After this year’s Ohio State-Michigan game (37-7), Ohio State coach Jim Tressel offered a statement that I never expected a Buckeye coach to say. “Michigan will be back. You don’t have to worry about that.” While some Big Ten fans (and even Buckeye fans) make comments about how recent lopsided runs have diluted the rivalry, I’m in no particular hurry to see Michigan return to the top of the conference standings.
But Tressel’s comment got me thinking about a fact I’d read once years before. A decent chunk of the wins that make Michigan’s football program the winningest in the country came in the first half of the 20th Century. If college football has changed since the days of Woody and Bo, it has definitely changed since the time of Fielding Yost.
Michigan is clearly dominant early in its history, and it went through several down periods in the 1930s and 1960s before its current troubles. Meanwhile, Ohio State seems to vary much more. Its record is more spiky. When the Buckeyes are good, they’re good. And when they’re down, they’re down. But the only time they’ve fallen as low as Michigan in the past 100 years was during the 1940s.
This left me with one further question. How do the teams look when compared to the entire Big Ten conference?
I grabbed the season winning percentages for the 11 teams currently in the Big Ten since they began football. I wasn’t trying to capture the time since the school joined the conference. I wanted to look at how dominant the programs were overall – even if they didn’t line up against each other every year. Finally, I added a 10-year moving average for Ohio State and Michigan.
While other conference teams have surpassed one (or both teams) for a year or two at different times, the moving average is clearly well above the normal season for the bulk of the Big Ten. It’s normal for the single best team in the Big Ten in any given year to keep pace with the 10-year average for the better of these two teams. I was really surprised to see just how dominant the two programs are. One team or the other is always at the top – if not both teams.
The other big thing I learned from my two weeks of number crunching? Tressel’s comment was a bit off base. Michigan’s 10-year average still has two 10-3 seasons (2002 and 2003) and an 11-2 season (2006). But it’s only recently began to drop its moving average and is only slightly below the period of the early 1990s that would include the Earle Bruce-John Cooper transition years in the Buckeyes 10-year average.