1. The B1G Reality

As we prepare to celebrate the improbable and the impressive from Ohio State, the inevitable question must be asked.

What in the world is going on at Michigan?

These two storied and bitter rivals, the forever gold standard of the Big Ten, couldn’t be further apart in their race to college football glory.

Ohio State is preparing to play Alabama on Monday (COVID-willing) for the national title. Michigan is waiting like a sad schoolgirl while its coach decides if he’s interested in sticking around.

Ohio State fought through a pandemic and the utter failure on multiple levels of Big Ten officials and reached the biggest game of the season.

Michigan fought through another season of underachieving, this one more crushing than the rest, to sit at home in the long, cold winter and hope against hope that it will get another chance to go through the same thing with the same coach next fall.

“In all my time around the conference, I didn’t think I’d ever see (Michigan) in this situation,” a former Big Ten coach told me this week.

What position, I asked.

“Begging,” he said.

Think about that, Big Blue. Think about the program of Bo and Fielding and Fritz, of Harmon and Howard and Woodson, of 11 national titles and 42 conference championships, reduced to begging a coach who hasn’t accomplished anything to stay and deliver more mediocrity.

Because that’s what it is. Trying to convince yourself of anything else is Pollyanna dreams at best.

The Michigan we all know and love would never settle for mediocrity. Would never sit back and allow Ohio State – and at this point, state rival Michigan State – to force it further into irrelevance.

The winningest program in college football history would never give a new contract to its coach with three options: take the reduced salary, decline the contract, or negotiate.

Would never follow that weak declaration by waiting for weeks to see if its coach can find someone in the NFL who wants to take another chance on him – and if he does, will leave Michigan and the embarrassing way it has pined for him at the altar.

Would never keep a coach who hasn’t beaten Ohio State in 5 tries, and is 1-6 at home vs. the Buckeyes and Michigan State. Would never accept an 11-16 record vs. ranked teams, and a winless bowl skid since 2015.

Would never – under any circumstance — let one man become bigger than the program.

Yet here we are: While bitter rival Ohio State gets stronger by the season, Michigan gets weaker with every day it waits on a coach who hasn’t proven a thing.

“I see it from a personnel point of view,” one NFL scout told me. “Are they consistently developing players for the NFL? Schools can all claim it’s not about the NFL, that it’s about the college experience and molding men and getting a degree. A high, high majority of players go to college for one reason: to get to the NFL.”

In 5 years under the coach Michigan is begging to stay, the Wolverines have produced 1 first-round pick – and only 2 overall in the first 2 days (first, second and third rounds) of the NFL Draft.

Want to know why Michigan can’t beat Ohio State, and can’t hold off Michigan State and has morphed into Purdue (no offense, Boilers)? Players.

As much as college football loves to deify its coaches, players win games. Developing elite (and non-elite) high school players into elite college players and NFL prospects leads to winning big games and beating your rival and winning a championship.

The opposite shouldn’t lead to your employer begging you to stay and shovel more of it down their collective throats.

Want to know when this long nightmare ends, when the program that hasn’t won an outright Big Ten championship since 2003 finally moves forward?

When it moves on from Jim Harbaugh.

2. No one to blame but itself

We’re at this point with Michigan because of Michigan. Sounds odd, but stick with me.

Michigan holds itself as unique to the college experience. As the program that’s better than others because it doesn’t cheat and wins the right way, and because the ideals of going to school and graduating and playing hard and playing for pride are what matters most.

When you can do all of that with a beloved alum, an ultimate overachiever who was nearly run out of the program as a player but battled back to prove he was worthy of carrying the burden of quarterbacking Michigan and winning a championship, it’s your own slice of college football nirvana.

Giving up on Harbaugh now is giving up on the grand experiment of winning big with integrity and the things all of those worldwide alums feel deep in their soul.

But there’s one teeny-weeny problem: Alabama is winning big and the NCAA hasn’t set up shop in Tuscaloosa. Same with Clemson.

These holier than thou ideals are good but only take you so far. At some point, it’s about putting a winning product on the field – not a team that can beat Rutgers.

Cutting ties with Harbaugh would be admitting the grand experiment has failed. Only it hasn’t.

