Truth be told, this question doesn't really require an answer. Ohio State dominates Michigan on the field and in game day atmosphere. But, as hard as it is to believe, there are actually people that believe Michigan has the better game day environment. Why? I'm not sure but let's run through some of the reasons Ohio State's game day is so special.
The Buckeye football experience can be divided into two parts. The first part is the pregame fun outside the stadium where Hineygate gets started on Lane Avenue several hours prior to kickoff. There, the music and beer flow equally and legally. When you get your fill of that, two hour prior to kickoff The Ohio State Marching Band performs their Skull Sesson inside St. John Arena. The Skull Session is one part warm up session and one part pep rally multiplied by ten. The visiting team's band is invited as well making for a unified college tradition.
As the kickoff nears, this is where the Columbus atmosphere separates itself. Ohio Stadium is simply the best stadium in college football and provides the perfect canvas for Buckeye traditions. Easily the most recognized tradition is ScriptOhio and the dotting of the "i". But, even before that, The Best Damn Band in the Land (TBDBITL) performs The Ramp Entrance - a military-esque procession where the band enters the stadium, marches the length of the field blaring the fight song "Buckeye Battle Cry".
Crowd noise and participation is another large component. OH - IO chants around the stadium keep the environment electric and raucous. So too does the excellent "Block O" student section. The band continues their activity by breaking into small groups and popping up around the stadium in various seating sections to play "Across the Field", another OSU fight song. At the end of the third quarter, you will always hear TBDBITL play "Hang on Sloopy", a tradition since the '60s.
All this is a far cry from what goes on in Ann Arbor. The Big House is cute though sans a single redeeming architectural feature. Because of its design, any modicum of crowd noise goes, ironically, straight into the 'atmosphere'. And speaking of atmosphere, nothing exudes it more than the half empty Michigan Stadium the nation saw in their game against Northwestern earlier this year. The location of their stadium is even better - in a hole. How fitting.
Deep down Michigan and its fans ache for what we have. Ohio State's game day atmosphere is special. Michigan's is not. In fact, Michigan is more known for their lack of atmosphere than having one at all. It's as simple as that.
As The Biggest Game in the History of the Universe rapidly approaches, everything "Michigan" and "Ohio State" will come under great national scrutiny. Anticipation will be building throughout the week, with media members from across the globe setting up camp everywhere in Columbus. While the Late Local News from Boise is broadcasting live 2 floors underneath Ted Ginn's freshman dorm room, and wannabe eBay entrepreneurs are hurriedly getting the cancelled checks from Troy Smith's illegal booster payments authenticated, those who are not fans of college football would be best served to cash in their frequent flyer miles and head far away. For the rest of us, this is as good as it gets. This rivalry has had it's memorable moments to be sure: Michigan fans can point to the 1950 Snow Bowl game in Columbus; the 1969 upset of Woody Hayes' self proclaimed "best OSU squad ever;" the 1986 "guarantee" by Jim Harbaugh; Desmond's Heisman pose in 1991; the back-to-back upsets of undefeated OSU teams in 1995 and 1996; the unforgettable 1997 game where Charles Woodson clinched the Heisman and a Rose Bowl berth for Michigan en route to the national championship; and of course the 2003 meeting, which was the 100th in the series, where the Wolverines prevailed with the Big Ten title on the line. Buckeye fans can look back on 1968, when Woody went for two; 1972-75, when Archie Griffin picked up 3 pairs of gold pants; the 1987 farewell game for Earle Bruce when OSU triumphed in the Big House; 2002, when undefeated Ohio State held off Michigan to play for the national championship; and of course, the "greatest win in OSU history," the 13-13 tie in 1992. But, nothing this series has ever seen will compare to what we're about to see on Saturday. Michigan and Ohio State fans generations deep have dreamed of such a match-up. #1 v. #2. 11-0 v. 11-0. As if this rivalry needed anymore animosity, a spot in the national championship game will give this version a little extra emotion. How improbable is this match-up? In 10 years or so of playing EA's "NCAA Football" series, I still haven't been able to make it happen. When you can't do it on the video games, it's something special, folks.
While the history and tradition of Michigan and Ohio State make the rivalry special, one thing sets college football apart from its professional counterpart, and really establishes it as the pinnacle of American sport. The game day atmosphere makes college football special. Old stadiums, bands, fight songs, cheerleaders, passion from alumni and students, entire towns rallying behind their team; this is where college football distinguishes itself from other sports. Like any other intangible, game day atmospheres serve as a point of pride and comparison for universities nationwide. And, like the record in this series (57-39-6), this comparison isn't even close. Michigan blows the Buckeyes away. The University of Michigan is a school that has a football team. Ohio State is a football team that has a school.
