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?
SEAN KEELER: SCOTT FROST
He didn’t come home to finish third. Or fourth. Scott Frost didn’t answer mama’s call to preserve Pat Fitzgerald’s Lincoln win streak, to justify Jeff Brohm’s contract or to soothe P.J. Fleck’s ego.
He came for St. Elmo. For the Slippery Noodle. For Indianapolis. He came because the penthouse gates of the Big Ten West aren’t guarded by a Cerberus with the heads of Urban Meyer, James Franklin and Mark Dantonio, mauling all who cross their path.
He came because the gap from fifth to first in the West can be bridged by blocking, tackling, guts and consistent fundamentals, while the gap from fifth to first in the East is bridged by rosary beads, a unicorn, and a spate of alien abductions.
He came because if you win two games at Nebraska — two division games — every year, Iowa and Wisconsin, you open the door that leads to the door that takes you to the College Football Playoff. He came because he saw a path. Because, as he molds the Cornhuskers into his image of speed unrelenting and chutzpah unabashed, he believed in the promised land at the end of it.
Jim Harbaugh could get there first, could get there this fall. No question. He’s got a 5-star quarterback with Power 5 mileage. His defense is loaded with tiger sharks, back to front. Frost, at the moment, is blessed with neither.
But assuming the Wolverines still haven’t gotten over their annual Spartans and Buckeyes humps in 2018 — Harbaugh is 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State since 2015, a stat Twitter refuses to forget — then time and precedent are on Frost’s side.
Harbaugh has to outrun the bear. Frost only has to outrun the Badgers and Hawkeyes.
To that end, crossover games matter, too. And here’s who the best in the West draw in upcoming seasons:
- Nebraska in 2019: vs. Ohio State, vs. Indiana, at Maryland.
- Wisconsin in 2019: vs. Michigan, vs. Michigan State, at Ohio State.
- Iowa in 2019: vs. Rutgers, at Michigan, vs. Penn State.
Verdict: There’s a good chance no one runs through their respective East dance cards unbeaten, but the Big Red have as good a chance as any at coming out 2-1.
- Nebraska in 2020: at Rutgers, at Ohio State, vs. Penn State.
- Wisconsin in 2020: vs. Indiana, at Michigan, at Maryland.
- Iowa in 2020: vs. Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Penn State.
Verdict: Slight edge to Wisconsin, but better to catch the Nittany Lions in Lincoln, all things considered.
- Nebraska in 2021: at Michigan State, vs. Ohio State, vs. Michigan.
- Wisconsin in 2021: vs. Penn State, vs. Michigan, at Rutgers.
- Iowa in 2021: vs. Indiana, vs. Penn State, at Maryland.
Verdict: Not as nasty as 2018, but tough. Iowa might have the most user-friendly run of the three, thanks to a Hoosiers home game. Bonus hurdle: The Big Red are at Oklahoma and at East Lansing, back-to-back, over the final two Saturdays in September.
Yes, the West is deeper than the East, thick with middleweights who, Illinois notwithstanding, will make you work for it. Yes, even if the Big Red train does get rolling, Frost won’t have many layups. Ultimately, though, getting Nebraska back to Indy harkens back to the same formula since the divisions were redrawn:
Beat Iowa. Beat Wisconsin.
Frost has both rivals at home in 2019, then again in 2021. Which means, in Lincoln, it might not be right now. But it sure as hell ain’t never.