Big Ten

So, is Michigan the best team in the Big Ten?

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So, is Michigan the best team in the Big Ten?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — We didn’t think we’d have to ask this question this early in the Jim Harbaugh Era, but the way the Wolverines are playing, it’s become mighty relevant.

Is Michigan the best team in the Big Ten?

This preseason, many would have found that question ridiculous, what with Ohio State coming off a national title and Michigan State at a similar level. Harbaugh inherited a team that missed a bowl game last season, a team that suffered losses to both conference newcomers, Maryland and Rutgers. It was a team that seemed far from its historic status.

But six weeks into Harbaugh’s first season, the Wolverines are 5-1. They boast the nation’s best defense, a defense that has pitched three consecutive shutouts after Saturday’s 38-0 blowout of Northwestern. The offense is doing well, too, scoring 97 points in the last three games. Jake Rudock is providing a veteran presence that should be even more helpful now that conference play has begun. De'Veon Smith has provided a go-to back in a running game that seems to have finally figured things out after a few seasons of mediocrity. And resume-wise, Michigan’s lone loss is not a hurtful one, coming on the road at Utah, a team currently ranked No. 5 in the AP poll.

Saturday was perhaps the Wolverines’ best effort yet, a complete domination of a previously undefeated Northwestern team, a team that arguably shared the title of best defense with Michigan. The Cats were the Big Ten’s best rushing team, averaging nearly 250 yards a game on the ground. The Wolverines held them to 38.

There was a kick-return touchdown, an interception-return touchdown. You name it, Michigan did it terrifically Saturday afternoon.

“I’m just really pleased with our team,” Harbaugh said after the game. “All three phases had great success today: special teams, starting with the kickoff return for the touchdown; defense, tremendous shutout; offense played really, really good football.

“The fellas really came out ballin’.”

Yes, the fellas did come out ballin’. And it’s the fact that the conference’s two giants haven’t been ballin’ through six weeks that has opened the door for Michigan to contend for the title of the league’s best squad.

Ohio State hasn’t dominated opponents the way many expected they would. Panic has arisen on multiple occasions due to the Buckeyes’ supposed offensive woes. Now, Ohio State has scored 121 points in its last three games and remains undefeated, showing that perhaps those worries were premature, but there’s no doubt that there have been times when what was supposed to be the best offense in the world has struggled.

Michigan State, meanwhile, hasn’t looked much like a College Football Playoff contender after a huge Week 2 win over Oregon. Connor Cook was predicted by many to be one of the country’s best quarterbacks. He’s been fairly average. And wins over Air Force, Central Michigan and Purdue have raised eyebrows thanks to less-than-dominant defensive performances. The win over Purdue was particularly concerning, as Michigan State nearly blew a 21-0 halftime lead and escaped with a 24-21 win.

Michigan, though, has dominated its opponents since a season-opening loss at Utah. Three shutout wins over BYU, Maryland and Northwestern have been the kind of wins that suggest the Wolverines are a cut above many of the country’s teams.

Harbaugh attributed his players’ success to a strong work-ethic.

“They’re doing a heck of a job. I’ve said it many times, seems like every week: This team likes to work,” he said. “They enjoy each other’s company, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s practice, whether it’s film study, lifting, et cetera. They like to work and get after it, and that’s all you can ask as a coach.”

Can Michigan prove it's better than these other teams? Well, it’ll get a shot next week, as Michigan State visits the Big House in what should be a monumental showdown. If you go strictly on the eye test, you’d have to figure Michigan would be favored. And that should say it all.

We’ll have to wait until the regular season’s final week to see how Michigan stacks up with Ohio State. Until then, though, it’d be hard to argue that any team in the Big Ten has looked as good or more impressive than the Wolverines.

When Harbaugh was introduced as the head coach, he said: “There are no turnarounds at Michigan.” It seemed at the time like bravado and loyalty to tradition rather than reality.

Now it kind of seems like he just meant that the turnaround would be so fast, you wouldn’t even be able to tell it was there.

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

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USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

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USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.