A great college town is the starting point for measuring game day atmospheres. The differences between Ann Arbor and Columbus are vast. The University of Michigan is settled in a small, quiet college town, with a population of roughly 114,000. Ann Arbor is a popular destination for folks seeking fine dining, and renowned for its culture, diversity, and entertainment, all of which contribute to the town's ranking as the 6th best place to live in the United States. The university integrates perfectly with the city, providing economic stimulation off of which Ann Arbor thrives. Michigan football Saturdays are an opportunity for Ann Arbor to showcase itself. Visitors come into town from all over the nation to enjoy everything Ann Arbor has to offer. Fans walk the historic Michigan campus, venturing through the scenic Diag (making sure to stop and admire the "M" in the middle), taking in beautiful architecture that is seemingly everywhere. Angell Hall, the Law Quad, practically every building on campus has a story to tell. On football weekends, anxious fans flood to Moe Sport Shop on North University. The oldest sporting goods store on campus (opened in 1915), Moe's caters to every apparel need of the Michigan fan, and is a must for anyone needing maize & blue gear in time for kickoff. After taking in some of campus, and gearing up, it's off to enjoy another Michigan victory.
Columbus, on the other hand, is quite a different experience. A wasteland of urban sprawl nestled deep in central Ohio; it's not a surprise that Buckeye football is the main attraction 52 weeks a year. Not a whole lot of incentive to visit for anything else. Columbus is the 15th most populated city in the nation, with over 710,000 residents. That number is rapidly declining; however, as Columbus residents seem to be knocking each other off at an alarming rate. Columbus was ranked 9th most dangerous out of the 32 cities in the nation with 500,000+ residents, and had an alarming 6,111 violent crimes in 2005. Ouch. The Ohio State University itself doesn't offer much comfort for those looking to escape the downtown Columbus area. A scattering of generic, brick buildings make up this bland looking campus. OSU offers only The Oval and Mirror Lake as scenic reprieves from the abandoned buildings and depressed neighborhood surrounding the university. The hub of student activity on football weekends- High Street- pales in comparison to Ann Arbor's South University, State Street, and Main Street locations.
As if the city of Columbus alone wasn't reason enough for people to enjoy game day in Ann Arbor more, the fans set Michigan aside from the rest. Michigan fans treat football as religion, and Saturdays do not disappoint. From tailgating on the Ann Arbor Golf & Outing course, where there is plenty of food, beer, and spirit to go around, to house parties thrown by students on campus; fans are consumed with both winning, and having a good time. Michigan fans passionately support our team, yet do so with class and dignity, opting not to partake in juvenile harassment of our visitors. Michigan Stadium features many of college football's best traditions: The Victors, the greatest fight song in the country; the M Club banner, held up by student-athletes to support their gridiron brethren; and of course, the NCAA's all-time attendance records.
Saturday will mark my fifth straight trip to OSU for The Game (though I have to get a ruling on whether or not I can count 1998 and 2000, since they pre-date Jim Tressel's invention of football in 2001.) One good thing I can say about Buckeye fans is that I haven't been killed by one (Yet.) Going to the OSU-Michigan game as a Michigan fan is something that is difficult to describe. I think the closest you could get would be to take to the streets of Baghdad wearing a "USA #1" t-shirt. While I find the Horseshoe a tremendous venue to watch college football, unfortunately, you actually have to walk over to the stadium, and walk from the field to your car post-game. The OSU administration recognizes this, and in fear of what their students might do this year, they have teamed with local businesses to ban the sale of bottled beer next week. You know, so those bottles cannot be thrown at Michigan fans. Thanks, OSU. I'll think of that kindness when the first full can of High Life hits me in the back of the head. OSU fans have taken the rivalry to disturbing heights, but that may be expected from a group who most resemble monkeys flinging poo. Michigan fans have to park far off-campus to avoid their car windows being smashed. The scene after the 2002 UM-OSU game involved rioting, fires, campus destruction and a "wall of urine" (YouTube: Ohio State Fans. It's a good laugh.) Columbus is preparing for the worst this year. They've banned porch couches in the city, and have established a "student sportsmanship committee", which no doubt explains the proper way to tip a car and minimize damage.
Any city that requires a flak jacket or Barry Sanders-esque moves to avoid objects being hurled at you cannot lay claim to a superior game day atmosphere. In addition, Ohio State's pride-and-joy is the "dotting of the i." Think about this for a moment: 105,000 people waiting 5 minutes for the band to spell "O-H-I-O." That is exhilarating.
