Big Ten

Scripts flipped for Ohio State and Michigan heading into 2017, but don't be surprised if Big Ten, college football seasons again come down to Buckeyes and Wolverines

Scripts flipped for Ohio State and Michigan heading into 2017, but don't be surprised if Big Ten, college football seasons again come down to Buckeyes and Wolverines

Jim Harbaugh has himself a catchphrase.

You’re probably familiar with it: “Who’s got it better than us?”

The answer, as this is a call-and-response kind of thing, is “nobody.”

And while a great many metrics could back that claim up, it hasn’t exactly been 100-percent true through the first two years of the Jim Harbaugh Experience up in Ann Arbor.

Because in each of those seasons, Ohio State has had it better than Michigan.

Urban Meyer’s program got the jump on Harbaugh’s, obviously, Meyer entering his sixth season in Columbus. His tenure has been defined exclusively by winning, no matter what that famed photo of Meyer eating Papa John’s on a golf cart in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium might lead you to believe.

Since Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have posted a jaw-dropping 61-6 record, won at least a share of five division titles, played in a pair of Big Ten title games, appeared in four bowl games of the highest caliber and won two of them, made two trips to the College Football Playoff and won the national championship to wrap a remarkable 2014 season.

Oh, and they’ve twice beaten the Wolverines.

While neither victory punched Ohio State’s ticket to Indianapolis — Michigan State and Penn State each winning the East Division crown in the last two seasons, respectively — last year’s win in the double-overtime classic cemented the Buckeyes' spot in the Playoff. The loss kept the Wolverines out of it.

This time around, the roles are a bit reversed. Last year, Ohio State lost an unbelievable amount of talent to the NFL and started the season as one of college football’s youngest teams, questions of inexperience the preseason topic du jour. This year, Meyer’s annually stacked roster has his team the Big Ten favorite once more, blessed with experience. Meanwhile, a veteran-laden Michigan team was expected to do big things. This year, the Wolverines have lost more starters than most teams throughout the country — a large number of which went to the NFL — and have question marks to deal with that has stuck them behind Ohio State and Penn State in a number of preseason prognostications.

But even with the scripts flipped, the story might end up the same. Once more, it seems that The Game — not to mention the 11 for each team that precede college football’s most anticipated rivalry bout — will determine who wins the Big Ten.

And once more, it could be Ohio State best positioned to answer “who’s got it better than us?” with “nobody.”

———

College football coaches dislike few things more than preseason predictions.

Meyer certainly won’t lose any sleep over which pick-makers have made Ohio State their preseason picks to win the Big Ten and win the whole darned thing.

But here’s what he does think:

“Ohio State is always going to be there,” Meyer said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. “I mean, it should be one of the top schools in our conference.”

An ambitious goal for most, Meyer has earned the right to set it. His recruiting classes are annually among the best in the country. His previously described resume speaks for itself. And even without him, Ohio State is one of college football’s most legendary powers. It’s 100-percent true that a preseason where the Buckeyes weren’t considered one of the nation’s top contenders would be a strange one.

And so 2017 is no different.

Last preseason maybe felt a little different. Meyer watched a dozen members of his 2015 roster selected in the NFL Draft, arguably one of the most talented college teams ever having to settle for that — and a Fiesta Bowl beatdown of Notre Dame — as consolation after that walk-off field goal by Michigan State sunk Ohio State’s national-championship repeat hopes. Last year, the Buckeyes were one of the youngest teams in America. Who would replace Joey Bosa? Who would replace Ezekiel Elliott? Who would replace Darron Lee and Joshua Perry and Vonn Bell and Eli Apple?

And still Ohio State was the favorite to win the conference.

This preseason, similar questions surely do exist, with eight more Buckeyes getting their names called in this year’s draft. But those holes are being plugged with older guys, more experienced guys. Ohio State will have a brand-new starting secondary, a mostly brand-new receiving corps and other new starters everywhere a previous All-America type player left.

