Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the biggest issues in the Big Ten:

1. The B1G Story

There’s something uniquely surreal about a seemingly harmless Big Ten opener at Michigan.

But make no mistake, there’s nothing meaningless with all things Maize and Blue and Jim Harbaugh. Because from Day 1, Harbaugh has made it that way – forcing a near weekly referendum on his tenure.

Even with a harmless conference game against heavy underdog Rutgers.

“There’s nobody looking to take a deep, long bow right now,” Harbaugh says.

Because they’d hit their head on the bar that has been lowered – year after year – at Michigan under Harbaugh.

For all that has been said and spoken about Michigan under Harbaugh, nothing is more damaging than the untold reality that the bar of expectations has dropped to an embarrassingly low mark.

It’s the constant beat of losing games they shouldn’t, and regularly failing to compete at a high level against rivals and the elite of the Big Ten.

Harbaugh is a target for unyielding – and at times unfair — criticism because he has publicly demanded greatness of Michigan, and his teams haven’t backed it up. In fact, they’ve underscored the most overlooked reality in college football over the past 2 decades: Michigan is an above-average program and nothing else.

Since coach Lloyd Carr retired after the 2007 season, the Wolverines are 98-64 and are averaging just under 8 wins a season. While Harbaugh has won 10 games 3 times (and nearly a 4th time), his struggles against rivals and the elite of the Big Ten and college football is well-documented.

— 2-12 vs. teams ranked in the top 10.

— 0-5 vs. Ohio State

— 6-11 vs. Ohio State, Michigan State and Penn State.

The Wolverines are 3-0 for the first time since 2017, the very season they were expected to finally take the next step under Harbaugh and win the Big Ten.

Then they lost to Michigan State (again). Then to Penn State (again).

Then to Wisconsin and Ohio State (again), and eventually finished that breakthrough season with a loss to a midlevel SEC team (South Carolina) in an afterthought bowl game.

So excuse us if we’ve heard this before. Players are talking about what could be a “special” season. Harbaugh says everyone is “having fun” and “playing hard” and that you can “see it in their eyes.”

We can’t go down this road again, can we?

We can’t go all in on Michigan, only to look up Saturday and see the Wolverines trailing Rutgers in the fourth quarter of a game where they’re double-digit favorites. Don’t think it can’t happen.

Michigan needed triple overtime to beat Rutgers last year, and this Rutgers team already has matched the wins (3) from last year in the second season of coach Greg Schiano’s second tenure in Piscataway.

One thing you can bank on: Rutgers will be better than last year’s team. Schiano is recruiting at a high level, and the talent is rapidly increasing. He built this thing once; he’ll do it again.

And Michigan is what?

The Wolverines believe in quarterback Cade McNamara, who took hold of the starting job in last year’s Rutgers game after Joe Milton continued to struggle. McNamara threw 4 touchdown passes in this game last year, and Michigan has won 4 of the 5 games he has started.

Michigan leads the nation in rushing yards per game (350.3 ypg.), and is tied for 8th in the nation (with Rutgers) in scoring defense (11.3 ppg.). Rutgers will load up on run defense and force McNamara to win the game – which he did last year.

Seems simple enough, until you look deeper. Rutgers leads the nation in turnover ratio (+8), and in 3 games, hasn’t lost a turnover.

They’re better on the defensive line, and could get their best cornerback, UNC transfer Patrice Rene, back this week.

“Let’s make it clear, we haven’t turned anything around,” Schiano said. “And now we start playing the Big Ten schedule. This is what it’s all about. So we have to go and show we belong.”

The same can be said for Michigan and Harbaugh.

2. Meanwhile, in East Lansing …

Mel Tucker was vilified when he left Colorado after 1 season to take the Michigan State job.

Then he rolled into East Lansing and began cleaning house, telling players if they didn’t want to commit and work, “there’s the (transfer) portal.”

A combination of not being around players face to face because of the pandemic, and limited hands-on time on the practice field before the start of a shortened season all contributed to an ugly start.

Now here we are in Year 2, and Tucker has developed a quarterback (Payton Thorne), he secured Wake Forest tailback Kenneth Walker III from the transfer portal, and Walker leads the nation in rushing (164.3 ypg.).

