You can’t really put Saquon Barkley in the Heisman Trophy discussion for games against Kent State, Pitt and Temple.

On the flip side, you can’t really argue that Michigan is an elite defense based on performances against Hawaii, UCF and Colorado.

Sure, both Barkley and the Michigan defense generated plenty of hype this offseason. In fact, Barkley got arguably more preseason ink than any B1G player while Michigan got arguably more preseason ink than any B1G unit.

For the first time this year, we’ll see how strong both of them are.

The B1G opener in Ann Arbor on Saturday will pit two teams with an obvious strength. Whether or not they’ve lived up to enormous preseason expectations thus far is moot. Saturday’s contest will be the true barometer.

If Barkley goes off, those Heisman Trophy odds will skyrocket. If Michigan bottles him up, the Wolverines are well on their way to having the best defense in college football.


They haven’t been to this point. Surprisingly, Michigan is No. 57 nationally against the run. Much of that was because of the UCF game — the one in which Michigan was allegedly “out-hit” — that saw the Wolverines allow five running plays of 20-plus yards and four of 30-plus yards. Like UCF and Colorado, Penn State will use an up-tempo attack.

So far, Don Brown’s defense has had some struggles against up-tempo attacks. Against UCF, long runs were the kryptonite. Against Colorado, it was the long pass plays that dug Michigan a hole. That, of course, is one of the downsides of bringing pressure like Brown does. But Brown has no plans on adjusting his style for Barkley and the fast-paced PSU offense.

Not at all.

“They want you to line up in quarters, a static front and kick your you-know-what,” Brown said. “We’re not doing that. If it is, it’ll be over my dead body. We’re going to stay aggressive, we’re going to stay focused, and we’re going to stay multiple.”

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Michigan’s run defense might not be a finished product, but the Wolverines are currently first in the country in red-zone defense at 33 percent. And no, that isn’t just a product of Michigan’s blocked kicks. The Wolverines have only allowed three red-zone trips all year, which is tied for first in FBS.

In other words, if you score on Michigan, it’s usually the result of a big play. Barkley is no stranger to that. All you have to do is watch is dazzling 55-yard touchdown run against Temple — wasn’t he supposed to be hurt? — and realize that Barkley is as much of a big-play threat as anyone in the country.


That’s where Barkley usually does his damage. Like an Adrian Peterson, Barkley isn’t someone who makes his living ripping off five and six yards per carry. He’s a home-run hitter. In his brief college career, he’s developed a knack for making one or two devastating runs that make him look unstoppable. There’s no real way to foresee it. Barkley can pop at any given time on a variety of plays.

So far, only four of his touches have gone for 20-plus yards, and his 258 yards aren’t great by his own high standards. Only one 100-yard game in non-conference play is un-Barkley-like, too. Without the seven touchdowns, a couple people might even wonder if Barkley is taking a step back.

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But that would be foolish. According to Pro Football Focus, Barkley broke 60 tackles last year. That was tops in the B1G. Through three games this year — basically two-and-a-half because of his Temple injury — Barkley has already broken 20 tackles on his 51 carries this year. That’s on pace to lead all of college football.

So yeah, he’s still got it.

Michigan obviously isn’t treating Barkley like the guy who ran for 68 yards in last year’s meeting. In typical Barkley fashion, 56 of those yards came on one long run.

But it doesn’t make much sense to get caught up in last year’s game film. Michigan ran a completely different defense and Penn State ran a completely different offense. Inevitably, Barkley will see more Michigan defenders in the box. On the flip side, Michigan will have to account for a much more mobile quarterback in Trace McSorley.

Will Barkley still find a way to take over? We don’t know. Jim Harbaugh is well aware of the challenge his defense faces.

In arguably his two toughest matchups last year — at Michigan State and at Ohio State — Barkley ran for nearly 300 yards on seven yards per carry, but he didn’t score. Penn State was still outscored 93-26 in those games. In other words, Barkley’s success won’t make or break whether or not PSU can pull off a major upset in Ann Arbor. The matchup of Penn State’s injury-riddled defense against Michigan’s work-in-progress offense will have a say in that.

Still, the Wolverines’ defense can add a feather to its cap by pulling off what Harbaugh is unsure can be done. Barkley can insert himself into the Heisman discussion with a highlight-reel game against one of college football’s powers.

We don’t know who’ll get the edge. We just know that we’re in for a treat on Saturday.