But there’s also an experienced offensive line, a couple of freaks at defensive end and a fourth-year starter at quarterback who’s still — despite an upsetting season in the passing game in 2016 — one of the best offensive players in the conference.

If the reload worked out last season — and a trip to the College Football Playoff indicated that it emphatically did — this season’s could be even more impressive thanks to the experience that goes along with it.

“Billy Price is going to be snapping the ball to J.T. Barrett. It’s not two freshmen or two rookies,” Meyer said. “The offensive line’s intact except for the right guard, so you’re going to have some established people.

“It’s been done without it, but we don't win the national championship in 2014 without (senior players). It’s one thing when you have seniors, but when seniors play their best football and it’s their last year … if we can say that same thing about this group, we’ll have an excellent season.”

———

Harbaugh doesn’t think Michigan is flying under anyone’s radar.

And it’s likely that the Wolverines will still be well-ranked in many of the preseason polls.

But it was Ohio State representing the Big Ten in last year’s College Football Playoff. It was Penn State that hoisted the trophy and showered in confetti after the Big Ten title game. Both of those teams have national-championship aspirations in 2017.

Michigan, which went through a lightning-fast transformation from a five-win team in Brady Hoke’s final season to a 10-win team in Harbaugh’s first, could potentially be playing third fiddle in a packed division which now has an annual claim to the title of college football’s toughest.

But the truth is that the Wolverines were better than almost anyone in the sport through the vast majority of last season. Powered by perhaps the nation's finest defense, they gave new meaning to the word dominant, doing impressive work against the Big Ten’s best — silencing the two teams that played for a league title, Penn State and Wisconsin — and obliterating those who weren’t in contention for much of anything, evidenced by the combined 178-11 poundings handed out to Rutgers, Illinois and Maryland.

But a lot changed after Harbaugh & Co. started the season 9-0.

Michigan lost three of its final four games, turning a potential trip to the Playoff into a 10-3 season that left the always-demanding Wolverine fan base wanting. A shocking upset at Iowa cost Michigan everything. And then hopes of a second-chance entrance into the Playoff field went out the window with the loss to Ohio State. Playing without their two best players, Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt, the Wolverines lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Add the deficits up from those three losses and what do you get? Five. Five points. That’s all that kept Michigan from going undefeated.

“We lost three out of our last four games last year, two by one point and one by three points in overtime. Didn’t like that feeling,” Harbaugh said Tuesday, “and that’s motivated us to pour more time into the football team and our jobs and give more effort and pour more of our heart and soul into it.”

So while the odds might not exactly be in Michigan's favor entering this season — only six starters return from last year’s team, the quarterback situation is once again up in the air, and the Big Ten East has a couple hulking behemoths to contend with — Harbaugh is banking on hunger.

“I hope they (the players) have the same feeling,” Harbaugh said. “I hope they didn’t like losing those ballgames. They won a lot of ballgames, too, they won nine straight games. Nothing better than the high five after a ballgame. That feeling compared to the one where you’re losing a game in overtime or by point, much better to get the high five.

“I think a lot of guys on our team have learned that. I think that’s going to make things a little hotter, more competitive.”

He’s banking on hunger — and a really, really talented roster, of course. Headlined by sophomore defensive tackle Rashan Gary, Michigan’s ready to reload, not unlike their rivals to the south. The Wolverines have hauled in top-five recruiting classes in each of the past two seasons.

So don’t act surprised if Michigan is a championship contender again. Even if the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are taking the majority of the preseason buzz, the Wolverines aren’t flying under anyone’s radar.

———

It’s impossible to know what will happen between now and Nov. 25.

But what is a pretty safe bet is that some sort of postseason hopes will be on the line Thanksgiving weekend in Ann Arbor.

Ohio State has the more favorable road to a Big Ten title, as Michigan has to travel to play both Penn State and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are at home against the Lions and don’t play the Badgers. Both teams have tough non-conference matchups, Ohio State playing host to Oklahoma and Michigan traveling to Jerry World to play Florida.

For what it’s worth, fellow contender Penn State has the back-to-back bouts at the end of October against these two teams, a 1-2 punch that comes after what could be a tough challenge at Northwestern. The Lions haven’t beaten their feline brethren since James Franklin took over.

