Why the stakes have never been higher for Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh

The question came for Jim Harbaugh just as it does every November.

It has been 32 eventful years since a young Harbaugh sat in front of a television camera wearing a button-up white shirt and guaranteed that his Michigan Wolverines would beat Ohio State and punch their ticket to the Rose Bowl. As has happened in every year that he has been around Michigan since, someone this Monday wanted to know what he remembered about that moment more than half a lifetime ago.

The next year, Urban Meyer was a young graduate assistant called into an Ohio State meeting room to learn his boss and mentor, Earle Bruce, had been fired just days before the game against OSU’s rival in Ann Arbor. Meyer remembers that just as well as Harbaugh remembers his guarantee. The Buckeyes won that game, and they carried Bruce off the field on their shoulders.

Neither of these two head coaches needs a reminder about the legacy-shaping power of The Game.

“Certainly there’s no [game] bigger than this,” Meyer said Monday. “The word ‘pressure’ absolutely is there. For someone to say there’s no pressure, that’s not true.”

Any time Ohio State plays Michigan, there is the potential for life-changing moments to arise. This year’s contest between a pair of 10-1 teams feels, for several reasons, destined to produce an inflection point, especially for the two high-powered coaches who have been tasked with returning their annual rivalry to its most heated glory days.

The first four rounds of Harbaugh vs. Meyer will have produced enough talking points to support whatever narrative history deems appropriate for their part in the longstanding series.

Two of three games now have featured top-10 teams battling for a potential playoff spot (It lived up to the epic competitive hype!). The Buckeyes are 3-0 against Harbaugh’s Wolverines, with two of those victories coming by double digits. (Meyer dominated! Harbaugh couldn’t win when it counted!) Of course, one of those three wins came after a controversial call in overtime and another was a second-half comeback against a third-string Michigan quarterback. (Harbaugh’s team were so close! And they got screwed by the refs!)

Which perception will stick when this chapter of the rivalry draws to a close? The 2018 meeting — and it’s fair now to wonder how many more versions of this heavyweight coaching battle we’ll get — might play a big role in answering that question.

Consider the differences between the buildup to this year’s top-10 meeting and to the same game at the Horseshoe two years earlier. In 2016, Meyer’s mature dynasty was thriving in Columbus and Harbaugh’s team was the upstart challenger trying to take down a mighty opponent. The gap grew even larger last year with Ohio State cruising toward another Big Ten title and Michigan’s jalopy of an offense creating reason to doubt whether Harbaugh would return Michigan to its proud past.

The roles have almost reversed in the past year. Michigan is the new bully of the Big Ten. Ohio State, an underdog this week for the first time since winning the 2014 national championship, has the uneasy look of a teetering empire. A good push this week from the Wolverines could send the whole thing crashing to the ground and amplify the questions about the health of Ohio State and its head coach with the single-track mind for winning.

“It definitely is a different feeling,” Michigan running back Karan Higdon said. “We’ve got to make sure we handle our business.”

If Michigan doesn’t at long last take care of business in Columbus, those perceptions can easily spin another 180 degrees back in the other direction. This Ohio State team has to win only a home game with its record-setting quarterback to be remembered as another 11-1 group and a favorite to win its third Big Ten title in six years. Meyer, Dwayne Haskins and the rest of the 2018 Buckeyes would suddenly go down as the team that toughed out a year full of drama and turmoil and still found a way to win the conference it has dominated. If Ohio State can’t be toppled this year, then when?

Harbaugh wasn’t interested this week in “peeling back the layers of the onion” of what this game could mean for how he is viewed in the eyes of Michigan fans and the rest of the college football world. With a loss, he’ll be the only coach in program history to start 0-4 against the Buckeyes.

With a win, he’ll give himself a good chance to be the first Michigan coach with 40 wins in his first four years since Fielding Yost started the 20th century with four undefeated seasons. And he’ll be a win over Northwestern away from likely making the College Football Playoff. In other words, he’ll be more or less on schedule for the sky-high expectations that greeted him in Ann Arbor back in 2015.

It is perhaps a bit unfair for the legacy of a man to be subject to such divergent paths based maybe on nothing more than a tipped pass here or a questionable spot there. There have been other defining days in their past and will almost certainly be more in the future. But Saturday will be, for Harbaugh and Meyer, a major potential crossroads for how they are remembered.

The stats and data can be made to paint whatever picture you want. It is moments like these that decide how they will be used.

The canvas is stretched taut with anticipation this week. It will be blank for only a few more days.

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