Michigan talk starts in October
Sometime just after their sign their scholarship papers, and just before they get the keys to their dormitory rooms, college football players take a solemn oath to never, ever discuss any game but the next one.
They have the "one game at a time" credo implanted in their brains long before learning the school fight song, the periodic table of the elements, or which pizza place near campus delivers after midnight.
Violators of this gag order won't be shot -- they'll be forced to play for Indiana State. (The Sycamores have lost 24 straight.)
So, given that code of silence about anything more than six days away, nobody in the Ohio State or Michigan camps wants to talk about the possibility -- now the likelihood -- that come Nov. 18, the No. 1 team in the nation will meet the No. 2 team in the nation and they will be playing that game in Columbus.
Following this past weekend's developments -- No. 1 Ohio State thrashing Michigan State and then No. 4 Michigan beating Penn State in Happy Valley -- enough voters in the Associated Press poll were convinced that the two best teams in the country are in the same league, and only about 150 miles apart. The gate opened for Michigan to move up when last week's No. 2 team, Florida, going through a Murderer's Row of a schedule, lost on Saturday at Auburn.
Ohio State, Michigancould be ranked 1-2
The coaches poll still has ho-hum Southern Cal No. 2 after another ho-hum win, but Michigan leaped over the Trojans on the AP ballot. If the Wolverines manage an impressive win over Iowa this week, the polls could agree on their 1-2 configuration, and a pre-national championship "Game of the Century" could come off next month in Ohio Stadium.
One of the teams will be wearing scarlet and gray, and the other maize and blue, and the winner will be chartering a flight to Phoenix for the actual national championship game in early January.
Ohio State started the preseason No. 1, and Michigan has climbed week by week after beginning the year No. 14.
While both have gone through seven games unscathed, plenty of other teams left the unbeaten ranks, setting the stage for a colossal No. 1 vs. No. 2 final game of the Big Ten schedule.
They can't talk about it, won't talk about it, won't smile, won't frown or react in any manner to the mere suggestion.
But it is a tantalizing teaser for Ohio State and Michigan fans. The two factions that make up the greatest rivalry in sports have met 102 times -- but never as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams. The scenario that gets them to such a clash of the titans at Ohio Stadium is not far-fetched at all.
Ohio State has Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois, and Northwestern left on the schedule before it sees the Wolverines. Those teams are 3-13 in the Big Ten this season.
Michigan has Iowa, Northwestern, Ball State, and Indiana before it plays the Buckeyes. Only Iowa (5-2) and Indiana (4-3) have winning records.
Tressel says interimgames pose challenge
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel was asked recently about the difficulty of staying focused on the interim games, when the murmurs about Michigan, a potential National Championship, and the Heisman Trophy candidacies of quarterback Troy Smith and receiver/return man Ted Ginn, Jr., seem to drown out the current agenda. Tressel said it is one of the thorniest tasks his team faces.
"The hardest thing to do is to keep your mind on what's going on this second," Tressel said. "I don't care if there's hard things, easy things, or perceived things, or whatever -- it's keeping your mind on what's going on right now."
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr is just as strident. He won't discuss next week's weather, next week's stock market, or next week's training table menu.
"Some mountains are higher than others," Carr said earlier this year when asked about his schedule that included the top-ranked Buckeyes, and Central Michigan.
Ohio State senior safety Brandon Mitchell said the Buckeyes are getting used to the buzz that goes with being No. 1. Not comfortable with it, just accustomed to it.
"Everyone keeps saying that the championship is ours to lose -- both the Big Ten and the national championship," Mitchell said. "Great teams go out and take the championship. We have to stay focused and not go into cruise control."
Branch treats all rivalsas potential spoilers
Michigan junior defensive lineman Alan Branch indicated he treats every opponent the same -- as potential spoilers.
"My motivation is I want to win the Big Ten Championship and the national championship," Branch said. "Every team that goes on the field against us is my motivation because they're trying to stop us from getting what we want as a team."
Michigan's move up to No. 2 spot gives the Big Ten the top two teams in the AP poll for the first time since Iowa was No. 1 and Michigan was No. 2 back in 1985. The Wolverines were ranked No. 1 and Ohio State No. 2 in September of 1976.
The final chapter in the "what-if" scenario has this year's Buckeyes potentially taking part in three No. 1 vs. No. 2 games -- in the same college football season. Top-ranked Ohio State beat No. 2 Texas in September, and if Michigan comes to Columbus as No. 2 and Ohio State wins that game, the Buckeyes would then move into the national title game for a third 1-2 match-up against a new challenger.
Matt Markey is a columnist for the Toledo Blade.