Detroit News columnists John Niyo and Bob Wojnowski, with beat writers Angelique Chengelis and Matt Charboneau, discuss last week's games and this week's lineups. With a special appearance by WMU coach P.J. Fleck.
This still requires some psychological adjustment. For years and years, we were told our lumbering Big Ten talent was slower and chubbier than its Southern counterparts, as we clung to tired Midwest principles of working hard, gobbling carbs and mostly following the rules. Down in the Southeastern Conference, they had fast players sporting six-packs. We had players shaped like kegs.
Well, well, well. Look what’s happening now.
We have to be careful here because it’s only been, according to my calculations, a few weeks since the Big Ten became the best, bawdiest, bruising-est conference in college football. Like a five-star SEC recruit driving his first “leased” sports car, we’re still learning how to handle it.
But this is a staggering development, one that threatens to shake the very foundation of the sport. It has our Southern friends so freaked out, the SEC’s famed Puppeteer, radio host Paul Finebaum, finally had enough and got his ears to flapping this week, bellowing that Michigan fans are “whiny,” “sniveling” and “pathetic.” If you ask me, he could have settled for “snooty” and “well-heeled” and been done with it.
I understand his simple-minded aggravation. The Big Ten has been threatening to do this for years, like the bratty kid who says he’ll hold his breath until he goes Blue if he doesn’t get what he wants. But here we are now, with the conference season starting and Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State ranked in the top eight. The SEC has one team in that esteemed group, Alabama, which happens to be the defending national champion thanks to Nick Saban, who once fled Michigan State under cover of darkness.
The next-highest SEC team? No. 10 Texas A&M, which is barely an SEC team. The transfer of power accelerated in the offseason, when the South was swarmed by Jim Harbaugh and his happy campers, as well as the standard flock of NCAA investigators. The transformation nearly was ratified the opening week, when Tennessee needed overtime to beat Appalachian State. It was confirmed two days later when Wisconsin beat LSU, furthering the rabid debate over whether Les Miles is a good bad coach, or a bad good coach, or merely crazy.
Hey, don’t just listen to my blather. Look at the numbers – the Big Ten has the best non-conference record against FBS foes (24-6 to the SEC’s 17-7) this season, as well as the most combined victories over Central Florida, Florida International, Howard and Furman (7-0). The Big Ten doesn’t have to stoop to anyone, certainly not Bob Stoops, after Ohio State rolled into Oklahoma and stole Stoops’ “Big Game Bob” coffee mug collection.
It doesn’t even require maximum effort to win big games these days. Michigan State inexplicably departed Notre Dame Stadium late in the third quarter last Saturday night and still beat the Irish. Michigan implemented a golf-like handicap system, spotted Colorado 14 points and still won easily.
Never has the Big Ten boasted such a fearsome threesome at the top, and that’s not even counting No. 11 Wisconsin. Heck, it’s not even counting mighty Western Michigan, which is 2-0 against conference opponents and recently applied for immediate membership with a statement that read, in part, “We respectfully request admission to your distinguished organization, and while we understand you must explore these issues thoroughly, we suggest it’d be fairly easy to just get rid of Rutgers.”
Listen, I’m not gonna get all blowhardy like the fine bum guy. I understand the nervousness down there, not knowing where your next hot recruit will come from. The talent drain to the South has finally slowed, and the days of the Midwest letting its best and brightest – Saban, Bret Bielema, Brent Musburger – leave are nearly over.
This isn’t some accidental trend, either. It began when Ohio State shut down its tattoo-and-pipe shop and opened a pipeline by hiring Urban Meyer. That forced Michigan to shut down the Hoke shop and hire Harbaugh, paying a healthy salary to each of his various personalities.
Now the Big Ten has three highly respected and well-known coaches: Meyer, Harbaugh and Mark Dantone. You could even add Kirk Ferentz if you want to pretend Iowa didn’t just lose to North Dakota State.
The big three are about to plow through what should be the most hotly contested conference race in a long time, as long as you don’t count the games against Purdue, Rutgers, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland and Indiana. Remember when we used to debate if the SEC would get two spots in the four-team playoff? That’s so 2015. How about three Big Ten teams in the playoff?!
(Note to self: Remove gin from office when writing.)
More likely, the big boys will feast on each other, using all sorts of mind tricks. For instance, you think it was a coincidence Harbaugh announced this week his endorsement deal for milk? Hmm. Just as Michigan State gets ready to play Wisconsin, its rival is touting the benefits of a major dairy product?
It’s all part of a renewed competitive fervor in the Big Ten, complete with a new motto: Milk it while you can!
Wisconsin at Michigan State: After rolling to an insurmountable 36-7 lead over Notre Dame, Michigan State cleverly dialed it down, mostly out of boredom. Against the Badgers’ plodding offense, the Spartans can adopt a similar strategy and dial it down after running up an insurmountable 10-3 lead. Pick: Michigan State 24-10
Penn State at Michigan: In its unprecedented quest to play every game at home, Michigan welcomes Penn State and its new-fangled no-huddle offense. Of course, the Nittany Lions still wear their famously drab all-white uniforms, which should present quite a contrast to the Wolverines’ multi-talented star. That’s right, salt and Peppers. Pick: Michigan 40-20
Nebraska at Northwestern: Nebraska beat Oregon. Northwestern lost to a pair of MAC teams at home. It doesn’t take a Northwestern degree (or even a Nebraska degree) to figure this one out. Pick: Nebraska 37-21
Florida at Tennessee: How sniveling and pathetic has the SEC gotten? The conference now scrambles for scraps from the Big Ten. Florida will start Purdue transfer Austin Appleby at quarterback, while another Purdue transfer, Danny Etling, will start for LSU. And the truth is, the best former Purdue quarterback in the SEC is broadcaster Gary Danielson. Pick: Tennessee 24-23
Georgia Southern at Western Michigan: I’m not saying the 3-0 Broncos definitely are for real. I am saying they’d probably win the Big Ten’s West division by three games. If P.J. Fleck doesn’t have his own milk endorsement deal by mid-season, something’s wrong. Pick: Western Michigan 38-23