Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten. 

1. The B1G Story

Let’s begin with the good news: Michigan has never been in this spot under Jim Harbaugh, with this specific advantage.

For the first time since he arrived at his alma mater in 2015, Harbaugh has Michigan staring at Ohio State with everything on the line – and the game in Ann Arbor.

In 2 previous all-or-nothing games – with the Big Ten East Division, a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, and a spot in the College Football Playoff all on the line – both were in the wild atmosphere of Ohio Stadium in Columbus. Both ended in the worst possible way(s).

So here we are, after Michigan began this annual, fruitless journey in July during Big Ten Media Days when Harbaugh declared the Wolverines would beat Ohio State this season or “die trying,” embracing the good in a rivalry that Michigan has won once in 16 years.

Now, the bad news: This might be Ohio State’s best offense ever.

“We’re tired of talking,” said Michigan linebacker Josh Ross. “None of the past matters. It’s all about right now.”

And right now looks a lot like the previous 6 seasons. No matter what happens Saturday in The Game, Michigan will not fire Harbaugh.

Like it or not, Twitter warriors, Harbaugh is the Michigan coach for the foreseeable future, and frankly, for as long as he wants. You’re not going to run off a coach who wins double-digit games and graduates players and does everything you could possible want except beat Michigan State and Ohio State more often.

So the next obvious question: How do you slay the ogre that is Ohio State and break an 8-game losing streak?

Michigan has its best shot under Harbaugh because the Wolverines do two things really well that are in direct contrast to what makes Ohio State elite: rush the passer, and run the ball.

Michigan has the best pass rush duo in college football in edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson (10 sacks) and David Ojabo (10 sacks). These two get after the passer – and nothing else. Between them, they have 1.5 tackles for loss outside of sacks.

This is what they do – and they do it well. And it’s the main reason why Michigan is No. 8 in the nation in pass defense (178.4 ypg), a long way from Michigan State’s worst pass defense in all of FBS that Ohio State decimated last weekend.

That all sounds good until we remind everyone that Michigan State, which lost 56-7 last weekend to the Buckeyes, beat Michigan in late October.

Then there’s the idea that Michigan can run the ball with TBs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum (a combined 1,843 yards rushing and 23 TDs), dictate tempo and keep the Ohio State offense off the field. Again, sounds good – until you realize that Michigan State, with the nation’s leading rusher (Kenneth Walker III), ran for 66 yards on 21 carries.

Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara has played better in the second half of the season, and is beginning to consistently complete key third-down throws. He has thrown only 1 interception in the last 5 games, and has since thrown 152 passes without a pick.

These are all good things – all critical components setting up the biggest game in the Harbaugh era at Michigan. An all-or-nothing game that, for the first time under Harbaugh, will be played in Ann Arbor.

Which, of course, means 100,000 of the program’s closest friends can make it miserable for Ohio State over the course of 60 minutes.

Or die trying.

2. The case for Stroud

It’s late November, and that can only mean one thing: The Heisman Trophy race has been winnowed to a select few.

Or in this case, to Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

Each can make his case over the next 2 weeks for the greatest individual award in sports. Both had huge games last weekend in wins against ranked teams.

Stroud threw for 432 yards and 6 TDs (0 INTs) in a win over Michigan State.

Young threw for 559 yards and 5 TDs (0 INTs) in a win over Arkansas.

Stroud has played his best over the last month of the season, when the Ohio State schedule turned tougher. In 3 games — against ranked teams Penn State, Purdue and Michigan State — Stroud had 1,098 yards and 12 TDs with no INTs.

Young continues to pile up big numbers in the second half of the season, throwing for 1,850 yards and 18 TDs (0 INTs) in the last 5 games.

Meanwhile, the season numbers are eerily similar:

  • Stroud: 246-of-346 (71.1 percent), 3,468 yards, 36 TDs, 5 INTs vs. the No.9-ranked schedule in the nation, per the NCAA.
  • Young: 263-of-367 (71.7 percent), 3,584 yards, 38 TDs, 3 INTs vs. the No.1-ranked schedule in the nation, per the NCAA.

