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CHICAGO — The Big Ten's slip in national prestige coincides with the downfall of the once proud Michigan Wolverines.
No college football program has won more games or more Big Ten titles than Michigan, yet the Wolverines have spent the last decade trying to recapture its past glory.
The Wolverines' last league title was shared in 2004. Michigan's Big Ten record since that season is 39-33, fifth-best among the 11 schools who competed in the Big Ten over that period. Archrival Ohio State is 62-10, 23 games better than Michigan, and is 8-1 against the Wolverines. Even in-state rival Michigan State is 41-31 in Big Ten play and 5-4 against the Wolverines.
The national perception is even worse for Michigan. The Wolverines are just 2-5 in bowl games after the 2004 season, beating Florida and Tim Tebow by six points and edging Virginia Tech in overtime. They figuratively — and literally — have become punching bags.
After absorbing a 52-14 pounding by Mississippi State in the 2011 Gator Bowl, Michigan fired Coach Rich Rodriguez. In the 2013 Outback Bowl, running back Vincent Smith's soared in the air courtesy of a thunderous hit from South Carolina defensive end Jadaveon Clowney. ESPN replayed the hit ad nauseam. Despite Michigan's five-point, last-second loss to the Gamecocks, the play crystallized the narrative of the big, bad SEC and the slow-footed, meek Big Ten.
Much of that perception has been cemented since 2006, when No. 2 Michigan and No. 1 Ohio State both were unbeaten and competed in an epic winner-take-all Big Ten showdown. The Buckeyes outlasted the Wolverines 42-39. and discussion centered that Michigan should face Ohio State in a rematch for the BCS title. Michigan ultimately slipped to third, paving the way for Florida to face Ohio State.
Michigan and Ohio State both got waxed afterward; Florida blasted Ohio State 41-14 for the BCS title and USC rolled Michigan 32-14 in the Rose Bowl. In the following season opener, FCS champion Appalachian State topped then-No. 5 Michigan at Michigan Stadium. The Big Ten became a laughingstock, and Michigan was the jester. Since Michigan's last Big Ten title, the Big Ten is 24-45 in bowl games with only one winning bowl season (2009). From 2006 through 2008, the Big Ten lost all six BCS bowl games.
Michigan's slide was equalized on both offense and defense. Only three Michigan defenders were picked in the last four NFL drafts. In the 2007 draft alone, Michigan had five defenders selected, including four in the first two rounds. Offensively, Michigan's 2013 run offense ranked 11th and averaged just 2.5 yards a carry in Big Ten play. It failed to rush for positive yards against Nebraska and Michigan State, and four times finished with 65 yards or less.
'It was really painful to watch their offense last year,' said ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who played quarterback at Ohio State. 'I don't know in my lifetime if I've ever seen a Michigan offense not be able to run the football. While most of the attention seemed to fall on (quarterback) Devin Gardner I personally watched that team week in and week out. I was mystified watching the offensive line play and the lack of difference makers at the tailback position. For my entire life Michigan has played great defense and they've been able to have a dominating offensive line and they've been able to run the football.
'For Michigan to get back to the Bo Schembechler/Lloyd Carr kind of Michigan, to me it's about getting their defense back to being a physical, athletic defense,' Herbstreit continued. 'They've got to get back to having guys who are going to play on Sunday on that side of the ball, and we have not seen that in a number of years.'
The contrast between Michigan and its primary rivals has led to speculation about Coach Brady Hoke's future. In Big Ten play, Ohio State is 16-0 and Michigan State 15-1 the last two seasons. Michigan is 9-7. Ohio State won its first 24 games after Urban Meyer's arrival in 2012, and Michigan State won the Rose Bowl. Even regional rival Notre Dame played for the 2012 national championship.
In Chicago, Hoke deflected any questions about pressure, saying, 'the only pressure as a coach that I've ever felt — making sure we're doing it for the student-athletes.'
Michigan provides a baseline for Big Ten teams based on its historical prowess, regardless of its record. A prominent Michigan often means a competitive Big Ten. It's a reciprocal relationship, one that defensive end Frank Clark appreciates.
'When you've got the top three teams as far as tradition in the conference, then you go, 'What is Michigan doing?' Clark said. 'Well, we had a 7-6 team. That isn't Michigan. You want Michigan to be a part, you want to (say) Michigan is competing for this, Ohio is doing this, State is doing this, just on the conference level. Not on the rivalry level, just on the conference level. It's all going to make the Big Ten look good at the end of the day.'
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