B1G Monday Morning: Looking more like the ACC than SEC, the Big Ten has an overcrowded middle class
Recapping the trends that emerged from the weekend’s Big Ten action.
In another stunning Saturday, the Big Ten continued to be unpredictable. Through 3 weeks, teams that are favored by a touchdown or more are just 9-5. In general, the favorites are only 11-8 straight up.
The latest shocking loss comes from Penn State, which was a 25-point favorite against Maryland. And in less surprising news, Michigan couldn’t keep up with Indiana and Nebraska sputtered at Northwestern.
After last week, it was evident that it was likely Ohio State or bust for the B1G’s College Football Playoff hopes this season. But Saturday revealed a much murkier outlook for the Big Ten moving forward — it has an overcrowded middle class and not enough teams capable of competing for national championships, which was not the belief going into this season.
The struggles of Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska — who have a combined record of 1-7 — underscores a major problem for the Big Ten: It is starting to look more like the ACC and less like the SEC. In the ACC, it’s Clemson and everyone else. In the SEC, it’s Alabama and then some combination of LSU, Auburn, Florida and Georgia. The Big Ten’s top teams have suffered through a dismal first 3 weeks as the 5 non-Ohio State teams ranked in the preseason poll have a combined record of 4-9.
Why do Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska matter so much? Those programs are consistently atop the Big Ten’s recruiting rankings — they have finished in the top 5 in the Big Ten every year since 2015 and have been in the top 4 the last 3 years — and that’s important because it’s where credibility begins. Player development and execution are obviously important and also key determining factors of whether a program wins or loses, but it takes a long time to earn respect in the college football world when you haven’t recruited at a high level. Ask Minnesota, which garnered almost no respect despite starting 9-0 last season. And it’s even more challenging to sustain success without recruiting at a high level. Again, ask Minnesota, which has looked like one of the Big Ten’s worst teams this season.
The Blue Chip Ratio is a term popularized by 247 that measures whether teams have enough talent to win it all. Since Cinderella stories are highly unusual, unlike in college basketball, teams theoretically must have more 4-star and 5-star recruits than 2-star and 3-star recruits on the roster. That’s means that while Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue are great stories, their staying power may be limited. Look no further than Northwestern, which won the Big Ten West in 2018 and immediately bottomed out in 2019. It is so much more difficult to be a consistent contender without elite recruiting.
Penn State and Michigan are among the teams that can conceivably win it all, with Nebraska as the Big Ten’s next best. But as you’ll see below, each of those teams has major issues moving forward.
That’s a disappointing development for a conference that believed it was inching closer to the SEC. Financially, the Big Ten and SEC have separated themselves, so much so that The Athletic has suggested the term Power 5 should be trashed in favor of “Power 2 plus Clemson, Texas and Oklahoma.” The Big Ten has 7 of the top 20 highest-paid coaches in college football.
Parity is fun on a week-to-week basis, but it hurts the conference overall when there aren’t 5 or 6 legitimate programs. Think of the perception of the ACC, which notably has had 7 different Coastal Division champions in 7 years. It makes it hard for Clemson to rack up quality wins. Think of the Pac 12, which is always wild and unpredictable but hasn’t had a team make the CFP since 2016 because its best teams consistently choke. Think of the SEC if Alabama didn’t have the support from Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Florida — it wouldn’t be near as fun and its teams wouldn’t have the credibility to make the CFP with a loss or, in some seasons, even 2 losses.
That’s the future the Big Ten is looking at if Penn State, Michigan and Nebraska don’t turn things around. Judging by the developments from Saturday, the prognosis is not great.
Penn State’s swift nosedive
Maryland 35, Penn State 19. It’s been a sharp and unexpected decline for Penn State, and the potential future issues that could hold this program back far beyond this season manifested in a brutal Saturday. Among the issues: QB Sean Clifford has clearly regressed, the defense can’t stop anyone and Pennsylvania’s top recruits are officially uninterested in the Nittany Lions. That is the fallout of a dreadful performance against a team Penn State beat 59-0 last year and had beaten 41 times in the last 43 matchups.
