B1G debate: Who is the most desperate Big Ten team?
Editor’s note: Ryan O’Gara and Connor O’Gara grew up following sports in suburban Chicago. The brothers, separated by 20 months, debated about their favorite teams and players so often that their father would often have to remind them, “This isn’t PTI.” Each Friday, they’re bringing that debate to you, centered around the Big Ten and college football as a whole.
This week’s debate: Who is the most desperate Big Ten team?
RYAN: Week 1 is in the books, so let’s turn our attention to Week 2. I don’t think it’s even debatable to say that the Big Ten has the 2 biggest games in the country this week (No. 10 Iowa at No. 9 Iowa State and No. 12 Oregon at No. 3 Ohio State). Those are the only games involving 2 ranked teams.
But for my money, the most desperate team in the Big Ten — and maybe the country — is Michigan. That probably applies to the 2021 season as a whole, but it especially applies in Week 2.
The Wolverines host Washington on Saturday night on ABC. There might be some folks watching Texas and Arkansas, but really, this is the only game in that time slot with marquee programs. It kind of has a Nebraska vs. Illinois in Week 0 feel to it. Or Monday Night Football. Whatever happens will be magnified. It counts the same in the standings as last week, but in terms of perception (which is obviously extremely important because of recruiting and the fact that human beings vote in polls that ultimately decide the fate of a program), this game is quite large.
It was always going to be a big game because these are 2 programs with proud histories, but the pressure amped up even more because Washington lost to an FCS school, Montana, in its opener. Now if Michigan loses at home to the team that lost to the FCS school, oh boy. That was a bad break for Michigan because Washington started the season ranked 20th, and if you lose to a team with a number next to its name, it doesn’t look as bad. But now with a loss, it’s, “Montana can win at Washington but Michigan can’t beat the Huskies in front of 110,000 of its own fans?”
Plus, Michigan is just 2-6 in its last 8 games against Power 5 opponents. It is coming off a season in which it finished 5th in the Big Ten East, behind Indiana and Maryland. Jim Harbaugh got an extension and revamped his coaching staff. This is a desperate head coach and a desperate program.
So in primetime on national TV, Michigan needs to show up.
CONNOR: You’re not wrong that Michigan is desperate. And you’re spot on with the postgame narrative if Jim Harbaugh loses. By virtue of losing to Washington, college football imperialism says that means Montana is better than Michigan (I don’t actually believe that, but go tell that to Twitter). That’s the problem. It’s absolutely worse for Michigan that Washington lost in incredibly embarrassing fashion in Week 1. Losses count double in primetime, or at least it feels like it.
There is big news coming to the upcoming 2022-23 Big Ten football season (and NFL season). Ohio online sports betting will be officially launching on January 1, 2023. Ohio will join other Big Ten states where sports betting has become legalized such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and more.
But Michigan took care of business in Week 1 and it has the entire conference slate to change the narrative. Jim Harbaugh isn’t getting fired with a loss to Washington, as bad as those week-to-week optics would be.
Let me ask you a question. Would you bet your house on Scott Frost being Nebraska’s coach at this time next week? Because I wouldn’t. Nebraska is (only) a 2-touchdown favorite against a Buffalo team with a first-year head coach. Lose that game and fall to 1-2 on the year heading into Oklahoma, and what’s Trev Albert’s move? At Nebraska, yes, an embarrassing loss can absolutely be the last straw. It was for Shawn Eichorst after the Northern Illinois collapse in 2017, which ultimately led to Mike Riley’s firing at the end of the season.
Against another MAC school at home, I’m not saying history is going to repeat itself here because I believe the Huskers should take care of business. But is this a desperation game for Frost? Absolutely. And even if that wouldn’t necessarily prompt immediate action, Nebraska’s path to a bowl game slams shut with a loss to Buffalo.
It’s true that there’s a certain bit of desperation with every game Nebraska plays. But this one, given the fact that it’s not totally impossible to think that Nebraska could fall to a Buffalo team that finished 2020 ranked inside the AP Top 25, albeit with a different coaching staff, feels even more desperate.
