B1G 5: Michigan's problem, Nebraska's silver lining and some myth busting
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
This is no longer a Jim Harbaugh question. This is now a Michigan question.
What exactly do the decision-makers in Ann Arbor – president Mark Schlissel and athletic director Warde Manuel – want from their football program?
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There isn’t a wrong answer, just an understanding of where the bar lies and how to reach it.
“I’ve seen the team for a long time now, the way they respond,” Harbaugh said of his team after yet another loss in a rivalry game, this time to Michigan State. “Whether it’s a setback or chatter, I know how they’re going to respond.”
The question: How does the Michigan administration respond?
If the goal is to win more games than you lose, graduate players and run a clean program, Harbaugh is your coach.
If your goal is to win championships – and let’s say, for the sake of argument, that’s the goal at Michigan — the Harbaugh resume can no longer be ignored.
He is who he is – and it’s not getting better.
That Harbaugh’s team lost last weekend for the 13th time in 15 games against top 10 opponents is bad. That it happened vs. rival Michigan State, which has won 10 of the last 14 in the series – since the infamous Mike Hart “little brother” insult — pours battery acid on a gaping wound.
The numbers are atrocious:
- 2-13 vs. the top 10; 54-10 vs. everyone else.
- 3-9 vs. Ohio State and Michigan State; 35-8 vs. everyone else in Big Ten.
To fully grasp just how gutting the loss to Michigan State was, understand that Mel Tucker is in his second season in East Lansing. He inherited a broken program, and had to completely rebuild from the ground up.
His team last season was barely competitive, and still beat Michigan. His team this season – after Tucker reshaped the roster with some critical transfer portal players of impact – is ranked No.3 in the first College Football Playoff poll.
Harbaugh is in the middle of his 7th season at Michigan, with a roster full of players he recruited and developed, and he’s no closer to winning games that matter than he was when the Spartans won the first game vs. Harbaugh in 2015 – because Michigan couldn’t handle a punt snap to lock down a win.
Michigan has beaten no team of significance this season, and in their first opportunity, blew a 16-point lead on the road.
Over and over and over they’ve watched this play out. Different athletic directors, and the same president.
They all come to the same conclusion: Harbaugh, who hasn’t beaten bitter rival Ohio State in 6 tries, who hasn’t won the Big Ten East Division in 6 tries, who doesn’t have Michigan close to the elite of the game, is their guy.
They chopped his salary in half in January, moving from an $8 million-a-year deal to an inventive-laden $4.4 million-a-year deal – with escalators to get that number back to $8 million. Those escalators, of course, include winning a championship.
That’s not happening this season. And if you’re a believer in the past dictating the future, what in the world would make you believe it could happen moving forward?
Harbaugh has had 7 seasons to get this right. Seven years to recruit and develop the kind of players you need to win games that matter.
He has shown his product over and over to the Michigan administration. This is who Michigan is under Harbaugh, no questions, no doubt.
This is no longer a Harbaugh problem.
This is a Michigan problem.
Big Red silver lining
I don’t want to be a wet blanket to all those loyal Nebraska fans who proclaim it’s “different” at Nebraska, and they’ll do everything they can to keep beloved son Scott Frost as Huskers coach before having to cut ties.
But Trev Alberts isn’t putting up with this crap.
Alberts, the heart of some truly vicious and memorable NU defenses of the 1990s, isn’t trying to find a way to save a coach.
He’s trying to save a program.
Scott Frost will be fired at the end of the season because the results aren’t there. Period.
But there is one critical area where Frost succeeded: recruiting. That, more than anything, will be the Frost coaching legacy.
He proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that good players will still come to Nebraska. For 2 decades the narrative has been Nebraska can’t keep up with the rest of the college football elite because high school players don’t want to play in a flyover state with 2 feet of snow on the ground.
It’s a myth propagated for so long, failing coaches used it as a crutch.