It hasn’t in Ames, Iowa. Or West Point. Or Evanston.

It hasn’t at Michigan – to the extent that those worldwide alums want – because Michigan doesn’t have the right coach, and it hasn’t had the right coach since Lloyd Carr retired.

It’s just that simple.

Brady Hoke was forced out because he couldn’t win the Big Ten. Rich Rodriguez was given leeway even though he put Michigan on NCAA probation, and was only run off when it was obvious he couldn’t win big.

Michigan has separated Harbaugh from Hoke and Rodriguez because he has won more games (few of significance) and because it badly wants its beloved alum to win.

Now the only way to save face is Harbaugh taking an NFL job, and relieving Michigan of the burden of firing him.

3. Big Red QB question

Don’t be surprised if Nebraska pulls a quarterback from the transfer portal to compete this spring with Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey.

It’s not just that Martinez hasn’t developed from his freshman season or that McCaffrey – despite Huskers coach Scott Frost calling him the future of the position at multiple times – is limited as a thrower.

Nebraska needs a transfer portal quarterback because Frost needs to win games.

As beloved as he is, Frost can’t stumble through another losing season at Nebraska and think he’s safe. The Huskers haven’t won big games with Martinez, and there’s no reason to think they will in 2021.

“It’s no secret why (Frost) is struggling there,” one NFL scout told me. “He doesn’t have a quarterback. He won big (at UCF) because he had the perfect fit for what he wanted to do, and while the guy he had didn’t have (an NFL) future, he was a helluva college player. He doesn’t have an NFL player at quarterback now, and doesn’t an elite college player.”

Where does that leave Nebraska for 2021? Hoping the transfer portal pays off.

If Frost can land an experienced quarterback from the portal – there will be more quarterbacks entering the portal now through spring practice – and if he can convince McCaffrey to move to wideout, it would be a significant upgrade for the offense.

If not, Frost might find himself in the same situation as Harbaugh at the end of next season.

4. Powered Up

The final Big Ten Power poll – and the key spring question.

1.Ohio State: This is pre-spring: Can Ohio State keep uber-successful coach Ryan Day from leaving for the NFL?

2. Iowa: Can the Hawkeyes ride momentum from the last 6 weeks of the 2020 season, and – here’s the key – stay drama-free in the offseason?

3. Indiana: Will Michael Penix Jr. (ACL injury) be healthy for the 2021 season-opener?

4. Northwestern: QB Peyton Ramsey isn’t playing in the NFL. Does he use NCAA free year of eligibility to return to Evanston?

5. Penn State: Will the lines of scrimmage, which got better as the season progressed, return as a dominant foundation of Penn State’s philosophy?

6. Wisconsin: Was the step back this season due to the uncertainty of the pandemic?

7. Minnesota: It the culture built by P.J. Fleck enough to keep the step back in 2020 as an anomaly?

8. Maryland: Can the Terps get stronger and smarter on the offensive line to supplement a growing group of talented skill players.

9. Michigan State: Is Payton Thorne the answer at quarterback, or will coach Mel Tucker use the transfer portal to find a starter?

10. Michigan: Will the Michigan coach (Harbaugh or not) hire an established quarterbacks coach to develop QB Cade McNamara?

11. Rutgers: Was Year 1 under Greg Schiano rock bottom, and can the Scarlet Knights reach bowl eligibility in Year 2?

12. Illinois: Can new coach Bret Bielema’s crawl ball offense still work as the remainder of college football has moved to the spread?

13. Nebraska: How much longer will Nebraska accept the results from Scott Frost as part of a rebuilding process?

14. Purdue: Can the Boilermakers rebuild a defense that has struggled the last 2 seasons?

5. The Weekly Five

Top 5 Big Ten assistant coaches primed to become head coaches.

  • 1. Jim Leonhard, defensive coordinator, Wisconsin
  • 2. Kirk Ciarrocca, offensive coordinator, Penn State
  • 3. Mike Sanford, Jr., offensive coordinator, Minnesota
  • 4. Nick Sheridan, offensive coordinator, Indiana
  • 5. Brent Pry, defensive coordinator, Penn State