And so it comes down to one final game.
By 3:15 p.m. Saturday — give or take a couple of Marathon Gas ads — one Big Ten football team will walk off the field joyously dreaming of another month of practice, potentially warmer December days and a recruiting showcase on ESPN, while the other faces 365 days of doubt and recrimination, even before their in-laws show up on Turkey Day.
Yes, when the final whistle blows at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., either Rutgers or Maryland will have picked up its sixth win, bringing bowl eligibility and a trip to … well, probably Detroit. (Did we say warmer December days? Whoops.) For the Scarlet Knights, it would snap a six-season bowl drought, dating to a 2014 Quick Lane Bowl win … in Detroit. For the Terps, it has been five seasons since their last bowl … the 2016 Quick Lane Bowl … yes, in Detroit.
What? You thought we were focused on the other Big Noon Saturday game … in Ann Arbor? This is the Big Ten Misery Index, remember? We get a little out of our element once we get to teams with double-digit wins. (In one season, at least. Take two or three years to hit double digits and we’re all-in.)
Anyway, yes, there is that game in Ann Arbor — The Game, if you will — that has the potential for great misery. (Or awful misery. Whatever. You get it.) At least if Ohio State wins, handing Jim Harbaugh his sixth straight loss against the Buckeyes and Michigan its ninth straight defeat in the, ahem, “rivalry.” And if U-M wins? Well, we’ll admit that’s a bit tough to picture. Not because we think the Buckeyes are unbeatable. It’s just that, with OSU winning 17 times over the past 20 seasons vs. U-M, it’s getting harder and harder to find folks who remember seeing it happen.
Sorta like slide rules, tie games, the triple wishbone offense and John Cooper losing so many times to Michigan — they happened, we know, but it was all in black-and-white.
Then again, maybe this is the year coach Harbs brings it back. Why? Because this year, he has gone full George Costanza — doing the complete opposite of what he (and we) expect.
When some Big Ten coaches chase the money, such as Mel Tucker and his soon-to-be delivered $95 million payday — and perhaps Ryan Day, who beat Tucker’s team like he thought Tuck had all the money in a briefcase on the sideline and the winner walked away with it — Harbaugh took a 50% pay cut before the season. (Was it voluntary? Probably not. Will we hear about how the new contract really made him get back to what he loves about football? Absolutely. Does this mean Nebraska’s Scott Frost, who agreed to a 20% pay cut earlier this month, is headed to the Big Ten title game next year? Uhhhh, we’ll get back to you on that.)
Then there’s Harbaugh’s fashion choices. After half a decade of his style evolving into an unholy blend of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler on the sideline — the glasses, the hat, the jacket, the khakis — Harbaugh switched out his bland Dockers style for some blue Lululemon gear (as noted by a savvy reader far earlier this season). Of course, this comes with some risks, such as the pants catching on fire during a game, as they did last week against Penn State. But even that’s swimming upstream in the rivers of coaching. We all know most college football coaches are a step away from, “Liar liar, pants on fire,” especially as season’s end nears and juicy job openings start popping up. Harbaugh has lived the “pants on fire” life — literally — and, reader, he is better for it.
And, of course, there’s his offense. In an age of spread concepts and misdirection that keep the ball moving left, right, ope!-is-that-guy’s-pants-on-fire?, and finally down the field … the Wolverines just keep running forward. Their 218.3 yards per game on the ground is the most for U-M since 2011 (221.8). OK, yes, that was Brady Hoke’s first year in Ann Arbor … but it was also the last time Michigan beat Ohio State.
We know, that was a long way to go to get back to this: A Big Ten regular season that started in Champaign back in August comes down to three hours in Ann Arbor, Piscataway, and heck, even Lincoln and Minneapolis (where they’ll be sorting out the West side of the conference, even if they have to dig up some slide rules for the math). But while we wait for that, let’s run through the Misery Index, from least miserable to most.
14. Ohio State: W, 56-7, over Michigan State
Record: 10-1, 8-0. Last week’s ranking: 8.
Well before the game against MSU — a few minutes after the Michigan basketball game ended, we think — ESPN featured its first non-athlete guest pickers for a “College GameDay” shot in Columbus (in nine editions): Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun of the band Twenty One Pilots, both Columbus natives. “Big moment for me,” Joseph said during the announcement Friday. “I’ve been a College GameDay fan my entire life. I’ve lived in Ohio my entire life. I went to Ohio State for two and half years before I dropped out.” Say no more, my friend.
BIG TEN INSIDER: Michigan has win No. 10, but is it ready for Ohio State?
13. Michigan: W, 59-18, over Maryland
Record: 10-1, 7-1. Last week: 14.
After a season of trying to judge the QB styles of Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, who’d have thought it would be linebacker Michael Barrett throwing the crispest pass of the year.
U-M GRADES: Offense, special teams clicking on all cylinders
12. Wisconsin: W, 35-28, over Nebraska
Record: 8-3, 6-2. Last week: 12.
