Jim Harbaugh has himself a catchphrase.
You’re probably familiar with it: “Who’s got it better than us?”
The answer, as this is a call-and-response kind of thing, is “nobody.”
And while a great many metrics could back that claim up, it hasn’t exactly been 100-percent true through the first two years of the Jim Harbaugh Experience up in Ann Arbor.
Because in each of those seasons, Ohio State has had it better than Michigan.
Urban Meyer’s program got the jump on Harbaugh’s, obviously, Meyer entering his sixth season in Columbus. His tenure has been defined exclusively by winning, no matter what that famed photo of Meyer eating Papa John’s on a golf cart in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium might lead you to believe.
Since Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have posted a jaw-dropping 61-6 record, won at least a share of five division titles, played in a pair of Big Ten title games, appeared in four bowl games of the highest caliber and won two of them, made two trips to the College Football Playoff and won the national championship to wrap a remarkable 2014 season.
Oh, and they’ve twice beaten the Wolverines.
While neither victory punched Ohio State’s ticket to Indianapolis — Michigan State and Penn State each winning the East Division crown in the last two seasons, respectively — last year’s win in the double-overtime classic cemented the Buckeyes' spot in the Playoff. The loss kept the Wolverines out of it.
This time around, the roles are a bit reversed. Last year, Ohio State lost an unbelievable amount of talent to the NFL and started the season as one of college football’s youngest teams, questions of inexperience the preseason topic du jour. This year, Meyer’s annually stacked roster has his team the Big Ten favorite once more, blessed with experience. Meanwhile, a veteran-laden Michigan team was expected to do big things. This year, the Wolverines have lost more starters than most teams throughout the country — a large number of which went to the NFL — and have question marks to deal with that has stuck them behind Ohio State and Penn State in a number of preseason prognostications.
But even with the scripts flipped, the story might end up the same. Once more, it seems that The Game — not to mention the 11 for each team that precede college football’s most anticipated rivalry bout — will determine who wins the Big Ten.
And once more, it could be Ohio State best positioned to answer “who’s got it better than us?” with “nobody.”
College football coaches dislike few things more than preseason predictions.
Meyer certainly won’t lose any sleep over which pick-makers have made Ohio State their preseason picks to win the Big Ten and win the whole darned thing.
But here’s what he does think:
“Ohio State is always going to be there,” Meyer said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. “I mean, it should be one of the top schools in our conference.”
An ambitious goal for most, Meyer has earned the right to set it. His recruiting classes are annually among the best in the country. His previously described resume speaks for itself. And even without him, Ohio State is one of college football’s most legendary powers. It’s 100-percent true that a preseason where the Buckeyes weren’t considered one of the nation’s top contenders would be a strange one.
And so 2017 is no different.
Last preseason maybe felt a little different. Meyer watched a dozen members of his 2015 roster selected in the NFL Draft, arguably one of the most talented college teams ever having to settle for that — and a Fiesta Bowl beatdown of Notre Dame — as consolation after that walk-off field goal by Michigan State sunk Ohio State’s national-championship repeat hopes. Last year, the Buckeyes were one of the youngest teams in America. Who would replace Joey Bosa? Who would replace Ezekiel Elliott? Who would replace Darron Lee and Joshua Perry and Vonn Bell and Eli Apple?
And still Ohio State was the favorite to win the conference.
This preseason, similar questions surely do exist, with eight more Buckeyes getting their names called in this year’s draft. But those holes are being plugged with older guys, more experienced guys. Ohio State will have a brand-new starting secondary, a mostly brand-new receiving corps and other new starters everywhere a previous All-America type player left.
But there’s also an experienced offensive line, a couple of freaks at defensive end and a fourth-year starter at quarterback who’s still — despite an upsetting season in the passing game in 2016 — one of the best offensive players in the conference.
If the reload worked out last season — and a trip to the College Football Playoff indicated that it emphatically did — this season’s could be even more impressive thanks to the experience that goes along with it.
“Billy Price is going to be snapping the ball to J.T. Barrett. It’s not two freshmen or two rookies,” Meyer said. “The offensive line’s intact except for the right guard, so you’re going to have some established people.
“It’s been done without it, but we don't win the national championship in 2014 without (senior players). It’s one thing when you have seniors, but when seniors play their best football and it’s their last year … if we can say that same thing about this group, we’ll have an excellent season.”
Harbaugh doesn’t think Michigan is flying under anyone’s radar.
And it’s likely that the Wolverines will still be well-ranked in many of the preseason polls.