Stroud has 2 big games remaining: vs. top 10 Michigan and top 15 Wisconsin. Young has games at Auburn, and vs. No.1-ranked Georgia.

More than likely, this race comes down to the final game of the season. If both teams win out and both quarterbacks play well, it could be the closest race in Heisman history.

3. Gang Green

Don’t think Mel Tucker is completely free of the coaching carousel just yet, despite the reported mega contract extension being prepared by Michigan State officials.

Tucker has steered clear of talking about the extension, preferring to talk about his team and its final game of the season against Penn State.

Understand this: Until Tucker signs the extension, he’s still a viable option for LSU or any other job opening.

“I don’t know how anyone could think a guy who has a history of working at one of the biggest jobs in all of college football wouldn’t talk with them at the appropriate time,” one industry source told me this week in reference to LSU’s potential pursuit of Tucker. “Not only that, look at (Tucker’s) track record.”

Tucker’s first head coaching job was in 2019, and he led Colorado to a 5-7 record. After the season, he initially denied interest in Michigan State, but after Spartans officials came back a second time with a better offer, he left CU for East Lansing.

The current Michigan State extension offer, according to the Detroit News and Detroit Free-Press, is 10 years, $95 million. There are no other specifics, and nothing has leaked about the possibility of a fully guaranteed contract.

Another industry source told me that LSU athletic director Scott Woodward is prepared to pay as much as $100 million over eight years – fully guaranteed – to get the right coach. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has been linked to the LSU job, though he said this week he is happy in Norman.

That $100 million number would make the next LSU coach the highest paid in college football at $12.5 million annually.

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: searching the portal in 2022 for …

1. Ohio State: Linebacker. A problem all season. Not enough speed, not enough three-down players.

2. Michigan: Defensive line. Impact edge rushers will be a premium, but Michigan needs to get beefier in the middle, too.

3. Michigan State: Speed. Everywhere. More skill players (RB, WR, CB) who can change momentum.

4. Wisconsin: Quarterback. If Graham Mertz isn’t the answer (and that’s debatable at best), Badgers need an upgrade at the most important position.

5. Iowa: Wide receiver. Hawkeyes best receiving threat is TE Sam LaPorta. Hard to blame the quarterback (whoever it is) when you can’t win consistently on the outside.

6. Penn State: Offensive line. The unit has struggled to move the line of scrimmage all season. The middle three will be critical.

7. Minnesota: Quarterback. Coach PJ Fleck stayed too long with Tanner Morgan, who has regressed in each of the last 2 years since his magical sophomore season.

8. Purdue: Cornerback. Boilers need playmakers who can win in man coverage.

9. Nebraska: Wide receiver. Doesn’t matter who plays quarterback (Adrian Martinez may not return), Huskers need receivers who get separation – and catch the ball.

10. Illinois: Offensive line. The upperclassman-heavy group was hit-and-miss much of the season, and will need to be nearly completely rebuilt.

11. Maryland: Speed on defense. All three levels, the defensive line, linebackers and secondary.

12. Rutgers: Tailback. Coach Greg Schiano likes to play bully ball. He wants to run downhill to set up play action. A big, strong tailback who can handle 20-plus carries a game.

13. Northwestern: Quarterback. Three used in 2021, none effective. It’s a must-have if Wildcats want to make a turn back to top of the West Division.

14. Indiana: Defensive line. Not nearly enough push up front, or disruption off the edge.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread (bonus Rivalry Week edition)

Iowa (-1.5) at Nebraska
Ohio State (-8) at Michigan
Maryland at Rutgers (+1.5)
Penn State at Michigan State (+1.5)
Northwestern (+6.5) at Illinois
Indiana at Purdue (-15)
Wisconsin (-7) at Minnesota

Last week: 3-2
Season: 41-19