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 12 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.