COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If the walls could talk at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, well, they would actually scream right about now. Ohio State defensive end JT Tuimoloau knows. He not only walks past the pictures of the legends in the team's football facility each day, he hears from those players directly.
"We're representing ourselves, but we're also representing our past, the dudes that came before us," Tuimoloau said. "... Being able to talk some of these dudes who came before me, I always call them 'Wall Guys.' If you're on the wall in the facility, you have a really good career. The standard obviously was not met [last year]."
For a team favored to advance to another College Football Playoff led by a coach with the game's best winning percentage -- a program with as much money and support as any in the nation -- something feels not quite right heading into 2023.
Ohio State knows it.
"Two in a row," said Tuimoloau somberly, almost to himself.
That's the summation of the 800-pound Wolverine in the room. It only seems like 13 minutes ago when Ohio State owned The Team Up North having beaten Michigan for the eighth consecutive time -- the second-longest winning streak in a rivalry that dates back to 1897.
Now, it's actually coming up on four years since Ohio State triumphed.
That was 2019. COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 game. Michigan broke the streak in 2021, winning by its biggest margin over Ohio State (15 points) since 1993. Then the Buckeyes were outscored 28-3 in the second half at home to ratchet up the C-bus angst to a new level last season.
On its way to winning the Big Ten, Michigan scored its most points against Ohio State (45) since 1946 giving the Wolverines consecutive wins over the Buckeyes for the first time since 2000.
The Shoe's patrons emptied out like an all-night rave at sunrise -- quiet and spent.
"I experienced it as a player, so I knew what it was like," Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. "When I was [named coach], everybody kept saying, 'Beat Ohio State. Just beat Ohio State. It's going to be great, coach.' And they were right."
While the Michigan-Ohio State game might be subtext to the national scene in any given season, it has risen to a new level of psychodrama on both campuses in 2023. Harbaugh has used the Ohio State triumphs to propel Michigan toward consecutive outright Big Ten titles for the first time since 1992. The accomplishments have basically reshaped his coaching legacy at his alma mater.
Finally, he has beaten Ohio State. Somewhere below that bullet point are those conference titles and back-to-back College Football Playoff appearances.
More to the point: Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. -- the best receiver in the game -- was asked recently whether beating Michigan, winning the Big Ten or advancing to the playoff was most important.
"The Team Up North," he said without hesitation. "That's where it starts and ends. Nothing else matters."
It is ridiculous in a way. A lot has been heaped on Ryan Day, that coach with the game's best winning percentage (.882) who is being forced to explain why he hasn't beaten Ohio State's biggest rival lately. In another way, Day knows he has to watch his back. In this series, hosannas can flip to outrage in a heartbeat.
In 51 career games as Ohio State's coach, Day has lost six times. Two of those six defeats have been at the hands of Michigan in as many seasons. Those are actually his only Big Ten losses in a career that has included two conference titles and two CFP appearances.
"A lot of conversations with my kids and my wife because they read stuff, too," Day said last month at Big Ten Media Days when discussing his mindset this offseason. "You have to win them all. That's how it goes."
Adding to the psychodrama: Ohio State made the playoff last year despite the Michigan loss. What followed was some sort of potential college football fantasy -- the possibility of the Buckeyes and Wolverines meeting twice in six weeks, the second time for the national championship.
Instead, Michigan lost a shootout to TCU in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal. After three quarters in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, OSU appeared to have Georgia handled. Ohio State led by two touchdowns only to lose Harrison to injury, which ultimately might have been the difference in losing the game.
To complete the surgical removal of its heart and soul, Ohio State kicker Noah Ruggles missed a potential game-winning field goal from 50 yards out with 3 seconds left.
The Buckeyes season was that close to being saved. We think. The image of Michigan players dancing on the benches at Ohio Stadium would have endured nonetheless.
"Man, it just drives you crazy," Day said of the second-half breakdowns against Michigan and Georgia. "We spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to figure out that very question."
This month's training camps begat either the beginning of a grand do-over for Ohio State or the early makings of Michigan's first three-game winning streak in the series since 1997. No one on either side needs to be reminded that is the last time the Wolverines won a national championship.
Day calls them "matchup games." There are only a handful teams that legitimately challenge superpowers like Ohio State each season. Aside from Michigan, Day has lost only one other regular-season game (Oregon, 2021). The other three losses are in the CFP.
"When we play our equals, [when] the talent is equal, we have to find the edge,"Ohio State linebacker Cody Simon said. "... We have spent the whole offseason [thinking about Michigan]. We never forget the taste in our mouth."
In 1934, Ohio State coach Francis Schmidt made a seemingly innocuous comment about Michigan players putting on their pants "one leg at a time." That eventually created the Gold Pants Club. A group of businessmen got together to create a miniature gold pants charm awarded to the Buckeyes each year they beat Michigan.
Junior WR Emeka Egbuka is among those who desperately want that piece of jewelry.
"That's something I need to do while I'm here," Egbuka said. "I feel like going into this [year's] game, we're not the favorite. I think that's good for this team. … I feel like it hasn't gotten to our head but subconsciously there is, like, something there. Having a chip on our shoulder is something that's going to help us."
The hate, anxiety, longing, anticipation -- whatever you want to call it -- is only going to grow. In the expanded 12-team playoff that begins next season, Ohio State-Michigan could conceivably meet three times in a matter of weeks: the traditional late November game, the Big Ten Championship Game and the playoff. (The Big Ten, like many conferences, is ditching divisions starting in 2024 and will match its two best teams in its league title game.)
Is more Michigan-Ohio State better? Will the rivalry, its coaches, the fans and the sort survive potentially three games in less than two months between the bitterest of rivals?
Or does the whole thing spontaneously combust one day when the sun comes up and the rave hasn't stopped?
Best to deal with it one year at a time.
"This year it has to be different," Tuimoloau said.