Michigan football shatters old narrative with 2021 story it’s still writing

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  • Narrative
    Account of a series of related events or experiences
  • Jim Harbaugh
    Jim Harbaugh
    American football player and coach

The thing about narratives is that they’re only as good as you allow them to be.

For a team like Michigan State, the narrative has long been ‘they just find a way.’ Even when it bucks trend, the fact that it does it enough merits the notion on retainer. For Ohio State, for the last two decades, it’s been that it just cares more about the Michigan rivalry, and the Wolverines had done little to dispel that.

But on Saturday, the narrative exploded. In a game where Ohio State may have been just a touchdown favorite, many anticipated it would be more of the same, a redux of the past two matchups where Michigan’s offense was OK, but the defense, again, failed to stop an elite scoring machine from doing its thing. ‘Jim Harbaugh can’t beat the Buckeyes.’ ‘Jim Harbaugh can’t win the big game.’ ‘Michigan can beat the little teams, but can’t beat the good ones.’

All in one fell swoop, gone. No. 2 in the nation, swept away like sand in rising tides. Or, to be more honest about it, violently thrust into the wave of tsunami, broken and damaged as the waters rushed and swarmed, the torrid jab of the current undeterred by a thought to be sturdy monument suddenly crumbling upon its own foundation.

Unlike with Michigan State’s occasional faltering, where the Spartans get the benefit of the doubt and get to grasp onto the narrative as mantra, Michigan has bucked the so-called trends throughout the years. Jim Harbaugh has one big games, Michigan has beaten good and lesser teams, alike. However, that first one, being seemingly incapable of beating Ohio State, even when the Wolverines have what’s thought to be a better team (2016, 2018), that stuck like glue.

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Over the years, the goalposts continually shifted from its place in the end zone to somewhere near the ramps of M-14 or I-94, as to what a big game was. While some big wins lost their luster thanks to teams falling apart (Florida 2017, Wisconsin and Penn State 2018, Minnesota 2020), there have been big games won — they just aren’t recognized. Michigan’s 49-10 win over Penn State in a year the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State goes unrecognized, same with the 14-7 win over Wisconsin that year. When the Wolverines were set to face Iowa in 2019, it was the biggest game of Jim Harbaugh’s career (at Michigan, at least) until the maize and blue won, 10-3, then it was just another win over a so-so team. The goalposts aren’t even in Ann Arbor anymore — they’re in Brighton and Dundee at this rate.

But what the Wolverines did on Saturday was undeniable. For as much crowing as the self-proclaimed ‘Buckeye Nation’ are doing to render this win meaningless — ‘One in 10 years,’ or the regular fan impulse to blame the refs or whatever else is in the arsenal (even though there were exactly zero controversial calls in the game) — it was a game that OSU needed, a game we were told the Buckeyes wanted. It was supposed be a coronation, their birthright, to continually whip upon the lowly Wolverines with little-to-no resistance en route to Indianapolis and beyond. But all the countdown clocks, crossed-out letter Ms, and bellowing over how much that state of Michigan is loathe in their eyes could halt the bloodletting in what will likely be the most viewed game of the entire 2021 season to this point.

Narrative changed. Done. Over.

Who cares if you’ve won umpteen times before? College football is all about what have you done for me lately? And lately, Ohio State will be sitting at home, watching the Wolverines on TV, playing Parcheesi, or whatever they do in Columbus in December.

“This feels like the beginning,” Harbaugh said on Saturday, left open to interpretation. While he later noted it could mean the Big Ten Championship, the College Football Playoff and more, that’s where this Michigan team is right now. It’s taken the narrative and torn it to pieces, rewriting an entirely new novel to replace the one that’s been in place for years, if not decades. ‘Michigan can’t win bowl games?’ Well, that’s in doubt now. It’s finally in a bowl game that doesn’t feel like a consolation prize after a late-November disaster. ‘Michigan’s never been to Indy,’ was the rallying cry, replaced only briefly by wiseacres and jesters who loved to point out that Big Ten media days was in Indianapolis this year.

Now the Wolverines are heading to Indy for real, with a shot to come back a month later. Whether or not it does is up to them, but this new story, this new narrative is still being etched in stone, one whose foundation very well could crumble in the torrent, or maybe, just maybe, it’ll withstand those tempestuous waters and be a monument to those who finally chose to erect it.

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