This is getting scary, and not just because entire Ann Arbor neighborhoods will be crawling with Jim Harbaughs on Saturday night, going door to door wearing khakis and pained expressions, collecting candy. In East Lansing, the streets also will be teeming with revelers, 11 at a time in their menacing punt-block costumes.
But that’s not what makes this Halloween particularly frightening. We’re churning to the midway point of the Big Ten race with tons of creepy championship possibilities. There are three unbeatens — Ohio State (naturally), Michigan State (technically) and Iowa (jokingly) — and others eager to dress up as contenders.
For instance, Michigan is still in it, desperately trying to retrieve all the things it misplaced —pride, respect, hope, the odd chunk of crockery. I contend, of all the indignities the Wolverines have incurred, letting the Gophers take the Little Brown Jug is way up there, at least in the top 150.
Before Michigan (5-2) can even think about larger prizes, it needs to reclaim the smaller ones, starting Saturday night in Minnesota. Two weeks ago, it had the Paul Bunyan Trophy ever so briefly, then dropped it. Rather than stew about the end of the Michigan State game — 10 Seconds That Changed The World — Michigan hired a law firm to inspect the Big Ten handbook and figure out a way it still could win the East.
Before I lay out the complicated scenarios, let me be clear on one thing. There’s only one fair, lock-solid path to the Big Ten championship game, and it’s listed right there on the first page: WIN ALL YOUR GAMES.
If you stay undefeated, you go to the playoff. If you have one loss, it’d better be a darn good one. If you have two losses, you better hope Matt Millen is correct, and games decided by punt muffs don’t count.
Near as I can tell, there are six contenders in the Big Ten with zero or one conference losses. I’ll describe them here in Halloween form, to make it easier:
■ Ohio State is the Snickers bar — No. 1, traditional, loaded with annoying nuts. Backup candy: Dum Dums, for obvious reasons.
■ Michigan State is the good ol’ Hershey bar — really, really solid, but for some reason doesn’t get as much respect as its gooier brethren. Backup candy: Sour Patch Kids, for their occasional sour disposition.
■ Michigan is the Tootsie Roll — popular back in the day, craving to be relevant again. Backup candies: Junior Mints, based on current instate rivalry status, and Butterfinger (sorry).
■ Penn State is the Three Musketeers bar — big name but bland, and you forget why it was ever considered good. Backup candy: Popcorn ball, simple and outdated.
■ Iowa is Candy Corn, naturally — relevant once a year, and not for very long. Backup candy: Jelly Bellies, for the large, jiggly linemen.
■ Wisconsin is Milk Duds — heavy, chewy and basic, with a hint of dairy. Backup candy: Milky Way, same reason.
It’s a mixed bag, and it could get nuttier in the next five weeks. There are still 12 undefeated teams in college football, so there’s no margin for error. I mean, does the Big Ten really want to screw up and lose its playoff spot to some scruffy unbeaten like Toledo or Memphis or Iowa?
Of course not. Iowa probably will win the West because it’s already beaten second-place Wisconsin and plays no one else of consequence, unless you still consider Nebraska “of consequence.”
It’s up to the East to carry the Big Ten banner and it’ll shake out in the final two weeks, when Ohio State plays Michigan State and then plays Michigan. Also, Penn State is in there somewhere, supposedly. This is the scenario that frightens people to their very core: What if Ohio State beats Michigan State, and Michigan beats Ohio State, and all three win their other games?
They’d be tied atop the East at 7-1 with no easy way to settle it. According to my research, this is the Big Ten’s actual three-team tiebreaker system:
■ Head-to-head is first, although if the teams are 1-1 against each other, it doesn’t work
■ Nonconference record is irrelevant, unless you barely beat Northern Illinois
■ Whichever fan base yells the loudest and most profanely is given a slight edge
■ Traditional Top 25 polls don’t matter, unless you just want to engage in dumb arguments with your co-workers
This one is true: The ultimate tiebreaker is the College Football Playoff ranking, which doesn’t come out until the Tuesday after the final games. That means poor Iowa could be sitting by itself in Indianapolis gobbling St. Elmo’s shrimp cocktails waiting to learn who it plays in the championship game.
Can you imagine the uproar if a two-loss Michigan got the nod over a one-loss Michigan State or Ohio State? Apocalyptic. That’s why I suggest Jim Delany consider my proposal: By executive order, have Michigan and Michigan State meet again in the Big Ten title game and send Iowa directly to the Outback Bowl. Does Ohio State get jobbed? Sure, but it hasn’t even proven it’s the best team in Ohio (Hi Toledo!)
Ah, I’m getting ahead of myself. There are still plenty of big games between now and then (not really).
■ Michigan at Minnesota: Harbaugh’s renowned motivational ability will be severely tested, as the forlorn Wolverines finally get to move on from their last play. You know, the play that has aired on various TV outlets an estimated 3.94 million times (3.91 million in East Lansing). I know Harbaugh’s genius gets overblown, but when he revealed this week he wore two costumes as a kid so he could collect twice the candy, his genius was confirmed. Michigan 24-9
■ Michigan State vs Bye: Mark “WWWWWWWW” Dantonio gave his players the week off to heal, throw their own “Punt Muff” parties and pick out their Halloween outfits. It’s important the Spartans ignore the naysayers and keep their disrespect chips stacked as high as possible, which is why Dantonio is dressing as a Pringles can.
■ Maryland at Iowa: The Hawkeyes are 7-0 and so determined to play in the Big Ten championship game, they’re blissfully unaware they’d lose 65-7. That’s OK though. “Blissfully unaware” is a good strategy this season. Iowa 34-13
■ Notre Dame at Temple: Really, this is what it’s come to? Unbeaten Temple hosting ESPN’s “GameDay” for an epic clash against once-beaten Notre Dame? Temple is 7-0 for the first time in history, and the program has been to four bowls. Notre Dame gets invited to four bowls per season. It’s almost November, time to put away the costumes. Notre Dame 24-16