Jim Harbaugh is trying to navigate Michigan through the toughest division in college football. Scott Frost turned up at Nebraska only to be handed one of the nastiest schedules put before any Power 5 program. Which begs the question: Who gets to their squad to the Big Ten Championship game first? Former Michigan and NFL running back Chris Howard and Land of 10 writer-columnist Sean Keeler took a closer look at the Wolverines and Cornhuskers and offered up their takes …
Q: SO WHO MAKES THE BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP GAME FIRST: JIM HARBAUGH OR SCOTT FROST?
CHRIS HOWARD: JIM HARBAUGH
Let’s look at why Harbaugh will get there first:
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS. Trust me, this is true. I know for a fact my 1997 National Championship team doesn’t win it all without our defense. There were games where offensively we did everything in our power to give games away. Fumbles, interceptions — you name it, we did it. Every time our defense bailed us out until we got our act together. Same applies here. Michigan may have lost Mo Hurst, but as whole you couldn’t ask for a better returning group of players on the defensive side of the ball.
This defensive unit will be one of the top defenses in the country and could potentially finish as one of the best defensive units in Michigan history once it’s all said and done. The Wolverines defense will give the team every opportunity to win every game.
BEST RUNNING BACK DUO IN THE BIG TEN. Karan Higdon and Chris Evans might be the best running back duo in the league. Obviously, J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are right there in that discussion. I expect the run game to improve under new offensive line coach Ed Warinner. I believe his motto, If you can’t replace them, then you better space them, basically boils down to, if you can’t muscle or redirect defensive lineman through strength, then create running lanes by allowing your offensive line to have wider splits. This allows you to spread the defense and create wider running lanes. I think more emphasis on getting Evans involved in the passing game will be a staple of the Michigan offense. Both Higdon and Evans should have monster years.
WIDE RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS. To say these two position groups are loaded with talent is an understatement. Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, Eddie McDoom, Oliver Martin, Zach Gentry, Sean McKeon, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. and Nick Eubanks gained valuable playing time last year. The passing game didn’t produce a lot of touchdowns through the air, for a variety of reasons, but the potential that exists among this group is tremendous. The offensive staff must find a way to make it impossible to cover any of these guys. There is just too much talent for this group not to have a breakout year. Scoring in the red zone should never be a problem with this group. Period.
DOES HARBAUGH FINALLY HAVE HIS QUARTERBACK? I hate to be that guy to completely overlook players, because I’ve been that player that was overlooked in my career. But based off what I’ve seen, I have to believe that Shea Patterson is going to be the starting quarterback. It has nothing to do with talent, because I think Brandon Peters is immensely talented, and he can make all the throws you want to see out of your quarterback. I just don’t know if that fire is in him. He just might be the speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick kind of guy, I don’t know. There is just something about him that makes me feel like he isn’t ready yet. I think Patterson, with this defense behind him, gives the Wolverines the best opportunity to do something special.
THE BIG TEN EAST. No doubt the most formidable division in the conference. James Franklin and Urban Meyer hold the keys to the kingdom, in my opinion. They’re without a doubt two of the greatest minds, recruiters, teachers, competitors in our league. Meyer has been consistent, and Franklin has been tenacious, but both have shown kinks in their armor.
Even with as much talent as Meyer has accumulated in Columbus, outside of that 2015 shellacking in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines have played the Buckeyes tough and have been competitive in those games. However, to beat a team like OSU, you must be sound and above average at each position, and Michigan hasn’t been at the one position it can’t afford to be — quarterback. I firmly believe that with better quarterback play in their 2017 matchup, the Wolverines win that game.
What would Penn State have been without Saquon Barkley? Not as good, I’m certain of that. In the first matchup between the Nittany Lions and the Wolverines the Michigan defense smothered Barkley and had Trace McSorley running for his life. What a difference a year makes, but thank God we don’t have to deal with Barkley anymore. I think Penn State is a different team without him. I think Miles Sanders and the other backs they have coming in will be great, but Barkley was on another level. Can McSorley carry this team without Barkley?
I think Harbaugh gets to the Big Ten title game before Scott Frost. Some may look at the Big Ten West as weak, and while it certainly isn’t as daunting as the Big Ten East, it’s not going to be a cakewalk. Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa and Purdue will not be pushovers for Frost and company. This rebuild is going to have its bumps and bruises before it finds its footing in the West division.
Meanwhile, this will be Harbaugh’s most complete team since he has been in Ann Arbor. Yes, the Big Ten East is the tougher road. But all the ingredients are there for them to take it. Can Harbaugh get it cooking in Ann Arbor sooner rather than later? Yes.