Big Ten football picks 2015: Can anyone knock off Ohio State?

Big Ten football got underway last night with Michigan and Minnesota both losing to better teams, but neither game changed my outlook on theirs or the conference outlook. Should be another fun year of football in the Midwest and all over the nation, and I am excited to be covering the Big Ten for FOXSports.com this fall. I’ll still be writing for Buckeye Sports Bulletin as well. While those places are (at least mostly) for news, this is where you can find opinions and hopefully some further insight. 

Here is my outlook on the conference. For my thoughts on Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, click here. 

I have a hard time seeing the Big Ten East as anything other than the Big Two and the Little Five.  Continue reading Big Ten football picks 2015: Can anyone knock off Ohio State?

Some thoughts on Jim Harbaugh and Michigan’s next new era

(I wrote this Thursday morning, but a never-ending stream of news precluded me from getting it posted in a timely fashion. Nevertheless, nothing I saw in Michigan’s loss to Utah changed my long-term opinion. See thoughts on the game at the end.) 

The Jim Harbaugh Michigan Experiment begins tonight on FOX Sports 1.

I think I’m contractually obligated by my employer to point out that last part, but this opinion is solely mine.

Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago
Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago

Call me crazy, but I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach on the Wolverines’ perceived savior. Until I read the fantastic Lars Anderson story at Bleacher Report this week, I thought I might be the only one.

It’s not that I don’t think Harbaugh will win a lot of games at Michigan, but the certainty he will WIN BIG in Ann Arbor seems a little out of step with reality to me.

So are the comparisons straight up to Urban Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State because prior to 2012 Meyer had won more and for a longer period of time. Meyer also took a job where it’s not as difficult to win*.

That said, if it isn’t Harbaugh who can make Michigan national title contenders, it might be no one, so I don’t blame anyone for going all-in with him, either.

(*One of the interesting things about this discussion is also defining what “being back” means at Michigan. I suspect most people would say that means reaching the current level of Ohio State or Alabama, except that would also be out of step with reality. Not only is Michigan working on its longest Big Ten title drought in five decades, it’s worth noting the Wolverines have one national championship since they stopped running the single-wing offense. They were consistently among the best teams in the Big Ten for long stretches since then but haven’t had that many close shaves as far as the national title goes, either. I suspect most people’s perceptions of the program would expect a little more to show for it in the trophy case.) 

Will he get it back to being a regular 10-win team that competes for major bowls? Probably.

If we learned anything from the way Brady Hoke was recruiting in Ann Arbor, the brand is still pretty strong. There are problems there, though.

Rich Rodriguez explained to Anderson not just anyone can get admitted to Michigan, and the Wolverines have arguably never been in a more competitive environment as far as recruiting. Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame are still going to get a lot of the biggest stars in the Midwest, but Michigan State has built a brand strong enough to be a legitimate contender.

A less-discussed issue for those schools is how many more options their second-choice prospects have thanks to the vastly different availability of information for recruits. You’ve got to have stars to win it all, but depth also inevitably becomes a big issue over the course of a season that is longer than ever. Things are different now than a generation ago when it was easier to stockpile studs at the big schools that got the lion’s share of media exposure. Now everyone is on TV every week. The region’s big three all recruit nationally, too, but that has its own potential pitfalls.

Winning 8-9 games a year is a lot different than winning 11-12. That’s where the widest gorge to jump can be found because when you get down to it, only a handful of teams are really top tier, and beating them is a lot different than beating the other 95 percent of the country. To win eight or nine games, you just have to beat 5-6 bad teams and then a couple of average teams. To win many more, you probably have to beat someone with a much larger percentage of potential future pros on their roster.

(This is why folks writing about Michigan State or Wisconsin outperforming their recruiting rankings aren’t necessarily correct. They still recruit better than most of the teams they play while other teams that end up higher in recruiting rankings play more games against each other. Someone has to lose those games, and winning teams in other leagues then move ahead of them in the rankings.)

What happens this year on the field probably won’t change my long-term opinion about Harbaugh and Michigan much.

He has a veteran team with some flaws, but unlike his predecessor (or his predecessor’s predecessor), Harbaugh is taking over a program that was being built to play his kind of football. That means he won’t have to waste any of his best players because they don’t fit what he wants to do. When you have a talent deficiency, this is no small thing. Rodriguez and Brady Hoke made life much more difficult on themselves for insisting on playing a certain style too soon in their tenures.

Rodriguez hamstrung a talented defense his first season by playing his hurry-up offense despite not having a quarterback to run it.

Hoke made plenty of missteps, but the biggest one on the field was forcing his team to rely on an offensive line that was way too young in his second and third years.

Now those same players are veterans, and Harbaugh can reap the benefits. Unfortunately for the new coach, he might not have a quarterback, and the likelihood he has enough offensive playmakers at receiver or running back is fairly low as well.

