Two years ago, then-freshman guard Ben Bredeson was on the bus to Ohio State when he realized the magnitude of this rivalry. He distantly knew of its significance but, growing up in Wisconsin, hadn’t experienced it first-hand.
That changed in a hurry as the Michigan bus approached Columbus, surrounded by Buckeyes fans flipping them the middle finger at every turn. Bredeson had been to East Lansing earlier that season, but he knew this was different before the game, with boos raining down on the Wolverines from the time they took the field for warm-ups.
“I loved it from the get-go, I loved this rivalry,” Bredeson said. “I absolutely despise that school so it’s gonna be a good one going into Saturday.”
Added junior defensive lineman: “You can’t really describe it, it’s just something that happens when you wear the ‘M.’ You walk in, you take the ‘M’ on, you despite Ohio State. And if you don’t, I don’t know why you’re at Michigan. You gotta despise Ohio State.”
What Bredeson probably hasn’t loved is the results of his first two games against Ohio State. I don’t need to recap them but, in case you’re not aware, Michigan suffered a pair of heartbreaking losses.
This season, though, has carried a different air around Schembechler Hall. Even when the Wolverines dropped the opener to Notre Dame, and the outside world discarded their title hopes, optimism remained strong within the program.
That optimism carried them into three straight blowout wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State, despite onlookers offering a slew of reasons for why Michigan would lose each.
After Notre Dame, that optimism appeared delusional. Before Wisconsin, it was unfounded. Even on Monday, when senior running back Karan Higdon guaranteed a win over the Buckeyes, it drew dismissive murmurs around the college football universe.
For the Wolverines, the reason for optimism has been clear since long before the season started.
“I think this is the closest group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said senior safety Tyree Kinnel. “Everyone likes each other in the locker room, everyone’s excited for other people’s success.”
“Probably the most profound thing is how they talk about each other,” added Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “If you’re complementing one of our players, they’re very quick to move the spotlight off of them and onto another position group or another player. I think that speaks volumes.”
Kemp started to see that difference during winter conditioning, when he could sense an added dimension of trust among his teammates.
Bredeson felt a new attitude emerging during summer workouts and continuing to grow into fall camp, with the team having more fun than they had in past years.
“You got to see the attitude of the team and you got to see what everybody was all about,” Bredeson said. “… I think (fall camp) when everybody really started to catch on that this was something we could really do.”
No matter when they realized, everyone knew this team would be different by the time the season started.
That’s why, when the college football world turned on them after the Notre Dame loss, they remained confident. And that’s why, now, on the back of 13 losses to Ohio State over the past 14 years, the Wolverines are confident in victory.
By now, everybody has heard about Higdon guaranteeing a win. But what may be most telling is what he said after.
“I believe firmly in my brothers and this team and this coaching staff. And as a captain, I’ll take that stand. Why not?”
I believe firmly in my brothers.
We won’t find out whether Higdon’s prognosis comes to fruition until Saturday. But at the very least, this go-around feels different.