1. The B1G Story

The last time he made such a momentous statement, it sounded like the words of a coach with nothing left to lose.

This time around, it’s the sound of a coach with only goal remaining: winning it all.

Speaking to a group of reporters during a Sound Mind, Sound Body camp last week in Detroit, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said of his 2023 team, “It’s gotta be as good as it can get.”

Two years ago, it was Harbaugh who proclaimed during Big Ten Media Days that Michigan would beat Ohio State — and snap a 8-game losing streak to the hated Buckeyes — “or die trying.”

It was a strange moment because it seemed desperate, and more important, it came on the heels of Michigan not being able to field a team for the 2020 game during the COVID season. It was in the summer before that season — on a coaches conference call — that Harbaugh accused Ohio State and coach Ryan Day of breaking the NCAA’s COVID lockdown rules.

Day later told his team of the incident, and proclaimed Ohio State was going to “hang a 100” on Michigan. Ironically, Harbaugh was accused in January of holding practices with too many coaches on the field, and contacting 2 prospects — during the COVID dead period. Ohio State hasn’t been charged with any violation.

Fast forward 2 seasons, and Michigan hasn’t lost to Ohio State since, and has reached the Playoff the Past 2 seasons — losing in the semifinals both seasons.

Now consider the “good as it gets” comment through those optics. Harbaugh has his best team, he has a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback (JJ McCarthy), and he and his staff are recruiting elite players (and philosophic fits) better than they ever have.

The Wolverines are coming off back-to-back losses in the Playoff semifinals: a blowout loss to Georgia in 2021, and a loss to a TCU team in 2022 that then lost by 18,000 points to Georgia in the national title game.

How in the world did Harbaugh get to “as good as it gets” from there? Because the last time he made such a momentous statement, his team went out and backed it up.

2. Deeper motivation

This thing has been building since 2021, a combination of the right players and the right motivation taking the program where it hasn’t been since the late 1990s.

It all goes back to the “or die trying” statement from Harbaugh. Read the quote in context, and understand Harbaugh wasn’t speaking from desperation — he was speaking with anticipation.

He had talked for years about recruiting the right players who were tough and talented, who worked hard and passionately wanted to play for Michigan. The mantra was winning with “character and cruelty.”

He began to the see the change 2 years ago on the field, and in the locker room. Players liked each other. Coaches did, too. They all got along.

Something was changing, and it was moving the entire program where it had to be to finally become elite.

Now, read the entire quote from 2021 in context:

“Well, I’m here before you, enthusiastic and excited as I ever am, always am, even more to have it, to win the championship, to beat Ohio (sic) and our rival Michigan State. That’s what we want to do, and we’re going to do it or die trying.”

That’s not a desperate man or team. That’s a coach who knows there’s only one way out.

Now fast forward to earlier this month, and read the entire Harbaugh quote in context:

“I was really surprised after the 2021 season,” Harbaugh said. “You felt like, ‘OK, this is as good as it can get, with everybody — players, coaches, staff — going in the same direction.’ 2022, there was that cultural momentum that seemed even better.

“Now I’m saying to myself, ‘it’s gotta be as good as it can get.’ Seeing our players, our staff, our coaches; it seems like there’s even more cultural momentum. It’s been fun to be around.”

He’s not saying it’s gotta be as good as it gets, or else. He’s saying the team, the chemistry, the culture, has got to be as good as it gets. In other words, it can’t get better.

That’s how, with the right players and a little luck, you win every game that matters.

3. As good as it gets, The Epilogue

It’s as good as it gets because there’s talent all over the field on both sides of the ball.

Because Harbaugh has a motivated team that wanted another shot at Georgia last year in the Playoff, but made critical (and atypical) mistakes in the semifinal loss to TCU to end the season 1 game short.

Because this is Harbaugh’s best team, and they could get another shot at Georgia in the Playoff. Or anyone else.

Because the bar is no longer Ohio State. It’s the mountaintop; it’s the SEC and Georgia and/or Alabama and LSU, and some guy named Finebaum and every quirky moment over the Past 8 years now long in the rearview since he returned to coach his alma mater.

He knows what “as good as it gets” looks like. He was the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1986 at Michigan, and led the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl. He was an NFL 1st-round draft pick and led 2 teams to the Playoffs (Bears, Colts).

As a coach, he became the first in NFL history to lead a franchise the conference championship game in his first 3 seasons, and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. When he says, “It’s gotta be as good as it gets” — he’s not saying it without confidence and emphasis.

And especially without knowing there’s only one way this thing ends: winning it all.

4. Option No. 2

Nebraska wanted QB Dylan Raiola, the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2024 recruiting class and the son of Huskers legend Dominic Raiola.

It might eventually get what it needs with in-state 3-star QB Daniel Kaelin, who is from suburban Omaha.

Kaelin put on a show at the Elite 11 event last week, and showed out amid one of the strongest fields in years at the annual camp that invites the best high school quarterbacks to compete against each other.

Kaelin showed arm talent and touch, and wasn’t overshadowed by higher rated players committed to elite Power 5 schools: Raiola (Georgia), Julian Sayin (Alabama), Jadyn Davis (Michigan) and Air Noland (Ohio State).

Kaelin was accurate and managed the drills with precision. He looked like a high-level Power 5 quarterback.

Don’t be shocked when Kaelin’s recruiting rating increases with the next adjustments from the major recruiting services. He’ll move to a solid 4-star, and maybe higher.

