“It’s hard to look at,” he said, barely glancing up.
The disbelief in the postgame interview room on Saturday felt palpable. Though the Buckeyes have owned the series since 2001, Michigan players genuinely seemed dumbstruck that they had lost in blowout fashion yet again, offering empty thoughts about just needing a little better execution to break their long losing streak to Ohio State.
“There’s a streak, it’s a bunch of individual games, and they’ve been able to continue it on for the last seven, eight years,” Wolverines linebacker Jordan Glasgow offered. “We just weren’t able to execute. Execution plays the biggest role, and we weren’t able to do that.”
Executing a game plan certainly plays a role, but it doesn’t necessarily play the biggest role. You could argue that recruiting, coaching and talent development come before any team can execute a game plan. In these three key areas, Ohio State has run laps around Michigan.
So when it is time to match up on the field, it should come as no surprise that Ohio State runs laps around Michigan there, too — no matter the history or tradition or belief that these two programs should be evenly matched because of how closely their rivalry and geographic proximity connects them.
Ohio State is an elite team right now that only a handful of schools can come close to matching. None of those schools is anywhere near Columbus, Ohio, and that is the reality Michigan fans must grapple with headed into another offseason filled with yet more questions about where the Wolverines program is headed.
Although Jim Harbaugh has the support of the Michigan administration and much of the fan base, what happened Saturday does nothing to calm down a vocal minority that no longer believes the hand-picked Michigan Man is the coach who can beat Ohio State and make the Wolverines playoff contenders. The fact that Harbaugh was asked after the game whether he does, truly, want to beat Ohio State speaks to this, as ridiculous as that sounds.
Yet if the scoreboard is any indication, Michigan is further away from Ohio State than when Harbaugh arrived five years ago. What will change over the next five years if Ohio State continues to recruit and develop talent at a rate far superior to that of the Wolverines?
One look at the ESPN recruiting rankings and NFL draft history between the schools since Harbaugh became head coach tells much of that story. For all the early headlines about Harbaugh camping out in trees and having sleepovers to sign recruits, Michigan has signed a class rated higher than Ohio State just once — last year, when Ohio State was transitioning from coach Urban Meyer to Ryan Day.
But it is not as if Michigan has been left entirely in the recruiting cold. Michigan is on pace to sign its fourth top-10 class in the past five years, with the current No. 7 group in the 2020 rankings. Ohio State sits at No. 2 headed into the December early signing period.
The difference in the five spots is obvious, at least on paper. Michigan has eight commitments from ESPN 300 prospects; Ohio State has 16. Michigan has zero commitments from five-star prospects; Ohio State has two. Linebacker is a huge area of need for Michigan, and Harbaugh has one commitment from an ESPN 300 linebacker; Ohio State has two.
Recruiting rankings are not the be-all and end-all, because it is an inexact science. Talent development comes next, an area where Ohio State also excels. Some of that has to do with the makeup of its respective coaching staffs, which is integral in talent development. Ohio State is running virtually the same scheme on offense it did when Meyer first arrived, one that has a nearly 100 percent success rate in turning out highly productive and oftentimes game-changing quarterbacks.
Day, who joined Meyer in 2017 as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, is an expert in the scheme. Justin Fields went from a top-rated recruit who couldn’t beat out the reliable if unspectacular Jake Fromm at Georgia to a bona fide Heisman Trophy contender in one season.
Michigan, on the other hand, hired a full-time playcaller for the first time this season. And the person Harbaugh hired, Josh Gattis, was a first-time playcaller himself, and it took Gattis half a season to figure out what his players do best.
Michigan also has relied heavily on transfer quarterbacks. And an inability to develop anyone who comes close to Fields or even J.T. Barrett, for that matter, is particularly galling considering Harbaugh was a quarterback himself, and he recruited and developed Andrew Luck at Stanford and won with Colin Kaepernick in the NFL.
It goes beyond the quarterback position, though. Look at the myriad superstar running backs and wide receivers Ohio State has produced. Since 2016, Ohio State has had seven wideouts or backs drafted. Michigan has had two. Then there are the offensive lines, where the biggest disparity was on display on Saturday. After Ohio State ran up 62 points on Wolverines last year, Michigan defensive players had the number printed on T-shirts and they were supposed to serve as motivation to avoid another defensive meltdown.
Yet Ohio State hung 56 on Michigan this time around and rushed for 264 yards. The Wolverines had no answer for J.K. Dobbins, who had 211 yards on the ground. Ohio State had two Heisman Trophy contenders and double-digit future NFL prospects on the field on Saturday, and the difference was glaring.
Michigan has had a stout unit under D-coordinator Don Brown, with the majority of its draft picks since 2016 coming from the defense. But the inability to stop Ohio State from scoring over the past two seasons, not to mention inexplicable breakdowns against Wisconsin this year, have many questioning that side of the ball now, too.
In the minds of many in Ann Arbor, getting Meyer out of the way was supposed to be the great equalizer. Meyer set a championship foundation before Harbaugh even arrived at Michigan, thanks to his innate ability to recruit, develop talent and win big games at a clip only a few in college football history can match. So far, Day has only built on what his predecessor left him, and that is a vexing thought for Michigan fans everywhere.
Of course, a one-year sample size is not enough to suggest Day is the second coming of Meyer and all hope is lost. Nor does it indicate the gap will grow wider and wider as the years go on. Harbaugh lifted Michigan out of mediocrity, and he has the Wolverines poised to win 10 games for the fourth time in his five seasons. The last time that happened was from 1976 to 1980.
But all those wins feel hollow considering not just the losses to Ohio State, but how the recent defeats at the hands of the Buckeyes transpired. In 2016, Michigan lost a 30-27 heartbreaker to Ohio State in double overtime. Over the past two seasons, the Wolverines have lost by a combined 118-66.
Finding a way to close the gap is all that matters right now. But accepting that there is a gap is something nobody who roots for Michigan wants to stomach.