The Spartans have gone from 109th in the nation in total offense in 2020 to 14th in the nation this season. The defense is still a work in progress and not to the level of the units he helped build at Alabama and Georgia.

They went on the road and won by 17 at Northwestern, and last week won at Miami by 21. They already have more wins this fall (3) than all of last season (2).

They’re staring at a 4-game stretch – Nebraska, Western Kentucky, at Rutgers, at Indiana — that could land the Spartans back among the Big Ten elite heading into an Oct. 30 game against Michigan in East Lansing.

Tucker doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to talk about today – then tomorrow when tomorrow comes.

Years ago, Tucker learned a valuable lesson from Saban: If it’s not on tape, it doesn’t exist. Everyone has a résumé, and it’s on tape — not some contrived idea in someone’s head.

If you’re not showing it in practice and games, if you’re just talking about it, it doesn’t exist.

“Our players believe what we’re doing,” Tucker said. It’s going to reinforce all the things that we’ve preached, everything that we work on every day.”

3. The QB Choice

Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin at Soldier Field should be good enough. The undercard, though, is far more intriguing.

Jack Coan vs. Graham Mertz.

The former Wisconsin quarterback (Coan) against the current Badgers quarterback (Mertz). Coan was injured prior to last season at Wisconsin and never got the job back from Mertz.

When it was obvious Wisconsin was moving forward with Mertz, Coan entered the transfer portal and eventually signed with Notre Dame.

“I have nothing but good things to say about (Coan),” Mertz said. “Great guy, great teammate, great friend. I’m prepping for their defense, not a 1-on-1 basketball game with him.”

Coan was 3-3 vs. ranked teams in his one full season as a starter at Wisconsin, with 6 TDs and 2 INTs in those games. He was more of a complementary player in the Badgers’ run-oriented offense but has become more of a critical part of the ND offense.

“This is a new chapter for him,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “He wants to beat Wisconsin, but he wants to beat Cincinnati the following week. In our building, it’s not much of a story to him.”

4. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll and one big thing: the September surprise.

1. Iowa: Hawkeyes have stayed unbeaten since last October (9 straight wins) with average play from the quarterback spot.

2. Penn State: OC Mike Yurcich’s impact on QB Sean Clifford has been remarkable.

3. Ohio State: The Silver Bullets defense – are you ready for this? – is 13th in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up a whopping 471.3 ypg.

4. Michigan State: The emergence of QB Payton Thorne (9 TDs, 0 INT, 62.3 completion percentage) has made the Spartans’ offense dangerous.

5. Wisconsin: A small 2-game snapshot, but the Badgers’ offense is last in the Big Ten in scoring (22 ppg.).

6. Minnesota: In 2 games since Mo Ibrahim’s injury, Treyson Potts has 299 yards and 5 TDs.

7. Michigan: TB Blake Corum, 2020: 26 carries, 77 yards, 2 TDs; 2021: 48 carries, 407 yards, 7 TDs.

8. Maryland: Terps are 3rd in the Big Ten in total defense, giving up 269.7 ypg. – 160 yards less than 2020.

9. Rutgers: Opponents’ 3rd-down conversions: 17.5%.

10. Purdue: TE Payne Durham has become more than a secondary outlet, he can stretch the field and get in the end zone.

11. Indiana: QB Michael Penix Jr. has more interceptions in 3 games this season (6) than all of 2020 (4).

12. Northwestern: Defense red-zone conversion percentage: 2020 (70.3), 2021 (90.9).

13. Nebraska: QB Adrian Martinez is the team’s leading rusher – by 162 yards.

14. Illinois: WR Isaiah Williams didn’t have a catch in 2020. He has 21 for 230 yards this season, and is the only consistent factor on the Illini offense.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread:

  • Notre Dame (+6.5) vs. Wisconsin
  • Illinois at Purdue (-11)
  • Nebraska at Michigan State (-5)
  • Rutgers (+20) at Michigan
  • Ohio at Northwestern (-15)

Last week: 3-2

Season: 10-5