5. The Weekly 5

The top 5 games that stress the Michigan State win total (5.5).

1. Sept. 16, Washington: A chance for the Spartans to avenge an 11-point loss in 2022 that began a string of 4 consecutive losses.

2. Nov. 4, Nebraska: Huskers will be 2 months into the rebuild season, and Spartans could be coming off back-to-back losses to Michigan and Minnesota.

3. Sept 23, Maryland: Beat Washington, and there’s huge momentum for this winnable game.

4. Nov. 18, at Indiana: Hoosiers could be in the middle of playing multiple quarterbacks with no answer on offense.

5. Oct. 14, at Rutgers: The 1st of 2 gotta-have road games (Indiana the 2nd). Beat Central Michigan and Richmond to begin the season, and beat Indiana and Rutgers, there’s a path to the over.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Ohio State DE Jack Sawyer.

“He can play end in an even front, but he’s more of a rush ‘backer in an odd. He has the ability to drop and cover in an odd. He’s a work in progress in an even front with his hand on the ground. He has everything physically that you want from an edge. He’s strong and powerful, and he’s athletic. But I need to see more production, and some consistency.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll: Ranking the running back rooms.

1. Michigan: If Blake Corum is healthy (and it looks as though he will be), the duo of Corum and Donovan Edwards just edges Ohio State.

2. Ohio State: TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams both missed time last year with injuries, and both dangerous options when healthy. Don’t forget Dallan Hayden.

3. Penn State: Imagine having 2 RBs like Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, and being 3rd in your own division, much less conference. Minnesota transfer Trey Potts will get carries, too.

4. Wisconsin: Braelon Allen rushed for 1,242 yards in 2022, and former Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi (1,288 yards in the past 2 seasons) is a strong backup.

5. Purdue: Devin Mockobee was 32 yards shy of 1,000 last season. Tyrone Tracy will get carries again, and freshman Christian Womack could be an option early on.

6. Minnesota: Sean Tyler had 1,000-yard seasons in 2021-22 at Western Michigan, but he’s just 5-8, 185; can he take the pounding in the Big Ten? The staff is excited about 2 freshmen: Darius Taylor and Zach Evans.

7. Maryland: Roman Hemby is a top young back in the Big Ten and was 11 yards shy of 1,000 in 2022.

8. Nebraska: Anthony Grant was a nice surprise in 2022 and is a dangerous threat who can also push the pile. Gabe Ervin has battled injuries, but coach Matt Rhule said Ervin was one of the stars of spring ball.

9. Iowa: Kaleb Johnson and Leshon Williams were solid in 2022, despite Iowa’s struggles on offense.

10. Illinois: Chase Brown did it all last year. Can a combination of Reggie Love III, Josh McCray and/or Jordan Anderson make a difference?

11. Michigan State: Jalen Berger struggled last year (so did the offensive line). Transfers Nathan Carter (UConn) and Jaren Mangham (USF) are also options.

12. Indiana: Wake Forest transfer Christian Turner (516 yards, 7 TDs in 2022) will push Josh Henderson for the starting job.

13. Rutgers: A whole lot of questions, and not many reliable (yet) answers. Samuel Brown V is the likely starter, and freshman Jashon Benjamin could be a factor.

14. Northwestern: Cam Porter, Anthony Tyus III and Joseph Himon II combined for 110 carries in 2022.

8 Ask and you shall receive

Matt: I have a theory about the Big Ten catching the SEC. The coaches are better, and the Big Ten doesn’t fire coaches as quickly as the SEC, and gives them time to develop teams. Eventually, that will pay off. Agree or disagree? — Gary Collins, Detroit.


If those coaches who you say are a better group than those of the SEC — an argument can certainly be made for the totality of the 16-team leagues — begin to recruit at an SEC level, then you could see the Big Ten catch and possibly overtake the SEC.

It’s all recruiting and developing elite, impact players. High school and transfer portal, it doesn’t matter. The idea is to get impact players on the roster, and put them in position to play their best.

The Big Ten in 2024 will have some elite recruiters: Ryan Day, Jim Harbaugh, James Franklin, Lincoln Riley, Mel Tucker and Matt Rhule. But for the league to catch the SEC, they have to win more recruiting battles in the south and the state of Texas (like Ohio State and Michigan can/do).

This is a big year for Maryland coach Mike Locksley, who’s very close to making the Terps a legit player in the recruiting world. The same for Bret Bielema (Illinois), PJ Fleck (Minnesota) and Chip Kelly (UCLA).

If you use the 2024 SEC and Big Ten lineups for the 2023 composite recruiting rankings by 247Sports, the SEC had the top 4, 6 of the top 10, and 11 of the top 26.

The Big Ten had 4 in the top 20, and 6 in the top 26. That’s how the SEC has seized control of college football. The league recruits better than any other.

9. Numbers

42.37. We’ve focused all offseason on the Nebraska offense and how new coach Matt Rhule will find a quarterback (he got Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims from the portal).

What we’ve ignored is the defense, which was among the worst in the league in 2022. At the top of the problems: Nebraska finished 12th in the Big Ten in opponent 3rd-down conversions (42.37%).

The Huskers were 10th in sacks (21), 9th in interceptions (9) and 7th in tackles for loss (60 total).

10. Quote to note

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh: “There are no bad guys. There are no bad people with players, coaches and staff. Especially the players, there are good guys, there are elite, great guys. There are guys that are good guys that are learning from the other guys. You’ve got the Heisman habits guys, the great guys.”