But it was Ohio State representing the Big Ten in last year’s College Football Playoff. It was Penn State that hoisted the trophy and showered in confetti after the Big Ten title game. Both of those teams have national-championship aspirations in 2017.
Michigan, which went through a lightning-fast transformation from a five-win team in Brady Hoke’s final season to a 10-win team in Harbaugh’s first, could potentially be playing third fiddle in a packed division which now has an annual claim to the title of college football’s toughest.
But the truth is that the Wolverines were better than almost anyone in the sport through the vast majority of last season. Powered by perhaps the nation's finest defense, they gave new meaning to the word dominant, doing impressive work against the Big Ten’s best — silencing the two teams that played for a league title, Penn State and Wisconsin — and obliterating those who weren’t in contention for much of anything, evidenced by the combined 178-11 poundings handed out to Rutgers, Illinois and Maryland.
But a lot changed after Harbaugh & Co. started the season 9-0.
Michigan lost three of its final four games, turning a potential trip to the Playoff into a 10-3 season that left the always-demanding Wolverine fan base wanting. A shocking upset at Iowa cost Michigan everything. And then hopes of a second-chance entrance into the Playoff field went out the window with the loss to Ohio State. Playing without their two best players, Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt, the Wolverines lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Add the deficits up from those three losses and what do you get? Five. Five points. That’s all that kept Michigan from going undefeated.
“We lost three out of our last four games last year, two by one point and one by three points in overtime. Didn’t like that feeling,” Harbaugh said Tuesday, “and that’s motivated us to pour more time into the football team and our jobs and give more effort and pour more of our heart and soul into it.”
So while the odds might not exactly be in Michigan's favor entering this season — only six starters return from last year’s team, the quarterback situation is once again up in the air, and the Big Ten East has a couple hulking behemoths to contend with — Harbaugh is banking on hunger.
“I hope they (the players) have the same feeling,” Harbaugh said. “I hope they didn’t like losing those ballgames. They won a lot of ballgames, too, they won nine straight games. Nothing better than the high five after a ballgame. That feeling compared to the one where you’re losing a game in overtime or by point, much better to get the high five.
“I think a lot of guys on our team have learned that. I think that’s going to make things a little hotter, more competitive.”
He’s banking on hunger — and a really, really talented roster, of course. Headlined by sophomore defensive tackle Rashan Gary, Michigan’s ready to reload, not unlike their rivals to the south. The Wolverines have hauled in top-five recruiting classes in each of the past two seasons.
So don’t act surprised if Michigan is a championship contender again. Even if the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are taking the majority of the preseason buzz, the Wolverines aren’t flying under anyone’s radar.
It’s impossible to know what will happen between now and Nov. 25.
But what is a pretty safe bet is that some sort of postseason hopes will be on the line Thanksgiving weekend in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State has the more favorable road to a Big Ten title, as Michigan has to travel to play both Penn State and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are at home against the Lions and don’t play the Badgers. Both teams have tough non-conference matchups, Ohio State playing host to Oklahoma and Michigan traveling to Jerry World to play Florida.
For what it’s worth, fellow contender Penn State has the back-to-back bouts at the end of October against these two teams, a 1-2 punch that comes after what could be a tough challenge at Northwestern. The Lions haven’t beaten their feline brethren since James Franklin took over.
If the season does play out as expected, the Buckeyes will be favored in that final regular-season game — and they could bring an undefeated record with them. But the prevailing wisdom is that it will look more like last year’s three-point win in double overtime than the previous year’s 42-13 blowout.
Here's what we know for sure, though. Both teams are extremely talented. Both programs are extremely healthy. Both coaches are among the best in the country and have their eyes on winning championships.
There’s a reason the Big Ten, and college football with it, always hinges on The Game: It’s the culmination of the best division race in the sport. With all due respect to the SEC, it's a mighty rare situation when anything can be settled before Ohio State and Michigan play.
“I don’t think there's a gap at all,” Meyer said when asked about the difference between the Big Ten and the SEC. “And that’s no disrespect to other conferences. … I’ve coached in the SEC East when that was one of the strongest (divisions) in the country. And I think the Big Ten East right now is every bit as strong as I can remember the SEC East.
“I feel a great amount of respect nationally about the Big Ten. You sit and look at the national recruiting rankings and you see the Big Ten everywhere, all over the place, and that’s the way it should be.
“There’s a lot of credit to be given, obviously to the administrations that invest in their programs and to the coaching staffs that are out there doing the work. And this is as tough a conference as there is.”
In other words, if you want to know how the college football season will wind up going, you best free up four hours on the final Saturday in November. That might just tell you all you need to know.