This isn’t LSU losing everyone to the NFL. Penn State, despite some tough breaks this offseason, was still projected as the second or third best team in the Big Ten. This is a roster chock full of blue chip recruits that should be able to sustain those tough breaks. Instead, Penn State was embarrassed by one of the most inexperienced rosters in the Big Ten. And it wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
This was supposed to be the year for Penn State’s long-awaited breakthrough past Ohio State and into the College Football Playoff for the first time, ala LSU finally getting past Alabama in 2019. But 2020 has had other plans, starting with offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne taking the head coaching job at Old Dominion and star wideout KJ Hamler leaving early for the NFL. It got even worse with Micah Parsons opting out, as well as injuries to Penn State’s fearsome running back duo of Journey Brown and Noah Cain.
In Rahne’s place, Kirk Ciarrocca hasn’t discovered a formula for the same productive offense he oversaw at Minnesota. Ciarrocca isn’t playing with a full cupboard, so to speak, as Rahne’s unit rotated 4 capable backs last season, all of whom were supposed to be back this season. Instead, only 1 (Devyn Ford) is healthy.
There’s another unexpected issue: Clifford. There has clearly been a learning curve under Ciarrocca. His completion percentage is down from 59 percent to 56; his yards-per-attempt number is down from 8.3 to 7; and he has 5 interceptions in 3 games after having only 7 in 12 games last season. It’s not as if he doesn’t have weapons. Jahan Dotson is developing into one of the Big Ten’s best receivers, and Pat Freiermuth is one of the best tight ends in the country. So how does a player like that start 6-of-20 passing against a defense that has been torched by Northwestern and Minnesota?
And as well as Penn State has recruited over the last few years under James Franklin, there has been a drop-off in the still-to-be-completed 2021 class. The Nittany Lions are just 8th in the B1G in 2021, and their top remaining target in the class committed to LSU on Saturday. That means Penn State does not have a single commitment among Pennsylvania’s top 10 recruits. A lackluster class won’t necessarily hurt Penn State next year, but it will be detrimental in 2 or 3 years. I bring this up to say that there may not be a ton of help on the way.
Michigan’s identity crisis
No. 13 Indiana 38, No. 23 Michigan 21. What’s worse: The fact that Michigan lost by 17 to Indiana or that it didn’t seem all that surprising? That’s the current state of Michigan football in Year 6 of the Jim Harbaugh era.
The juxtaposition between Harbaugh and Indiana coach Tom Allen was striking on Saturday — the former’s squad was undisciplined and erratic; the latter’s group played smart, free and confident.
Michigan is held to a higher standard than virtually every team in the Big Ten considering it has the fourth-highest paid coach in the country in Harbaugh, who has had more than enough time to build up this program. The expectations were sky high for Harbaugh, and he hasn’t come close to reaching them. Some of that is out of his control, as Ohio State is other-worldly. But falling to Michigan State and Indiana — programs that pale in comparison in terms of resources — tells you everything you need to know.
The question for Michigan is who does it want to be? It continues to do the same things over and over, with the same results. The most prominent example is its inability to cover wide receivers 1-on-1 on the outside. The sacrificial lamb has been Vincent Gray, whom Rocky Lombardi repeatedly picked on last week. Michael Penix Jr. obviously watched the film, because when the Wolverines kept jumping offsides, he threw it up to whoever Gray was guarding. The 342 yards Michigan allowed through the air were the most since 2014. In his postgame comments, Harbaugh said he has confidence in defensive coordinator Don Brown, but actions speak louder than words. Until Michigan makes adjustments — whether it is personnel or scheme — it won’t see different results.
Next up, by the way, is Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz (assuming he is cleared to play), who threw 5 TD passes in his first start.
Offensively, the Wolverines didn’t pretend to want to run the ball, and it resulted in Michigan finishing with 13 rushing yards — the fifth-fewest it has had in the last 20 seasons. It also had only 18 rushing attempts, which was the second-fewest of the last 20 years. Part of that was due to poor offensive line play, no doubt, but relying so heavily on Joe Milton this early in his career is not a winning formula.
