1. The B1G Story

Jim Harbaugh says he’s innocent, just like he said earlier this summer. Just like he told the NCAA over and over prior to that.

But how long does Michigan keep believing?

How long does a university already in the crosshairs of the NCAA for one investigation because of allegations within Harbaugh’s football program, stand by while another unfolds?

At what point — if ever — does the latest investigation open the sores of previous conflicts and force Michigan to ask itself the obvious question: Is it all worth it?

The NCAA investigations, the NFL dalliances, the strained relationship with the athletic director.

“The people who know us the most think the most of us,” Harbaugh said Monday during his weekly press conference.

The football program has never been stronger, never been closer to winning its first national championship since 1997. It’s also never been closer to becoming a black eye on the university.

The Wall Street Journal reported last weekend that Michigan has pulled a contract extension offer to Harbaugh, one that would’ve made him the highest-paid coach in the Big Ten. The latest NCAA investigation for an alleged systemic sign-stealing operation within the program no doubt led to a pause in the process.

But what if it’s more than that?

When does Michigan reach the point of diminishing returns? When does it finally admit that Harbaugh’s annual flirtations with the NFL and contentious relationship with AD Warde Manuel aren’t good for business?

The most recent scrape between Harbaugh and Manuel in January had to be publicly mediated by Michigan president Santa Ono, who tweeted then that he was having “very positive and constructive conversations with our athletic director and football coach” — and that he and Manuel both want Harbaugh to stay at Michigan.

It was awkward, and it was revealing of the power structure at Michigan. Who has it, and who doesn’t.

The sign-stealing investigation — which, frankly, is laughable (more on that later) — isn’t the sole reason for Michigan pausing and taking the program’s temperature. It’s just the latest in a string of events that, even for the hardened Michigan Man, at least raises some doubt.

Remember, it was Harbaugh who, during a coaches conference call prior to the return to play in the 2020 Covid season, accused Ohio State coach Ryan Day and his staff of illegal contact with players — the very thing the NCAA is currently investigating Michigan for allegedly doing in the same time period.

That’s the 1st investigation. Not the current, 2nd. For those keeping score.

And you better believe people are now in Ann Arbor.

2. To steal or not to steal

Let’s make something very clear: Coaches have previously had a chance to vote for — and pass — a rule that would allow electronic communication devices in the helmets of quarterbacks.

Just like the NFL.

Don’t let anyone proclaim there’s a safety issue, or that helmet manufacturers won’t guarantee safety with the addition of a communications device. There’s not a safety issue in the NFL.

Coaches voted against a communications device — multiple times over the years — because they want to steal signals. It has become part of the fabric of the game.

That doesn’t mean allegedly taking videos of future opponent signals is legal, and that’s the crux of the Michigan investigation. That’s an NCAA violation, and potentially could be another problem for Harbaugh — even though he maintains he knew nothing about the alleged systemic scheme.

NCAA bylaw 11.1.1.1 states, “An institution’s head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all institutional staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach.”

Translation: Whether Harbaugh knew of staffer Connor Stalions’ alleged sign stealing scheme or not, he’s responsible for it.

And whether Harbaugh knew of illegal contact by his assistant coaches in 2020 or not — he says he didn’t, the NCAA says he wasn’t truthful in the initial investigation — he’s responsible for it.

See where this is headed? Michigan has a coach who — while at the top of his game on the field — is in the process of being sanctioned by the NCAA for 2 separate investigations.

Remember, the 3-game suspension to begin this season wasn’t an NCAA suspension, it was a Michigan suspension trying to get ahead of any NCAA penalties.

3. The near future

An NFL personnel source told me this week of any potential Harbaugh move to the league: “He has a history of building a team and winning playoff games. Coaches that win playoff games are rare. It will take the right franchise, but he’ll find a place here if he wants it.”

The question is, what does Harbaugh want? And at a deeper level, what does Michigan want?

It’s hard to argue with a coach who has won 27 straight regular season games and 33 of his last 36 games dating to the beginning of the 2021 season. He’s recruiting and developing better than any coach in modern day Michigan football, and his players graduate.

But does Michigan want to continue to fight the NCAA on Harbaugh’s behalf, and how does it measure multiple run-ins with the NCAA with its (and the Big Ten’s) very public stance that rules are there to follow — not make a mockery of.

It can be argued that both NCAA investigations are minor conceptually, but with the advent of NIL, there are only a handful of rules that truly disrupt competitive balance. And Harbaugh and his staff already have allegedly broken 2 (illegal contact, and video recording of future opponents’ signs).

Maybe it’s not how much longer Michigan trusts Harbaugh to do the right thing, but more how much longer does Harbaugh stay in the college game?

4. The Playoff predicament

Stop this nonsense right now. The Playoff selection committee isn’t going to hold an alleged NCAA violation against Michigan.

Michigan is eligible for the Playoff until the Big Ten or NCAA says it isn’t. And that’s not happening at any point this season.

If Michigan isn’t among the top 4 teams in tonight’s 1st Playoff poll, it will be more about a horrific schedule than what Stalions did or didn’t do — and what Harbaugh knew and when he knew it. Michigan’s road to a 3rd straight Playoff is simple: win out — Purdue, at Penn State, at Maryland, Ohio State — and the Wolverines are a lock.

One-loss Michigan (to Ohio State) will have a problem reaching the Playoff because of its non-conference schedule (and lack of conference championship), not the Playoff committee putting its thumb on the scale.