This was only the 15th game ever between the Badgers and the Cornhuskers, which is weird because it feels like the rivalry is well over a century old. Maybe that’s because this was Wisconsin’s eighth straight win over Nebraska, dating back to the 2012 Big Ten title game (a 70-31 romp that was nearly enough to make us question why the Big Ten even needed a title game). Even more impressively, all eight wins have featured a Badger with at least 110 yards rushing — this year featured Braelon Allen with 228 — and at least 140 yards rushing as a team. Then again, that might be underselling it; including Wisconsin’s 252 yards on the ground Saturday, the Badgers have averaged 348.6 yards during the streak.
11. Minnesota: W, 35-14, over Indiana
Record: 7-4, 5-3. Last week: 4.
QB Tanner Morgan received a game ball from coach P.J. Fleck on Saturday, with Fleck noting, ““He’s the all-time winningest quarterback in the history of our school. That’s a long time. Winners find ways to win.” C’mon, coach, Morgan is 27-13 as a Gopher; it’s not like he’s … … y’know what, never mind. (For comparison, Jackson native Tony Dungy went 23-21 over four seasons at Minnesota form 1973-76.)
10. Purdue: W, 32-14, over Northwestern
Record: 7-4, 5-3. Last week: 6.
Not only did the Boilermakers prevail among the Ivy at Wrigley, the Ivey later prevailed for the Boilermakers in Connecticut: Jaden Ivey had 22 points in No. 6 Purdue basketball’s win over No. 20 North Carolina. (Those Big Ten West hopes are a bit slim, we’re saying. Time to focus on hoops.)
9. Iowa: W, 33-23, over Illinois
Record: 9-2, 6-2. Last week: 13.
After last week’s will-they-or-won-‘t-they drama over kicking a field goal in the final two minutes against Minnesota, you can’t exactly blame linebacker Jack Campbell for being a little half-hearted about finishing off a pick-six with 96 seconds left and the Hawkeyes up 26-16. “That was the funniest play of the game, because you guys could see how torn he was,” coach Kirk Ferentz said afterward. “I was cheering for him to score, actually, even though it might not be the smart play. It was funny.” Less funny? Iowa managed just seven points on offense.
8. Illinois: L, 33-23, to Iowa
Record: 4-7, 3-5. Last week: 10.
Coach Bret Bielema missed Saturday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday. He presented with mild symptoms despite being fully vaccinated and getting a booster last week. It’s the first breakthrough this season for Illinois that hasn’t taken nine overtimes to develop.
7. Nebraska: L, 35-28, to Wisconsin
Record: 3-8, 1-7. Last week: 7.
In a way, the Huskers of Corn have only themselves to blame for Allen’s epic day. After the game, the 17-year-old said he was inspired by Melvin Gordon’s 408-yard performance for the Badgers against Nebraska in 2014. “At the time, I was just finishing up my fifth-grade season. I honestly didn’t know if I even liked football at that point. I saw that game and that’s kind of what sparked it all for me, trying to be like him one day.” So if a Nebraska fan ever invents time travel, we know which game they’ll target second (after they tell Tom Osborne not to go for two in January 1984).
6. Penn State: W, 28-0, over Rutgers
Record: 7-4, 4-4. Last week: 1.
Nearly three dozen Nittany Lions had flu-like symptoms entering the game against the Scarlet Knights, including starting quarterback Sean Clifford, who lasted just over eight minutes before needing to go to the locker room for fluids. Which is weird because usually it’s folks on the Rutgers side having to fight back vomit during a game.
5. Northwestern: L, 32-14, to Purdue
Record: 3-8, 1-7. Last week: 3.
The Wildcats were credited with two touchdowns, but since they were sharing an end zone with the Boilermakers (due to the unfriendly confines of Wrigley Field), we assume this was just a clerical error.
The two teams were also forced to share a sideline, again due to cramped conditions. Somehow, Northwestern has committed to three future games at Wrigley, too, which is a long way to go to give its alumni an Ivy experience. Then again, Northwestern is 0-2 at Wrigley, so at least they’re living up to the Cubs’ standards.
T3. Maryland: L, 59-18, to Michigan/ Rutgers: L, 28-0, to Penn State
Record: Both 5-6, 2-6. Last week: 5/11.
As we noted earlier, only the Terrapins or the Scarlet Knights can win Saturday and earn bowl eligibility, something Rutgers coach Greg Schiano noted after the loss to the Nittany Lions: “We still, in the last game of the year, have the pen in our hand and we have a chance to write it,” Schiano said. “And so does the team we’re playing.” Just watch out if “Don’t Stop Believin’ “ plays over the loudspeakers and the BTN feed goes to black.
2. Indiana: L, 35-14, to Minnesota
Record: 2-9, 0-8. Last week: 2.
The Hoosiers need a win over Purdue on Saturday to avoid going winless in Big Ten play for the 22nd time in school history. Still, it would be only the second 0-9 B1G season for Indiana. The first? 1984, during revered ex-coach Bill Mallory’s first season in Bloomington. The Hoosiers also lost their two nonconference games, against Duke and Kentucky. Who was doing the scheduling — Bobby Knight?
1. Michigan State: L, 56-7, to Ohio State
Record: 9-2, 6-2. Last week: 9.
Well, the Spartans handed coach Tucker LSU-type money this week. Sometimes that pays for a national title, and sometimes it pays for you getting blown up by a coach who cut his chops in Ohio.
BIG TEN MISERY INDEX RECAP
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten misery index: Jim Harbaugh has changed. Has Michigan football?