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Lloyd Carr’s Biggest Game

This Year's Big Game might be the Michigan legend's last.

By 11.15.07

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"THOSE WHO STAY WILL BE CHAMPIONS."

Those words -- the Schembechler Doctrine -- were the ones that convinced the seniors of the University of Michigan football team to put it together again for one last title run. Just about every fall feels as though it could be a "special" one in Ann Arbor. This fall, more than most, as the Wolverines returned a starting senior quarterback, running back, and left tackle, all of whom might have eschewed millions to get two four-year old monkeys off their backs by beating Ohio State and winning a bowl game.

Of course, things didn't work themselves out so neatly. After back-to-back home losses to start the season, the Michigan faithful were beside themselves, joining Facebook groups like "Fire Lloyd Carr" and writing to the Michigan Daily to protest the team's slow start and apparent mismanagement.

This year wasn't about individuals or records, or anything besides "the team, the team, the team." And the team is still in it, with a chance to win the Big Ten title, outright, and gain a Rose Bowl berth in the process.

THE BUCKEYES HAVEN'T BEEN nearly as interesting. Save for Brian Robiskie, none of their offensive players jump off the television screen. No one knows whether their fabled defense could live up to the hype against college football's best teams, because Ohio State didn't bother to schedule any quality opponents this season. That they managed to lose, at home, to unranked Illinois, might have been the universe's way of saying that the Buckeyes didn't live up to the hype.

But even before the Hiccup at the Horseshoe, there were questions as to whether Ohio State really deserved its #1 ranking. Given that LSU, Kansas, and Oklahoma all have conference championship games yet to come, against opponents that are, by definition, "quality," there is a good chance that Ohio State could've been displaced from its top spot without incurring a single loss.

Saturday's game (12 p.m., ABC) won't be quite as big as last year's historic #1 v. #2 match-up. Even so, since 1969, Michigan-Ohio State has been the quintessential rivalry, college football's equivalent of Red Sox-Yankees. Nothing in that regard has changed. But for one man this game might be bigger than most Big Games -- it might be his last.

IT'S NOT EVERYDAY that a Michigan man distances himself from his team's past.

"It's a new year, it's a new team, and we're not really talking about the past or the future," said offensive lineman Adam Kraus at the team press conference. "It's about this team, and we're excited to get out there on Saturday and play."

Kraus's unwillingness to speak to the uncertain future is a sign of the times. Little has gone as expected this season. Michigan's early-season missteps are a matter of public record. The story that's gotten relatively minor press was Michigan's recovery, spurred by a tear through the Big Ten that ended a week early at Camp Randall.

Clamors of "Fire Lloyd Carr" have been replaced by a "Win one for Lloyd" sentiment that has even afflicted some former clamorers. While the administration has been (frustratingly) steadfast in its loyalty to Carr (who, in the wake of Bo Schembechler's death a year ago, is now undoubtedly the biggest light in Michigan athletics), there is a good chance Carr could walk away on his own. Especially if he becomes the first coach in Michigan history to go down 1-6 against his Ohio State counterpart, let alone doing so in the same year that his #5 team lost to unranked (and unknown) Appalachian State.

Lloyd Carr will be immortalized for bringing Michigan the championship to match its pedigree -- its first in nearly 49 years by that point. Playing the Joshua to Bo Schembechler's Moses, Carr led the Wolverines to the elusive Promised Land in 1997.

But history might look back at that moment as Carr's eventual undoing. Expectations have remained high ever since, only growing with each top-10 recruiting class. Fans are, perhaps unfairly, at a loss to understand why a championship coach can't produce the same results again and again. As losses piled up over the years, sometimes coming against teams that Michigan should've beaten, frustration mounted -- the type that never accompanied Bo Schembechler, who never won a national championship. And so the faithful cheer on for Coach Carr, out of respect, even as rumors fly that Michigan alum and LSU head man Les Miles might be persuaded to return to Ann Arbor.

But in an era in which the spread-option, the mobile quarterback, and flat-out speed factor into college football more than ever before, now might be the time for an old-school coach to get going while the getting's good. In cheering for the Wolverines to "win one for Lloyd," Michigan fans are sounding a refrain familiar in times when a great man's moment has passed: "We hate to see you go, but we'd love to watch you leave."

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