Ohio State, per the usual, was the preseason pick to win the Big Ten East and, ultimately, the entire league this season. Considering that the Buckeyes have won it every year since 2017, predicting a fifth straight conference title wasn’t too far of a stretch … at least back in spring.

But the Buckeyes appear to be struggling. There might be a flaw in Ohio State’s once-mighty armor. For the past 2 weeks, the Buckeyes have failed to impress, losing at home, 35-28, to a pretty solid Oregon team and failing to put away Tulsa until late during a lackluster 41-20 home win this week.

While everyone has their eyes on Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State have steadily improved on a weekly basis and look to be legitimate threats when it comes to contending for supremacy in the East and in the league as a whole. Of course, that’s based on what has been demonstrated throughout the first 3 weeks. Things can change in an instant.

But so far, so good for both UM and MSU.

This past Saturday, Michigan pounded the daylights out of Northern Illinois, notching a 63-10 win in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines put up a season-high 606 yards and scored touchdowns during their first 9 drives.

It was an impressive win for Jim Harbaugh, whose run-heavy approach has the Wolverines undefeated after 3 games.

Meanwhile, Michigan State was taking care of business in south Florida, dismantling Miami 38-17 in Coral Gables; it was Spartans coach Mel Tucker’s third win over a top-25 team since assuming control of the program prior to the 2020 season. Tucker, the successor to Mark Dantonio, has the Spartans unbeaten and sitting pretty in East Lansing.

There are reasons to believe that the Spartans and Wolverines could put a fight in the East, rather than sitting back and watching the Buckeyes have all the fun. Pay attention to UM and MSU, because the division could be up for grabs if things continue to trend in the current directions.

MSU strengths

The Spartans have always done well with a dominant, go-to running back.

Look back at the days of Le’Veon Bell and Edwin Baker, Sedrick Irvin and Jehu Caulcrick, Jeremy Langford — there has been no shortage of talent in the MSU backfield for more than a decade. This season, the Spartans have Kenneth Walker III, who entered Saturday as the No. 3 leading rusher in the nation (321 yards and 5 TDs). Against the Hurricanes, Walker had 27 carries for 172 yards during the somewhat-surprising road victory.

With Walker, Michigan State has a workhorse who’ll serve as the linchpin of the offense.

But there’s more.

Michigan State also has a capable QB in first-year starter Payton Thorne, who went 18-for-31 for 261 yards and 4 TDs against Miami. Thorne has been efficient through the first 3 weeks and has yet to throw an interception. Momentum is on his side, and he’s certainly been a major source of energy for the Spartans.

Wide receiver Jalen “Speedy” Nailor has emerged as a staple of the offensive attack, giving the Spartans at least 3 key pieces on offense. As the offensive line develops, so will the rest of the offensive approach — and with Thorne, Walker and Nailor, the Spartans have the right pieces to really do damage on the offensive side of the ball.

These aren’t the days of Connor Cook and Kirk Cousins, or BJ Cunningham and Mark Dell, but the Spartans are developing a Thorne-Nailor connection that could rival any previous QB-WR duos in recent MSU history.

Tucker has something going on in East Lansing that shouldn’t be ignored.

UM strengths

With a season-high 606 yards during an over-from-the-start 63-10 win over NIU, the Wolverines have established the foundation of a high-powered offense. This was done in 2020, so don’t get too excited — but there is something different about this year’s Michigan squad. Shades of 2016, perhaps? That team, in Harbaugh’s second year, was a Playoff contender — an actual, real-deal contender … but people like to forget that part.

Cade McNamara can manage a game and make all the necessary throws. While he hasn’t put up wild numbers, he’s been steady for a team that just needs some stability at the QB position. True freshman JJ McCarthy has also proven to be capable of competing at a high level. Will he leapfrog McNamara this season? That remains to be seen. But one thing has been made clear: Michigan is seeing growth at QB, which is a great sign for a team that has several complementary pieces on offense.

Running back Blake Corum has been one of the most electric players in college football through 3 weeks. On Saturday, he entered the game as the No. 8 rusher in the country and No. 1 in all-purpose yards. With a player of his ilk, Michigan features a player that can do it all: run, catch, and return.

Star wide receiver Ronnie Bell was lost for the season, suffering a knee injury in Week 1 and leaving UM scrambling to fill the void. Well, maybe “scrambling” is a bit too much — but UM was certainly looking hard to find a replacement. On Saturday, Cornelius Johnson had an 87-yard TD reception from McNamara, showing that the Wolverines can, indeed, throw the deep ball for a score.

The running game is there, not only due to Corum but also due to Hassan Haskins. QB is developing. And with Johnson, Daylen Baldwin (potentially a key WR, albeit a darkhorse) and AJ Henning (another do-all player), the Wolverines definitely have enough weapons to compete with anyone in the Big Ten.

Following his team’s blowout loss in Ann Arbor, NIU coach Thomas Hammock — who is quite familiar with the UM staff via Baltimore Ravens relationships — raved about the construction of Harbaugh’s 2021 ensemble.

“I think they built their team to beat Ohio State,” Hammock said per Andrew Kahn with MLive.com. “I spent seven years in the Big Ten and have a pretty good gauge of the level of competition and talent in that conference. And when I looked at the tape, this is a very good football team. They beat us soundly in all three phases. That was just a better football team. That is a better football team than us, and that’s the bottom line.”

Bottom line

A couple bumps in the road, especially early, aren’t necessarily signs of a decline at Ohio State.

But face it, the college football world has been used to a dominant Buckeyes program, which hasn’t looked too dominant through the first 3 weeks. Something is amiss.

However, OSU is OSU, and it has enough talent to rebound, win the Big Ten East, the B1G Championship Game and even make its way into the Playoff.

Don’t write off the Buckeyes.

But at the same time, pay attention to Michigan and Michigan State, because there looks to be more than one potential big dog in the B1G’s eastern district.