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The Biggest Rivalries in College Football Hurt the Best Coaches

And that’s changing

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The other day I was in a discussion in the comments section about the state of Ohio State when Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer took over. A user said that the Buckeyes were down when Tressel took over, and they kinda were. It’s a relative term. So as I was thinking about that, it occurred to me that John Cooper wins that competition. OSU was at it’s lowest as he took over. Then I thought some more about Coop, and something he had to face that neither Meyer or Tressel had to deal with. And that’s a fully functioning arch rival for the duration of their careers.

During the Cooper era, Michigan won 78% of their games. Since, 64%. It’s reasonable to think that Cooper might have won a national title in 1995, when his first loss of the year was against Michigan. In 1996, Ohio State lost to Michigan, went out to the Rose Bowl, beat undefeated Arizona State, and finished second to one loss Florida. Let’s just say he wins one of those national titles, and he probably has a statue on Lane Avenue. And that’s not even mentioning Penn State, who was near it’s peak when they joined the league. The mere mention of 1994’s squad can bring millions of Husker and Nittany Lions fans to a debate on the best team that season.

Nebraska hasn’t been much better than Michigan since 2000, and Penn State’s record is worse. Does Ohio State have 2 titles this century if Michigan, Nebraska, and Penn State are firing on all cylinders? Probably not. Obviously I don’t bring this up to besmirch the good name of my Buckeyes. I am merely making the point that playing an arch rival killed many title seasons for the teams that have them.

Speaking of Nebraska, Dr. Tom Osborne is arguably the greatest coach of all time. He was also known as one of the greatest coaches to never win a title going into the 1994 season. He rattled off three out of 4, and cemented his place in history. Oklahoma’s winning percentage those 4 years? 40%.

Once he got his trophy, Bo Schembechler was known as the best to never get a ring. We all know what he faced in the 10 year war with Woody Hayes. For you youngsters, a fun little stat. In 1971, Michigan went undefeated until the Rose Bowl, and lost to Stanford in the final contest by 1 point. They then went 3 years, losing only 2 games and tying one. All were against Ohio State, who was also peaking under Woody Hayes, and Bo never got a title. Those two losses were by a combined 5 points. Coincidentally or not, Woody never got a ring after Bo got the Michigan job, unless you count 1970, which I don’t.

Now let’s look at the flip side. Who is the greatest coach of all time? Bear Bryant. I am not emotionally ready to put Nick Saban there, so we’ll leave that debate for another day. Bryant won 6 titles, and came close a bunch of other times. When I say a bunch, I mean he finished with 1 loss, or less, 12 time in his career. I have no doubts to Bryant’s ability, and believe with 100% certainty that he was a great as they come. But there is an interesting stat I will throw out there. Alabama won 82% of their games under Bryant. Their “rival” Auburn won 64% of their games in that time frame. LSU was second best in the SEC at 69%. Georgia 67%. Tennessee was at 63%. Sure, at different times during that era these teams posed a great challenge for the Crimson Tide, but there was never that team that they knew they had to battle year in and year out.

Woody Hayes focused his Monday practice throughout the season on Michigan. Why? Because he had to.

I bring all this up because I believe in James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh. I think Penn State and Michigan are set to rise up. Maybe Nebraska, too, under Riley. We’ll see. In the old days, before the playoff, that would have made it extremely difficult for the Big Ten to win a national title. 4 great teams knocking each other off would have been great for spectating, but devastating for national title hopes. I am under no illusion that the Big Ten would have been given the same leeway of the SEC under the old BCS.

Under the new playoff, OSU has proven twice now that the Big Ten will get the benefit now that there are 4 spots. They went to the first playoff in place of the Big 12 co-champs, and then again last season without even winning the Big Ten. A loss in the OSU/Michigan game will no longer be a death sentence on an otherwise undefeated season, and a win in it may erase an earlier defeat.