It’s the same problem for Georgia, which could be 12-0 when playing in the SEC Championship Game, and if it loses, a terrible non-conference schedule (and a lack of conference championship) will keep it from the Playoff — not the Playoff committee’s desire to eliminate the SEC from the tournament.

5. The Weekly 5

Five picks against the spread.

Wisconsin at Indiana (+9.5)

Nebraska (-3) at Michigan State

Penn State (-11.5) at Maryland

Iowa (-4.5) at Northwestern

Illinois at Minnesota (-2.5)

Last week: 3-2.

Season: 27-18.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes a draft eligible Big Ten player. This week: Ohio State TE Cade Stover.

“A big guy, big target and really athletic. A great catch radius. He’s not going down easy, and once he gets moving, he’s going to punish tacklers. Those quick catches that become explosion plays — because you can’t bring him down — are so important. He’s a strong blocker, though he’s a little grabby sometimes. He’s still raw, too. With proper development, he has a chance to play a long time in our league.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing.

1. Michigan: The Heisman Trophy race is wide open. QB JJ McCarthy can win it with 3 big games (and wins) against Penn State, Ohio State and in the Big Ten Championship Game.

2. Ohio State: We’ve never gone this deep into a season with a Ryan Day-coached offense (as an OC or head coach) with this much uncertainty.

3. Penn State: The ball has to go downfield. Coach James Franklin may not have liked the question from the media a couple of weeks ago, but defenses are sitting on 1st and 2nd-level throws from QB Drew Allar.

4. Minnesota: The drop from Penn State to Minnesota (and the other 11 in the league) is dramatic. But the Gophers are slowly building back, and still have a legit chance at 8 wins and the West Division title.

5. Iowa: So Iowa has finally decided to not renew OC Brian Ferentz. The only thing left now is to find an elite offensive coordinator/QBs coach and make him coach in waiting — and start over. The match: Toledo coach Jason Candle.

6. Wisconsin: I really like how QB Braedyn Locke played against Ohio State’s elite defense. If he plays the same in the last month of the season, the Badgers won’t lose.

7. Nebraska: That’s 5 wins in the last 6 games for Nebraska, and the Huskers’ only loss was to Michigan. What does it mean? Nebraska is winning games it should — which is a step up from the nightmarish 2022 season.

8. Rutgers: It’s the most deceiving 6-2 record in college football, and I still think the Scarlet Knights could give Ohio State all kinds of problems. Rutgers can stop the run, and that means QB Kyle McCord must make plays for Ohio State.

9. Northwestern: Years from now, we’ll look back and marvel at the job done by interim coach David Braun. He’s currently winning with a backup quarterback (Brendan Sullivan) and a defense that’s 13th in the Big Ten in rush defense (164.3 ypg).

10. Maryland: Terps were down 20-17 in the 4th quarter earlier this month to Ohio State, and lost 37-17. In the 2 games since, Maryland has lost 1-possession games to Illinois and Northwestern as more than a touchdown favorite.

11. Illinois: The Illini have played better defensively in October, but have only 1 win to show for it. Watch them commit to stop the Minnesota run game, and force Gophers QB Athan Kaliakmanis to win the game.

12. Indiana: Where does the lost opportunity at Penn State leave IU headed into November: with confidence for 4 winnable games, or gutted and playing out the string?

13. Purdue: Bowl eligibility is out of the question, but a strong finish to October is still possible after Saturday’s Michigan game. Minnesota, at Northwestern and Indiana are all winnable games.

14. Michigan State: I’d be shocked if the Spartans win again this season. But the Spartans are solid against the run (3.58 ypc) — the 1 thing that has fueled Nebraska’s rebound.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: I think I’ve seen enough of the Air Raid, or whatever they’re calling it at Wisconsin. It’s time to start getting physical again. — Kurt Coleman, Milwaukee.

Kurt:

Wisconsin can’t consistently run the ball against the elite of the Big Ten. And when it can’t run the ball, the Air Raid gets bogged down and pass windows get tighter. That’s not good for a 1st-time starter (Locke).

Wisconsin is averring 148.8 yards per game rushing in Big Ten games, and while that might seem solid, take a closer look. In 2 conference losses (Iowa, Ohio State), the Badgers have rushed for 198 yards on 53 carries (3.7 ypc).

More distressing in the overall scheme: Wisconsin has more pass attempts (291) than rushes (284) — a clear indicator that OC Phil Longo’s version of the offense isn’t where it needs to be.

North Carolina’s best offenses under Longo came when it ran the ball considerably more than it threw. In 2021 — with star QB Sam Howell in his 3rd season in the system — the Tar Heels threw 382 passes and had 513 rushes, and the offense was No. 10 in the nation (468.6 ypg).

Why are they struggling to run the ball? Injuries (all over the offense) are a problem, as is consistency on the offensive line. Another looming issue is the ankle injury to RB Braelon Allen, the unit’s only consistently dangerous runner.

9. Numbers

19. It was the buzzword of the Scott Frost tenure at Nebraska: turnovers.

The Huskers are on pace under 1st-year coach Matt Rhule to surpass all of Frost’s teams of the previous 5 seasons. Nebraska has 19 turnovers, and that’s already more than 2 of Frost’s seasons and ties another.

The Huskers had 22 and 21 turnovers in Frost’s first 2 seasons, and unless something drastically different happens over the last month of the season, Rhule’s 1st team will surpass those numbers.

But Rhule has already matched Frost’s high-water win mark of 5 games in 2019, which is the only number that matters.

10. Quote to note

Purdue coach Ryan Walters: “It’s hard to look at positives when you’re sitting where we’re at.”