Harbaugh’s reputation for developing players and the simple fact of the aging process should be a good combination this year for Michigan. I suspect we’re about to see that Hoke probably did know what he was doing as far as recruiting and questions about his ability to develop talent were probably premature.

Some of the fruits of Hoke’s labor have already showed up on the defensive side the past couple of years, and the pieces are there to be pretty good. There are still questions as far as who is going to rush the passer and whether or not they have a second cornerback, but overall I think they’ll be hard to run the ball against and that’s a good place to start.

I look at Michigan and even with questions at quarterback, receiver, running back and cornerback, I see a team good enough in the trenches that it kind of feels like a nine or so win team. The schedule makes me think that would be overly optimistic, though. They will need some breaks to get to nine I think, beginning with a tough game at Utah. I don’t see them having the horses to beat Ohio State or Michigan State (though we all know anything can happen in rivalry games), and after that there are about five games that could go either way.

Will the Harbaugh effect help in close games? Let’s say it does and assume they’ll win the majority of those swing games to end up around 7-5 or 8-4.

 

UTAH REACTION

The only big surprise in Michigan’s 24-17 loss to Utah was how poorly the Michigan offensive line played. Everything else was about what one would expect.

The defense was not bad, though it wasn’t good enough. Jabrill Peppers made some highlight plays and gave some up as well. I’m going to go forward with the assumption he’ll be a major force sooner or later. The linebackers were very active, but there wasn’t much pass rush. The Michigan corners must have been doing some good things because the majority of the damage was done over the middle of the field, and a running back was the leading receiver.

I didn’t expect Jake Rudock to throw three interceptions, but I didn’t think he’d win them the game, either. He also missed a couple of potential long TDs but threaded the needle on a touchdown pass to tight end Jake Butt, who looks like a keeper. I still see no deep threat, but Amara Darboh is a useful possession receiver who can run after the catch. Running back looks like a big concern, at least until Drake Johnson is back to full health. His higher-rated teammates don’t seem all that quick or able to run to daylight.

I’m not going to write off the offensive line yet as it showed progress last season and we don’t know yet how good or bad Utah’s front will turn out to be, but I did think it was something of a foregone conclusion with age and an offseason in Harbaugh’s program that group would get tougher and more effective.

It’s only one game, and there were some positives and negatives.

Everyone expected this to be a flawed Michigan team, and that’s what it is. How long it stays that way is an open question.

Playing two quarterbacks has merit for Ohio State

Could playing two quarterbacks regularly this season work for Ohio State?

Maybe the best answer at this point is, “Why not?”

Initially I doubted we would see it (barring injury), but a lot of the rhetoric seems to be pointing in that direction. Well, the chatter from the coaches, at least, as Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Ed Warinner both talked up some of the potential positives of using both J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones rather than picking one with which to sink or swim. That comes a couple of weeks after Barrett and Jones both expressed some misgivings about a two-quarterback system, though one got the impression from both they would go along with whatever they were asked to do.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and daughter at media day
Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones and daughter at media day

The quarterbacks both made good points, too, as far as being able to get in a rhythm and play through mistakes. I certainly think that is valid. Does it trump the possibility of getting more of the good than the bad out of each of them, though? I don’t think we can answer that definitively.

And while I don’t think they should play both simply as a way to avoid hurting feelings, I am starting to see how it could work.

The bottom line is hardly anything that has happened before compares to this situation. Almost no quarterback battle includes two players who have actually performed well and won on the big stage. What Meyer and Warinner and quarterbacks coach Tim Beck are making isn’t an educated guess like it is when trying to choose between two guys who have only done it in practice, which is a poor substitute for games, and that is great for piece of mind if not for drawing distinctions between the two.

Entering the preseason, my feeling was it was Jones’ job to lose. He is the better player physically, and talent generally trumps all in college football. That said, he’s lost the job before and Barrett is no slouch physically. If Jones was able to raise his level of play to a certain consistency, he can do more things than Barrett at his best. If either of them made too many mistakes in camp, then the other would be an easy choice.

Not only does that matter to me, more importantly I think that’s how Urban Meyer thinks, too. He loves grinders, but he knows a room full of motivated five- and four-star players will beat the hardest-working three- and four-star group pretty much every time.

He loves leadership, too, but it boils down to this: Is Barrett’s edge in leadership and consistency (which is actually overrated if you break down his play against the better teams on the schedule) greater than Jones’ physical advantages? Based on the talk out of camp, that is sounding like a push so far, so maybe they really don’t have to choose.

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett at media day in Columbus
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett at media day in Columbus

If they both bring a lot of positives and relatively few, if any, true deficiencies, then maybe playing both really is the answer if they have they and more importantly the team have the personality to navigate the potential land mines along the way.