If the season does play out as expected, the Buckeyes will be favored in that final regular-season game — and they could bring an undefeated record with them. But the prevailing wisdom is that it will look more like last year’s three-point win in double overtime than the previous year’s 42-13 blowout.

Here's what we know for sure, though. Both teams are extremely talented. Both programs are extremely healthy. Both coaches are among the best in the country and have their eyes on winning championships.

There’s a reason the Big Ten, and college football with it, always hinges on The Game: It’s the culmination of the best division race in the sport. With all due respect to the SEC, it's a mighty rare situation when anything can be settled before Ohio State and Michigan play.

“I don’t think there's a gap at all,” Meyer said when asked about the difference between the Big Ten and the SEC. “And that’s no disrespect to other conferences. … I’ve coached in the SEC East when that was one of the strongest (divisions) in the country. And I think the Big Ten East right now is every bit as strong as I can remember the SEC East.

“I feel a great amount of respect nationally about the Big Ten. You sit and look at the national recruiting rankings and you see the Big Ten everywhere, all over the place, and that’s the way it should be.

“There’s a lot of credit to be given, obviously to the administrations that invest in their programs and to the coaching staffs that are out there doing the work. And this is as tough a conference as there is.”

In other words, if you want to know how the college football season will wind up going, you best free up four hours on the final Saturday in November. That might just tell you all you need to know.

See how they stack up: Week 6 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 6 college football top 25 rankings

A special, if somewhat sad edition of the top-25 rankings this week. Saturday delivered another terrific day of college football, but we also must remember and celebrate one of the best rock n rollers of all-time, Tom Petty, who passed away earlier this week. So, in addition to the usual top 25, you get some bonus rankings, my picks for the 25 best Petty songs ever. Enjoy.

With Week 6 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Clemson (6-0)

It wasn’t a blowout, but the champs rolled on with a comfortable-enough win over Wake Forest. Of bigger concern is Kelly Bryant, who left the game with an ankle injury.

No. 25: “Saving Grace” from Highway Companion, 2006

2. Alabama (6-0)

Bama held on to win by eight after a 21-point third-quarter lead shrunk down. But was it ever really in doubt for the Tide? They will no doubt roll through a weak schedule leading up to the Iron Bowl.

No. 24: “The Wild One, Forever” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

3. TCU (5-0)

Defensively, the Frogs kept West Virginia out of the end zone through the first 41 minutes. Offensively, Kenny Hill had himself a day and matched the Mountaineers’ late charge. Oh, and TCU is now in complete command of the Big 12.

No. 23: “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” from Hard Promises, 1981

4. Georgia (6-0)

The Dawgs delivered another SEC pounding — yawn — and have outscored their conference foes by 100 points in three games. Expect that number to balloon further with Mizzou on the schedule next.

No. 22: “Rebels” from Southern Accents, 1985

5. Penn State (6-0)

Saquon Barkley had a negative rushing total in the first half Saturday, and this one was somehow never in doubt. Barkley finished with a pair of touchdown runs as the Lions look far and away the best team in the Big Ten East.

No. 21: “The Same Old You” from Long After Dark, 1982

6. Wisconsin (5-0)

Things looked a bit dicey with Wisconsin tied with Nebraska in the third quarter. But the Badgers ran away, closing with three straight touchdowns and winning easily on Jonathan Taylor’s huge night: 249 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries.

No. 20: “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

7. Washington (6-0)

I doubted Washington early, and at this point I’m not sure why. The Huskies pounded Cal on Saturday night — yes, Chris Petersen, a night game — and are one of three teams (Alabama, Ohio State) in the top 10 nationally in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

No. 19: “Century City” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

8. Washington State (6-0)

Wazzu’s still undefeated, taking complete advantage of an Oregon team without its starting quarterback, holding the Ducks to just 10 points, Oregon’s fewest since the LeGarrette Blount punch game.