They’re not the only team on television anymore. The recruiting footprint is limited. They can’t recruit California like they used to, and they can’t get into Texas and Arizona since they left the Big 12.
In Frost’s 4 years of recruiting, he had the No. 23 class (2018) in the nation, per 247Sports composite, the No. 17 class (2019), and the No. 20 class (2020 and 2021).
Those recruiting numbers should, at the very least, lead to a top 25 team – and maybe more depending on the head coach and the staff he assembles, and their ability to develop players.
Nebraska under Frost can’t even reach .500. That’s why he’s coaching his final month with the Huskers.
3. Bucked up D
One of the best stories of the season is Wisconsin’s rebound from a horrific first month to put itself in position to again play in the Big Ten Championship Game.
That story revolves around the play of the Wisconsin defense, which has given up 34 points in a 4-game winning streak — leaving the Badgers in position to reach their 7th conference championship game in 11 years of the event.
The numbers – against Illinois, Army, and ranked Purdue and Iowa – are staggeringly good:
- Rush yards given up: 210, 52.5 ypg (31 total rush yards in the 3 Big Ten games)
- Pass yards given up: 505, 126.3 ypg
- Third down conversions: 12-of-51 (23.5 percent)
More impressive: In the 4-game run, the Wisconsin passing game has gotten worse. Enigmatic QB Graham Mertz has thrown for 368 yards, completing 53 percent of his passes.
Wisconsin has been so good defensively this season, they’re rivaling Georgia’s impressive season.
The Badgers are No. 1 in the nation in total defense (214.6 ypg), and Georgia is No. 2 (226.6). The Badgers are No. 2 in the nation in opponent third down conversions (25.4 percent), and tied for No. 6 in sacks (25).
Those numbers will only get better in November with games against Rutgers, Northwestern, Nebraska and injury-plagued Minnesota.
Win out, and the Badgers are in the Big Ten Championship Game.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: biggest overreaction of 2021.
Michigan State: Too many starters from the transfer portal will ruin any hope for team chemistry.
Ohio State: You can’t replace an All-America-caliber quarterback with a freshman and expect to have the same offense.
Michigan: Freshman QB JJ McCarthy will be the starting quarterback before the end of September.
Penn State: An improved offensive line and a commitment to running the ball. Penn State is averaging 108.8 rushing ypg.
Wisconsin: QB Graham Mertz will develop into a quality starter. Current TD/INT ratio: 3/7.
Minnesota: QB Tanner Morgan will return to 2019 form. Morgan: 6 TDs, 5 INTs; and 13 TDs and 10 INTs since a breakout season in 2019 (30 TDs, 7 INTs).
Purdue: Too much uncertainty on defense will force Purdue to outscore opponents. Purdue D: No. 4 in Big Ten in scoring defense (17.1 ppg) and No. 5 in total defense (312.5 ypg)
Iowa: Embattled QB Spencer Petras and Iowa offense will throw more intermediate and deep balls. Petras average yards per attempt: 6.5
Nebraska: An improving run game with TBs Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant will give the offense balance. QB Adrian Martinez (451 yards) is the team’s leading rusher.
Rutgers: The lines have become Big Ten-ready. RU: 10th in B1G in rush defense, 9th in rush offense.
Maryland: Taulia Tagovailoa will remind us of older brother Tua. In his last 4 games: 7 TDs, 7 INTs.
Northwestern: The quarterback position, with 3 viable starters, will be figured out. NU passing: 11th in the Big Ten (181.4 ypg)
Indiana: Hoosiers D won’t take a step back despite personnel losses. IU is last the Big Ten in scoring defense (31.6 ppg)
Illinois: A senior-dominated offensive line will lead to drastic improvement on offense. Illinois is last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (17.6 ppg)
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
Wisconsin (-13) at Rutgers
Iowa (-12) at Northwestern
Penn State (-10.5) at Maryland
Ohio State (-15) at Nebraska
Michigan State (-3) at Purdue
Last week: 4-1