Wojo's Pigskin Picks: Don't expect UM to get whitewashed

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh

This is a new role for the Wolverines, and can I tell you a little secret? (Lowering voice, eyes darting left and right). I think they actually, maybe, sort of like it.

It can’t be easy being the haughty favorite, where if you don’t win by double-digits, frothing fans and snippy columnists make cheap sarcastic comments. Jim Harbaugh equated criticism of the quarterback position with grabbing “low-hanging fruit,” thus confirming he’s not talking about me, as my fruit consumption generally consists of Froot Loops and the occasional strawberry Twizzler.

But I get the point. Michigan is expected to win most games — except the ones involving Michigan State and Ohio State — and the pressure can be immense. So this should be a fun little respite as the Wolverines (5-1) head to Penn State as hefty underdogs, with the Nittany Lions (6-0) ranked No. 2 after impressive victories over a gauntlet that includes Akron, Pitt and Georgia State.

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It’s a huge game Saturday night and it’s Penn State’s annual White Out, a tradition in which loud, giddy fans dress up in pale, drab outfits, which pretty much summarizes Monday through Friday there. It’s as if 100,000 Flo’s from the Progressive commercial were cloned, and it can be quite frightening. In a touching display of sportsmanship, the Wolverines also reportedly will wear white, while the Nittany Lions will don their home Blues. It should be an intimidating atmosphere for a Michigan team that’s 0-0 in night games this season (0-1 if you count rainy night games.)

On one hand, experts are hotly debating whether Penn State will win 42-10 or 49-10, depending on whether James Franklin decides to add a rub-it-in touchdown. Saquon Barkley is scheduled to strike a Heisman pose after touchdowns in all four corners of The Beaver Stadium, as the Nittany Lions try to make it a three-team race in the Big Ten East with Michigan State and Ohio State.

On the other hand, there’s a chance — a chance, I tell you! — Harbaugh has happily returned to his roots as the tight-jawed underdog, with a vicious defense that will camp in your backfield and an offense fully capable of stepping gingerly out of the way. I’ve even heard Michigan might adopt the Mark Dantonio strategy and decline to throw a single interception.

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Things change quickly in college football, other than Alabama and Clemson playing for the national title every year and Illinois being a complete embarrassment. But go back a year, when Michigan beat Penn State, 49-10, and Franklin was considered an overrated interloper with dwindling job security. Since then, the Nittany Lions are 15-1 and Franklin reportedly is being wooed for multiple jobs, from Texas A&M to Secretary of State (College). He has beaten almost everyone except Harbaugh, who’s 2-0 while outscoring Penn State 77-26.

In fact, Michigan is 13-7 since Penn State inexplicably was permitted to join the Big Ten, and I have a theory why — the Nittany Lions are the only program historically more stubborn than Michigan, with burly fullbacks and linebackers wearing shoulder pads the size of refrigerator boxes.

How basic and corny is Penn State? I mean, leave it to Beaver Stadium to be named after a buck-toothed rodent. The school is located in State College, which apparently wasn’t generic enough, so the main campus technically is in University Park, comfortably nestled in remote Happy Valley. I’m not saying the place is short on creativity. I’m just saying I heard the school’s primary lecture hall is named Lecture Hall. Students in white socks dine at Food Gallery, gather to flirt at Ice Cream Parlor and dance conservatively at Bar.

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This is a prime opportunity for the Wolverines, who have never been double-digit underdogs under Harbaugh. He often was the underdog when he coached at San Diego and Stanford, and I bet he misses the role. Surely you recall the famous clash in 2007, when USC was a 41-point favorite and got stunned by Stanford 24-23. That’s considered the greatest upset in college football history not involving teams from Michigan and Appalachian State.

This would not be nearly as shocking, and I actually think Michigan’s strategy all along has been to cleverly tamp down expectations. How else do you explain gleefully committing 16 penalties in the overtime victory against Indiana last week? Or treating the football like a Frisbee in a downpour against Michigan State?

Now the Wolverines are set up for the stunner, and if they pull it off, perhaps Harbaugh finally, finally will start to get the national attention he deserves. For the young’uns out there, the last time Michigan went to Happy Valley for such a showdown, it was 1997 and the No. 4 Wolverines thrashed the No. 2 Nittany Lions 34-8, back when Joe Paterno was still considered worthy of a statue.

It’s a different world now, although you can’t convince the Penn State students hanging out at Central Dorm or the Alpha Beta Blah house. This year, the Wolverines are the overlooked team in the basic garb, which makes them thoroughly capable of not losing 49-10, no matter what anyone says.

Pick: Penn State 23-17

The picks

Indiana at Michigan State: These rivals continue to play for the Old Brass Spittoon, despite the obvious hygienic ramifications. It’s fitting this year because the Spartans are still spitting out the taste of last season, and aiming quite well. After a brief hiatus, they’ve opted to start winning close games and being Big Ten contenders again. Pick: Michigan State 24-13

Iowa at Northwestern: The Wildcats have been a major disappointment, leaving no one to challenge Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. Justin Jackson was supposed to be one of the best running backs in the conference not named Saquon, or Akrum, or LJ, or J.K. (look them up yourself, I’m busy). Now’s the time to show it. Pick: Northwestern 27-21

Southern Cal at Notre Dame: In a scenario that social scientists long considered inconceivable, Notre Dame is actually, legitimately being overlooked. The Irish are 5-1 with a resounding triumph over Michigan State and only a one-point loss to Georgia. USC quarterback Sam Darnold, clearly petrified by the prospect of becoming the Browns’ top pick, has declined to make a Heisman run, and it won’t start here. Pick: Notre Dame 34-24

Tennessee at Alabama: The Volunteers (3-3) are tidy 35-point underdogs, and Butch Jones has been furtively updating his LinkedIn account. The top-ranked Crimson Tide also have beaten Tennessee 10 straight times. Nick Saban doesn’t have anything to prove here, so you know he’ll show compassion toward an embattled member of the coaching fraternity. Pick: Alabama 73-6