Michigan wants to catch Ohio State, but it has drifted back to the middle of the pack in the Big Ten — capable of beating anyone in a given week, but also capable of losing to anyone in a given week.
Is another offseason of change coming as the administration finally comes to grips with the fact that this regime is going the wrong way? It’s hard to tell what’s worse — starting over or sticking with the same failed formula.
More disappointment for the Huskers
Northwestern 21, Nebraska 13. It’s fine that Nebraska really, really wants to play football. But can the Cornhuskers act like like it when they actually get on the field? If you’re going to talk a big game, you need to back it up. Coming away with 2 field goals and a TD on 6 trips to the red zone is an abomination.
This was an entirely winnable game for Nebraska and could’ve vaulted it squarely into the West race. Instead, it leaves with more questions than answers, the most prominent of which is who is going to play quarterback?
Adrian Martinez can be electric running the ball, but he is still struggling throwing downfield. He was finally pulled after an interception that put him at 12-of-27 passing, but Luke McCaffrey (12 of 16 for 95 yards) couldn’t generate much either, throwing an interception in the red zone that ultimately decided the game.
Now in Year No. 3, Scott Frost is 9-17. There is no momentum for this program right now on the field, where it matters. Frost went as far to tell reporters that “we should be farther along than we are.”
Frost needs to figure out a way to spark this team, which may have reached its ceiling under Martinez. Is it time to unleash McCaffrey (after he was used sparsely until relieving Martinez in the second half)?
Nebraska envisions returning to the glory days of the 1990s, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but to even put the Huskers in the Big Ten’s middle class right now is being generous.
1. Rakim Jarrett (Maryland)
The true freshman is officially ready for primetime after his 5 catches for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns in the upset win over Penn State. Jarrett was the best athlete on the field, as it was his run-after-the-catch ability that staked the Terrapins to an early lead. He did most of the work on the 42-yard TD to open the scoring and the 62-yard TD later in the first quarter. Jarrett, the only non-Ohio State 5-star recruit in the Big Ten this year, stayed home in order to get a chance to play immediately. He is making the most of it.
Just in: The @TerpsFootball offense hasn't slowed down since last Friday.
— Maryland On BTN (@MarylandOnBTN) November 7, 2020
2. Michael Penix Jr. and Ty Fryfogle (Indiana)
Penix, after a less-than-stellar start to this season, looked like himself against Michigan. He completed 30 of 50 passes for a career-high 342 yards and 3 TDs. Penix hit Ty Fryfogle (7 catches, 142 yards and a TD) for huge gains.
The B1G star of Week 3?
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) November 8, 2020
3. Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)
Ibrahim has been a true workhorse, carrying 30 times for 224 yards and 4 TDs. He is up to 10 rushing scores in 3 games. Can he keep this workload up for an entire season?
BEEP BEEP @_MoIbrahim 🚨
— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) November 7, 2020
4. Justin Fields (Ohio State)
Fields was simply magnificent again, completing 24 of 28 passes for 314 yards and 5 TDs. Fields’ near-perfect effort is par for the course, and sure, it was just Rutgers, but that doesn’t take away from what Fields is doing. It doesn’t matter who the Buckeyes are playing right now, Fields is going to deliver MVP-caliber performances.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 8, 2020
5. Tyler Goodson (Iowa)
The Hawkeyes were waiting for an offensive explosion and finally got it against Michigan State, and Goodson was the star of the show. Firmly entrenched as the lead back, Goodson flashed with 113 rushing yards and 2 TDs on just 14 attempts. The Hawkeyes would be wise to lean more on the talented sophomore rather than slinging it 50 times with Spencer Petras.
TYLER GOODSON SCORES AGAIN pic.twitter.com/yYUC3JJlz4
— Iowa Nostalgia (@RetroHawkeyes) November 7, 2020
Honorable mention: Taulia Tagovailoa (Maryland), Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Ronnie Bell (Michigan), Stevie Scott (Indiana), Jahan Dotson (Penn State)