COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ever since Jim Harbaugh returned to Michigan at the end of 2014, the Wolverines coach has been linked to Urban Meyer and Ohio State.
And for good reason.
With Harbaugh stalking the sidelines of Michigan Stadium, two of college football’s most famous coaches find themselves at the center of the sport’s most storied rivalry. Thus far, it’d be tough to argue Harbaugh hasn’t lived up to the hype. In the time since the former Wolverines quarterback took over as his alma mater’s head coach, Michigan and Ohio State have played twice with a share of the Big Ten East title on the line.
But for all Harbaugh already has accomplished in Ann Arbor, a greater threat to Meyer’s Big Ten supremacy has emerged. In fact, entering the 2017 season, it’s Penn State and James Franklin who serve as the conference’s defending champion.
And unlike with Michigan State a season ago, there’s reason to believe the Nittany Lions’ reign will continue.
“We’ve got to take those experiences that we had last year,” Franklin said this spring. “We have to take all those experiences and learn from them and grow from them but make sure that we’re still the same humble, hungry, hard-working team that focuses on preparation and not lose that; not lose our identity — what made us special; how hard we played last year, every rep.”
Among those “experiences” Franklin referenced is a regular-season victory over Ohio State — something Harbaugh still can’t claim. Although the Buckeyes would go on to qualify for the College Football Playoff, the Nittany Lions maintained a divisional tiebreaker, clinching a trip to the Rose Bowl with a victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.
Penn State lost to Southern Cal in a 52-49 thriller in Pasadena, Calif. Despite the defeat, the Nittany Lions enter 2017 with momentum on their side.
Following its surprise 11-3 finish in 2016, Penn State brings back the most-experienced team in the Big Ten, per PhilSteele.com. Among the Nittany Lions’ 16 returning starters are arguably the nation’s best running back in Saquon Barkley, an experienced starting quarterback in Trace McSorley and a talented tight end in Mike Gesicki. The rest of Penn State’s roster, meanwhile, is comprised primarily of Franklin’s three top-20 recruiting classes.
Yet despite all they have working in their favor, the Nittany Lions still trail both the Buckeyes and Wolverines in preseason Big Ten betting odds.
That Ohio State enters 2017 as the preseason conference favorite makes sense. Although they lost to Penn State a year ago, the Buckeyes return a fourth-year starter at quarterback in J.T. Barrett and the Big Ten’s most-talented roster. After making the College Football Playoff in a season in which it returned just six starters, Ohio State has earned the right to be called the Big Ten’s best until further notice.
Michigan’s preseason hype, however, appears less justified.
With 11 players picked in the NFL draft in April, the Wolverines return just five starters from last season’s team — the fewest in college football. Although Harbaugh has recruited well, his best classes are still young, with proven playmakers found few and far between on the Michigan roster.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller and SiriusXM’s Barrett Sallee each have taken note of the hype for the Wolverines.
Michigan has been overrated if we’re talking wins/ranking vs. hype. Still a very good team https://t.co/9WZAHz6D2v
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) May 15, 2017
My top five overrated teams heading into 2017 (revealed on @SiriusXMCollege):
5. Notre Dame
— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) May 16, 2017
That’s not to say Michigan is incapable of living up to its preseason expectations. If you believe recruiting rankings matter — and they do — Harbaugh certainly has his program headed in the right direction.
But when it comes to who is the biggest threat to Ohio State in 2017, Penn State can make a more compelling case with its experience and returning talent. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Nittany Lions knocked off the Buckeyes a year ago.
At this point, between Ohio State and Penn State, it’s even tough to tell just who is chasing whom.
“You take all those things and you combine them with the experience that we gained,” Franklin said. “I think you’ve got a chance to do something special.”