For the other, more unique aspects of each school's game day, let's take a "Tale-of-the-Tape" format:
Stadium...Michigan: The largest crowd watching football anywhere in America today. Ohio State: The largest focus group for Skoal anywhere in America. Edge: MICHIGAN
Tailgates...Michigan: Spacious golf courses where you can spread out, enjoy time with friends, and toss the ball around. Ohio State: Hineygate. A glorified frat party where live bands play and people get embarrassingly drunk. Edge: OHIO STATE (unintentional comedy at it's best)
Fight Songs...Michigan: The Victors: the best there is. Played at every tailgate. Ohio State: OSU has 2. Plus Hang on Sloopy. Seriously. They love Sloopy. Edge: MICHIGAN
Cheers...Michigan: Go Blue! Ohio State: O-H-I-O. Edge: MICHIGAN (Though OSU gets props for correctly spelling a 4-letter state)
Mascots...Michigan is above a mascot. Ohio State: Brutus. A nut, with a body. Edge: MICHIGAN (Brutus is...disturbing.)
Bands...Michgan: Traditional and classy. Ohio State: The Salvation Army look is beneficial during the holiday fundraising season. Rumor has it the street corner collections go straight to Tressel's "recruiting fund." Edge: MICHIGAN
So there you have it. Not even close. Though, I do have to point out to those making the trek to Columbus for their first ever OSU game: while Michigan fans yell "GO BLUE!," 'Bama fans yell "ROLL TIDE!," and Auburn fans yell "WAR EAGLE!," the OSU equivalent is "$#@! MICHIGAN!" Don't be alarmed. It's just how they are.
While the game day atmosphere debate wasn't very close, the game probably will be. History dictates that this is usually a tough match-up, and this year I don't see either team blowing the other out.
Michigan seems to be the better all-around team, but OSU features the game-breakers that are unparalleled in college football. Troy Smith being the x-factor. Defensively, I think Michigan matches up pretty well with OSU. Especially if Alex Boone is unable to go (I think he'll play.) I don't worry about LaMarr Woodley (going for his 5th career QB kill, and "Ace" status), Alan Branch, and the front 4 getting pressure. They'll also be able to contain Antonio Pittman and the OSU running game pretty well. I doubt we'll be holding them to PSU-like -14 rushing yards, but 50 or so sounds about right. The key to Michigan's success this year against OSU will be the linebackers. Shawn Crable and (a hopefully healthy) Prescott Burgess have the size, speed, and agility to contain Smith, and also help on defending the quick passing game, which OSU may need to utilize if Woodley has his way. Where Michigan is sweating is on the weak corner match-up. Hopefully, Leon Hall will be working against Anthony Gonzalez the majority of the game. While Ted Ginn is the marquee name, Gonzalez is a better receiver, and can absolutely kill us with a big game. That leaves Ginn matched up against Morgan Trent. Yikes. Trent has shown he can keep up with Ginn (beat him in the 200m in high school), but that's just running really fast, really straight. We'll need a lot of safety help here, and OSU doesn't stop with Ginn and Gonzalez, since Brian Robiskie is a breakout player waiting to happen. OSU has a significant edge in pass offense v. pass defense, but I'd give Michigan the run defense v. rushing offense edge, as well as the battle of the lines.
When Michigan has the ball, it's a similar situation, except I like Mike Hart's ability to run in this game. If Hart gets 100, Michigan will probably win this game. We're not going to win trying to match touchdown passes with Smith. Mario Manningham's return is huge, since he gives the Wolverines a legitimate deep threat, and when healthy is up there with Calvin Johnson as the best wideout in the nation. Adrian Arrington's evolution into a solid #2 role this year provides us with a good counter to OSU's stable of receivers. Steve Breaston's well documented struggles tend not to apply to screens and reverses, where the majority of his offensive contributions will land Saturday. I don't see the Michigan offense struggling to score points, and I am hopeful that the ability to control the clock will leave OSU's offense cold.
Special teams are a wash, though I will for the record say that even though he is Michigan's all-time leading scorer now, if Garrett Rivas trots onto the field for a 40 yard field goal with 3 seconds left, and a 2 point deficit, I will pass out in the stands. You will see the EMS respond to a heart attack victim in the south stands. Please, please, please, don't put this game on his shoulders. Unless, of course, the Pabst Blue Ribbon-for-field goals proposal passed last Tuesday. In which case, we win.
Final score? I think Michigan wins, but we have to take the crowd out early. It's a random number, but it came to me in a dream. Michigan wins 30-21, Hart seals it with a 40 yard run with about 2 minutes left. It's on to Glendale for Michigan!