts, often on first down in hopes of a muffed return.
Despite failing to gain a single first down, forward pass, or offensive point, Michigan won that game 9-3 due to a touchdown, and safely scored on two blocked punts. Ohio State’s poor play calling led to head coach Wes Fesler’s resignation.
Fesler was replaced by Wood Hayes. Between 1951 and 1968, the Buckeyes won 12 of 18 rivalry games under Hayes. In 1968, Hayes solidified himself as an Ohio State legend with a 50-14 win over Michigan en route to an AP national championship.
Following 1968’s beatdown, Michigan started anew with head coach Bo Schembechler. In his first rivalry game, Schembechler and the Wolverines beat Hayes’ top-ranked Buckeyes, who were coming off a 22-game win streak.
This began what’s now known as the “Ten-Year War” between Schembechler and Hayes. Four times between 1970 and 1975, both Ohio State and Michigan were ranked as top five teams. The result was some of the most competitive football this rivalry had ever seen. During that same period, Michigan entered each rivalry game undefeated yet won only once.
Over the course of this decade-long battle, Ohio State and Michigan shared the Big Ten title six times. Hayes was eventually fired for punching an opposing player; however, he slimmed Ohio State’s deficit down to a 28-42-5 record against Michigan.
Hayes’ successor was Earle Bruce, who led the Buckeyes to a 5-4 record against Michigan between 1979 and 1987. This period is likely the rivalry’s most balanced, as no team won two consecutive games.
One of the most peculiar, and now legendary, moments during this era was in 1987.
OSU’s president notified the athletic director that Bruce was to be fired, with the announcement to be released following the game against Michigan in a week’s time. Rick Bay—the athletic director—resigned in response. Nonetheless, Bruce coached the Michigan game and led an upset over the heavily favored Wolverines.
Between 1988 and 2000, the Buckeyes were coached by John Cooper; during this period, Michigan dominated Ohio State with a 10-2-1 record.
The 1993, 1995, and 1996 games continue to live in infamy. During these years, Ohio State entered each rivalry game with an undefeated record. The results were as follows:
Despite an otherwise successful run, John Cooper could not seem to beat the often mediocre Wolverines. To this day, Michigan fans celebrate “John Cooper Day” on February 10th, the date that reflects his record against the Wolverines: 2-10.
Following Cooper’s lack of success against the Wolverines, Jim Tressel stepped in, making the rivalry game a point of emphasis. In his first year, Trestle led the Buckeyes to their first victory over Michigan in 14 years. Trestle built upon his success with a win the next year––a feat that Cooper could never accomplish. They went on to win a national championship.
2006 saw one of the rivalry’s most significant matchups when each team came in with undefeated records. This was the first time in the rivalry’s history that both teams held the top two spots in BCS rankings. The game started with a bang, with the Buckeyes scoring 21 unanswered points for a 28-14 halftime lead. While Michigan came back in the second half, the Buckeyes ultimately won 42-37 marking this as a memorable game in Ohio State football history.
This game remains one of the most-watched regular-season college football games, with 21.8 million viewers. Furthermore, it was the first time in rivalry history the Buckeyes won three consecutive games.
For most readers, the short-lived Harbaugh versus Meyer era between 2015 and 2018 is one of the rivalry’s most memorable. Following his successful stint with the NFL’s 49ers, Harbaugh took over the Wolverines in 2015. That year, both teams were ranked in the top 10. Nonetheless, the 10-1 Buckeyes, led by Urban Meyer, blew out the 9-2 Wolverines.
In 2016, the Buckeyes and Wolverines were respectively ranked as #2 and #3, marking the second team each time had been ranked in the top three. Despite a 17-7 Michigan lead in the first half, Ohio State cut the deficit, eventually winning its fifth consecutive rivalry game after two overtime periods.
In 2017, the unranked Wolverines played the ninth-ranked Buckeyes, losing 31-20 in Meyer’s sixth win in six years as Ohio State’s head coach. This game also saw Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett as the first Ohio State quarterback to win four straight rivalry games.
The Wolverines looked promising under Harbaugh in 2018, earning a #4 ranking against Ohio State’s #10 ranking. Despite this, Ohio State scored 62 points over Michigan’s top-ranked defense, turning Harbaugh’s record against the Buckeyes to 0-4.
Urban Meyer eventually left the Buckeyes to coach at the NFL level, leading to the promotion of offensive coordinator Ryan Day. Following a 56-27 Buckeyes victory over the Wolverines, Harbaugh’s performance was called into question. Some were left wondering, “When was the last time Michigan beat Ohio State?”
Nonetheless, after a postponed 2020 season, Harbaugh led Michigan to his first win against the Buckeyes in 2021, leading the team to their first conference championship win since 2003. Today, both Michigan and Ohio State are ranked as top-three teams, with each competing for both a Big Ten and college football championship.
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