Previously: The Offense
To be a college football fan in the Midwest in 2018 means moonlighting as Urban Meyer's sideline psychologist. The cameras are all too happy to oblige us, helpfully cutting to our patient's emotive state after every important event, capturing our client exhibiting all manner of worrying behaviors. He squats. He runs his hands through his hair. He paces. Squats again. Squeezes his face. Buries it in his hands. You have to wonder.
Since I happen to be married to an actual Psychologist I showed her the tape I've been analyzing for weeks, and asked the thing we've all been thinking since Brett McMurphy slimed through a noxious fissure named Zach Smith and revealed what's beneath the program that has owned our league since 2012: Does Urban Meyer look like he's losing it?
I'll spare you the professional details but the gist of her diagnosis was 1) Except in literally the most extreme case of megalomania with narcissistic personality disorder ever recorded, it's impossible to make a clinical diagnosis by watching a person on television, and 2) That's exactly what I look like when I watch Michigan.
Man Watches Sports is a controlled mental disorder. Our fake association with the outcome of a meaningless competitive event decided by randomness and an unequal system of advantages does in fact serve a few purposes. It's a way to belong, and a way to feel unmitigated success in a complex world where the payoffs of victory are abstract and delayed. The losing is good for a different reason: It is a way to break from the constraints of our rational lives and practice being in a state of distress. Your human brain is not wired to believe, on any given Friday, that today is the day you'll lose your livelihood, lose your dog, lose your dad, or find out your best friend at work has to retire at 30 from a disease that the social net doesn't even believe is real. The preparation you put in in practice will show on the field when it's your turn.
That wiring is also the reason that extremely lucky humans tend to mistake felicity for the natural way of things, and pout like spoiled children when they get a small taste of life for everyone else. Ohio State in the Age of Meyer has had it too good. The first time Urban coached The Game the elite athletes he inherited carried pharisaical Tressel off the field. He won a national championship two years later with the all-NFL defense Tressel left him, and a third string quarterback who meritocratically ought to have been starting over the other two. USC got caught lying about the same emolument schemes at the same time, and they're still in Clay Helton Hell to this day.
Urban's record in The Game is both a perfect 6-0, and extremely lucky not to be 2-4, despite a vastly superior team in all but one contest. Last year he again got ham blasted in every aspect of coaching except the recruitment of third string quarterbacks. It's no wonder that a man so favored by fortune should think he could tell bald-faced lies about the garbage assistant he covered for for years, then squeal at the unfairness of it all when the failed institution he so thoroughly corrupted could only get his fireable offense reduced to a week's vacation and three days off from televised therapy.
It's also the reason that Ohio State fans—including Meyer—are doing so much Man Watches Sports this year. Their offense, though schematically closer to the modern NFL than the college game Urban helped shape, is just as lethal as ever. This bad new feeling that's got Buckeyes pacing their living rooms and sidelines is all about having to work through what the common man's defense feels like. It's not a disaster like, say, Michigan's offense last year. Ohio State is 52nd in scoring defense, and 38th in S&P+, in a word: average. They've got a hole at boundary safety, and not quite enough first-class mercenaries trained up to cover for it.
But they're also already a lock to finish at least a game-and-a-half over their expected win total by coming out ahead in two coinflip games and two more dice rolls where they had to get a three or higher. One more catchable throw by a backup QB last week and Michigan's already the Champions of the East while Ohio State fans are left to grumble that the receiver was only open because an offensive lineman blatantly blocked his coverage. Every other sports fan outside of Alabama knows exactly what that's like; an Ohio State student today believes misfortune is having to spend a year with Luke Fickell in charge. Roll a five or a six tomorrow and the super-privileged will get to parade around in their gold pants yet again.
Probabilities, however, cannot account for individual mental states, nor the result of long-developing processes when the payoff has been artificially delayed. Judging by the last three years, Harbaugh's best offensive gameplan in 2018 will be tomorrow's, and the entire arc of his program has been toward preparing this year's charges to play the best game of their careers. That's no guarantee of a win—Michigan remains one snap away from another third-string quarterback, Runyan and JBB/Stueber get another elite edge test, and the interior of Warinner's reclamation project hasn't faced a pair of DTs of this caliber since their 2017 Orange Bowl practices.
I'm terrified, as any sane Michigan fan ought to be given the circumstances. But given what I've seen of Ohio State's defense on film, rationally, I think it's time that the Buckeyes to get some practice for life's real disasters.
The Film: Indiana because I wasn't going to waste last week actually watching Indiana, and Maryland because it's the most recent game against the most recent personnel, and because Maryland's offense is built around a running quarterback in an advanced, condensed, whipsaw scheme that mercilessly tests your assignments, and has to live with an offensive line of basically five guards. I also watched the rest of their games this year in the course of being a Big Ten football person.
[the breakdown after THE JUMP]