No. 18: “Hometown Blues” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

9. Miami (4-0)

What a wild finish in the rivalry game with Florida State, but Miami finally stopped its losing streak to the Noles. The Canes’ defense allowed more than 400 yards, but Malik Rosier threw three touchdown passes.

No. 17: “Listen to Her Heart” from You’re Gonna Get It!, 1978

10. Auburn (5-1)

Just like Alabama and Georgia, Auburn is clobbering everyone else in the SEC. Since only beating Mercer by 14, the Tigers have smoked Mizzou, Mississippi State and Ole Miss by a combined 144-47 score.

No. 16: “Runnin’ Down a Dream” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

11. Ohio State (5-1)

Somehow, the guy who was one of the most focused-on college football players of the summer, J.T. Barrett, is low-key having a phenomenal season. Saturday against Maryland: 320 passing/rushing yards and four total touchdowns.

No. 15: “Louisiana Rain” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

12. Virginia Tech (5-1)

Josh Jackson threw for 322 yards in the Hokies’ 13-point win over Boston College. You would’ve liked to see a bit more, but it was a nice bounce back after the loss to Clemson.

No. 14: “Ways to Be Wicked” from Nobody’s Children, 1995

13. Oklahoma State (4-1)

Okie State finally got to rest up after losing to TCU and almost losing to Texas Tech. The TCU loss looks better and better, but the Cowboys need to hope for a slip-up from the Frogs and not slip up themselves in the back-to-back gauntlet of West Virginia and Oklahoma.

No. 13: “Learning to Fly” from Into the Great Wide Open, 1991

14. Notre Dame (5-1)

Not expected to do much after last year’s eight-loss debacle, the Irish are kind of really good. They’re the No. 6 rushing team in the country, adding to their total with 341 more rush yards against North Carolina.

No. 12: “You Wreck Me” from Wildflowers, 1994

15. Michigan State (4-1)

Out of nowhere, here comes Sparty. A sensational defensive performance against a top-10 Michigan team in rain-soaked Ann Arbor, plus a not-so-bad loss to Notre Dame, has Mark Dantonio’s team skyrocketing.

No. 11: “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” from Stevie Nicks’ Bella Donna, 1981

16. West Virginia (3-2)

A valiant comeback attempt by Will Grier & Co. was shut down by Kenny Hill, but that doesn’t take away from West Virginia managing to look good on the road against one of the country’s best teams.

No. 10: “I Won’t Back Down” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

17. USC (5-1)

You don’t really get any points for beating up on terrible Oregon State. But things are about to get much tougher for Sam Darnold and USC with back-to-back games coming against Utah and Notre Dame.

No. 9: “Anything That’s Rock N Roll” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

18. Oklahoma (4-1)

Iowa State played out of its mind, had a linebacker throwing passes and pulled the upset of the year. Baker Mayfield played well, the Sooners were just derailed by fumbling at the worst possible time. And like that, the Playoff chances take a nosedive.

No. 8: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” from Greatest Hits, 1993

19. North Carolina State (5-1)

Don’t talk back to the Wolfpack, who now have beaten Florida State and Louisville this season. A Week 1 home loss to South Carolina — how did that happen? — is all preventing the Nov. 4 game against Clemson from determining the ACC.

No. 7: “Breakdown” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

20. Stanford (4-2)

With a big win over previously undefeated Utah, the Cardinal are really still in the mix for the Pac-12 crown. Two losses (even two good ones) might box Stanford out of the Playoff race, but Bryce Love & Co. are a good team.

No. 6: “Don’t Do Me Like That” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

21. South Florida (5-0)

No game for the high-scoring Bulls this weekend. All eyes are on the season finale against UCF.

No. 5: “Even the Losers” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

22. Louisville (4-2)

Not even Lamar Jackson’s 427 total yards and three total touchdowns could put Louisville past NC State. The Cardinals have allowed 37.3 points per game in their four contests against Power Five teams this season.

No. 4: “Free Fallin’” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

23. San Diego State (6-0)

Another win for the Aztecs and another big day for Rashaad Penny. They’ve got six wins, two of them coming against Pac-12 teams, and can’t possibly lose to another Mountain West team, right?