RYAN: Well, it would depend on the odds I’m getting in return for wagering my house, but I would probably take that bet. In 2 weeks, that’s when it gets more interesting to me. I don’t think Nebraska wants to stick an interim coach into the Oklahoma game; it would probably let Frost suffer through it and really drive home the fact that he’s not the right guy for the job. I don’t think Nebraska is losing to Buffalo this week, but I didn’t think Nebraska was losing to Illinois either.
I agree, though. If Nebraska does lose, I think it’s all but assured that this will be Frost’s final season in Lincoln. You’d figure that Nebraska will also lose to No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 3 Ohio State, No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 10 Iowa, meaning it would have to win out against Michigan State, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue. All of those teams, aside from Northwestern, have looked better than Nebraska has this season.
With Michigan, Washington is probably its 6th-toughest game of the season, right? Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Penn State and Ohio State are still on that schedule, and Rutgers and Maryland won’t be pushovers either.
I just think that if the Wolverines lose this game, the season could spiral out of control like last season. I don’t think anyone would dispute that Michigan quit last season. The effort displayed down the stretch against Wisconsin, Rutgers and Penn State was abysmal. Sure, it was the middle of a pandemic, but every other program was dealing with similar circumstances. If I’d have told you back in November of 2018 (when Michigan climbed to No. 4 in the AP Top 25) that a Harbaugh team in Year 6 would be fighting tooth and nail in triple overtime to avoid an upset loss to Rutgers, you’d have thought I was crazy. I’d have thought I was crazy. That’s how far Michigan has fallen.
The Wolverines have superior talent to pretty much every non-Ohio State team in the Big Ten (and probably Penn State, too), yet they are a 1.5-point favorite at home against a team that just lost to an FCS program. That means they would be an underdog on a neutral field.
Michigan not only needs a win, it needs to make a statement in doing so. With a ton of the country watching, that’s why Michigan is the most desperate team on Saturday. No one outside of Nebraska will be watching the Huskers play a middle-of-the-road MAC program that had its coaching staff leave in the middle of the offseason.
CONNOR: Ok, fair. The eyes on Nebraska will be limited. We’ll instead see the eyeball emojis with a screen shot of the Buffalo-Nebraska score if the Huskers fall behind early or if they’re in a dog fight late. I love Nebraska fans, and I truly do feel for them, but that tweet is the lowest hanging internet fruit there is on a fall Saturday.
My point with Michigan is I think there are plenty of other opportunities to change the narrative once conference play starts. Michigan will probably be favored in at least 3 of those first 4 games to start conference play, depending on what we see from Wisconsin in the next few weeks.
It would also depend on how Michigan loses. Like, what if Cade McNamara throws for 400 yards and looks excellent in a 48-45 loss to Washington? I know the Harbaugh jabs would fly as they always do after a Michigan loss, but to me, seeing the passing game take off like that would be a positive sign, especially against a respected defensive mind like Jimmy Lake. Maybe I’m only saying that because I’ve gradually lowered my expectations for Michigan’s offense under Harbaugh.
Here’s a fascinating hypothetical I just made up. Michigan travels to face Nebraska on Oct. 9. You’ve got $100 to bet (responsibly of course) on one of these scenarios. I’ll give you -600 odds that Harbaugh and Frost are both still coaching their respective teams. You can get +600 that one of them is fired by then and +1800 that both of them are gone by Oct. 9. What are you taking? I’d be awfully intrigued by that +600.
RYAN: I just can’t see Frost getting fired without cause during the season because he would be due a $20 million buyout. Although with the amount of leaks that have come out of Lincoln, I guess it isn’t implausible for someone inside that program to dig up some dirt to get Frost canned amid the NCAA investigation. The far more likelier firing would be Harbaugh because the buyout is only $4 million.
I still can’t see it happening. I’ve got Michigan winning a close one this week. Same with Nebraska.
With those odds, though, I’ll take the +1,800. Go big or go home, right?
If you’ll give me both coaches are gone before next season, I’m definitely taking that. Not because I am sure it will happen, but because of Frost’s program being under investigation and Harbaugh having a program-friendly buyout.
What happens this week could certainly play a role in whether or not that actually happens.