No. 3: “The Waiting” from Hard Promises, 1981

24. Michigan (4-1)

The Wolverines’ offensive ineptitude really bit them hard on Saturday night, as the Big Ten-iest game of all-time ended in Michigan State walking out of the Big House with a win. Michigan can’t run the ball, nor can it throw the ball, which is a horrendous combination.

No. 2: “American Girl” from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1976

25. Utah (4-1)

The Utes are undefeated no more, losing to a good Stanford team on Saturday. In a crowded and competitive Pac-12, Utah gets no rest: USC next and Oregon, Wazzu and Washington down the line.

No. 1: “Refugee” from Damn the Torpedoes, 1979

Others receiving votes

UCF (4-0)

The Knights are rolling just as well as any Group of Five team out there, dropping 51 points in three quarters on Cincinnati.

Georgia Tech (3-1)

Off week for the Jackets, who have the second-best rushing offense in the country (shocking, I know) and a one-loss record in a crowded ACC.

Iowa (4-2)

The Hawkeyes finally got to exhale from those back-to-back losses to Penn State and Michigan State, two of the best-looking teams in the Big Ten. Iowa beat up on Illinois for a near 30-point win.

Texas Tech (4-1)

Scoring 65 points against Kansas is always fun! A good tune up for the Red Raiders who play road games at West Virginia and Oklahoma over the course of their next three games.

LSU (4-2)

Good for Coach O to go into The Swamp and get a huge road win over a ranked Florida team to stop his program’s free fall. Beating Florida is a whole lot better than losing to Troy.

Florida (3-2)

The Gators somehow lost a home game to an LSU team that lost to Troy last weekend. But I wanted to include Florida here to sign off with what The Swamp did to honor Tom Petty. It was awesome.

Other Tom Petty songs receiving votes

“Baby’s a Rock N Roller” from You’re Gonna Get It!, 1978

“Letting You Go” from Hard Promises, 1981

“Straight Into Darkness” from Long After Dark, 1982

“Make It Better (Forget About Me)” from Southern Accents, 1985

“The Apartment Song” from Full Moon Fever, 1989

“Surrender” from Anthology: Through the Years, 2000

New quarterback but similar result as Illini get walloped by Iowa

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USA TODAY

New quarterback but similar result as Illini get walloped by Iowa

Illinois had a new quarterback at the helm of its offense Saturday, but the result was all too similar for Lovie Smith's team.

Jeff George Jr. got the start and had some flashes early on, but the Iowa Hawkeyes dominated the Illini for a 45-16 runaway win in Iowa City.

Illinois actually hung with Iowa for an entire half, holding a second-quarter lead and trailing at halftime by only four. George led a game-tying, 85-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, and the Illini took the lead after intercepting Nathan Stanley and turning that giveaway into a field goal. But an Akrum Wadley touchdown run in the final seconds before halftime brought an end to Illinois' last lead of the day.

George had the Illini in a position to retake the lead midway through the third quarter, but an 89-yard Iowa pick six pretty much sealed the deal, swinging the momentum entirely in the Hawkeyes' favor. They poured it on in the fourth quarter, scoring four touchdowns to turn an eight-point game into a 29-point rout.

Illinois matched Iowa in many respects, both teams going over 440 total yards. But George's three interceptions proved to be difference, especially when one of those turnovers was taken back for a back-breaking touchdown. George and Stanley threw for a nearly identical number of yards, but Stanley had just one pick to George's three and also threw a trio of touchdown passes.

After making the quarterback change after last weekend's loss to Nebraska, Smith saw an offense that moved much better than it had in previous weeks under Chayce Crouch's leadership. But the Illini still turned the ball over at critical moments and failed to produce many points. This time, though, the defense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain, either, especially late as the score snowballed.

Illinois dropped to 2-3 with the loss and is 0-2 in its two conference games. Iowa stopped the bleeding after losing back-to-back games to Penn State and Michigan State.