For all the talk about what one might do better than the other, Meyer pointed out the offense doesn’t really change with either of them at the controls. That is not a small point. While Barrett is probably better at making decision in the read-option, the fact remains that is a constraint play, not truly the point of the spear (that would be the inside run game). Jones is enough of a running threat he has to be respected and that is all that’s really necessary there. Along those same lines, Jones’ big arm gives defenses something to think about, but Barrett throws deep well enough conceding those throws isn’t really an appealing option for a defensive coordinator, either.

Playing both is a calculated risk, but so is only playing one if we’re being honest. Dismissing such an idea outright is fairly ignorant regardless of what has happened in the past. But I’m not sure past examples fit very well anyway.

In this job it is important to be skeptical but also to avoid being cynical. Just because something hasn’t worked in the past doesn’t mean it can’t this year, especially considering this year is not much like the last couple of times a very good Ohio State team played two quarterbacks for the balance of the season.

For one thing, this team is almost certainly better than those others, and it is also blessed with a quarterback-friendly offense built to operate similarly regardless of who is at the controls.

In 1993, highly touted sophomore Bobby Hoying sharing the load with transfer Bret Powers seemed to improve the overall quarterback play given that Hoying had to play through some struggles a year later when Powers was gone and did not really come into his own as an elite college quarterback until 1995.

In 1996 as in ’93, Ohio State won the Big Ten while using two new and previously unproven quarterbacks, in this case Stanley Jackson and transfer Joe Germaine. Unlike Jones and Barrett (or Hoying and Powers), Germaine and Jackson were fairly different players as one was the pocket QB and the other a dual-threat who was probably in all honesty born too early. Jackson did what he could within the confines of the typical “pro-style” offense of the day, but there were times Germaine’s precision passing was more what the doctor ordered. As good as Germaine’s arm and decision making were, Jackson’s talents were too tantalizing to leave on the bench in the view of coach John Cooper and his staff.

It worked pretty well all year with the exception one game. That was, of course, The Game, but using that 13-9 loss to call the whole experiment a failure is at best an oversimplification for several reasons: 1. It’s one game so it’s obviously a small sample size, 2. It’s one game in which Cooper’s teams played poorly almost every year for more than a decade regardless of who was taking the snaps, 3. It’s one game in which the roles were reversed as Germaine started instead of relieving Jackson. Ohio State was 11-0 when Jackson started and Germaine came in later, and going back to that formula worked pretty  well in the next game as Ohio State upset Arizona State in the Rose Bowl with Jackson leading a TD drive early and Germaine leading one late. It was also fine when Germaine threw the winning touchdown pass in a 17-14 comeback victory against Wisconsin earlier in the year, not to mention blowouts of top five Notre Dame and Penn State teams earlier in the year.

Of course saying it’s only one game is at least a bit of a copout because in college football — then more than now, as we saw last year — all it takes is one game to ruin a season. But over two seasons of using two quarterbacks the Buckeyes lost four games and won 21. The 1996 Michigan game was the only one that wasn’t against a team ranked in the nation’s top four (Yes, Ohio State used to play ranked teams a lot if you can believe that). It’s hard to imagine anyone standing up to the Florida State pass rush in the Jan. 1, 1998, Sugar Bowl loss, and Germaine had one of the best passing days ever when Ohio State lost at Penn State in ’97 mostly because the run defense completely collapsed in the second half.

We already covered the win over No. 2 Arizona State, which leaves only the ’97 Michigan game. That one was admittedly there for the taking by the Buckeyes as both quarterbacks struggled but nonetheless was on the road against the undefeated, No. 1-ranked team in the country. Usually the undefeated, No. 1-ranked teams win those ones.

Would that day have turned out differently if Jackson or Germaine had been declared The Man at quarterback earlier? Maybe, but quarterbacks who aren’t sharing time sometimes have bad days, too.

Germaine had one of the best single seasons in Ohio State history in 1998, but Germaine as a senior was probably better than the earlier versions, and he definitely had the best supporting cast that year.

Maybe this is all moot because Meyer plans to pick one guy and stick with him for a reasonably long amount of time before struggles could convince the coach to make a change, but it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

After an unprecedented run to the national championship last year, could Ohio State attempt to repeat with another unorthodox quarterback situation? We’ll see….

Big Ten Football Media Days review: All the links fit to aggregate

Big Ten Football Media Days mean the unofficial start to college football season in the Midwest.

Ohio State Spartans football coach Urban Meyer at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago
Ohio State Spartans football coach Urban Meyer at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago

All 14 Big Ten football coaches and players from every team got together in Chicago for the conference’s annual media days last week to talk about the upcoming season, and while you no doubt saw plenty of stories emerge from the event, you probably missed some, too (especially since it wrapped up well after 5 on Friday in the East).  Continue reading Big Ten Football Media Days review: All the links fit to aggregate

This Week in Big Ten Football is full of quarterbacks

Who says July is a slow time for college football news? Big Ten football news was cracking all week — even before Braxton Miller made all the speculation about his future academic with a revealing interview with the dean of the Ohio State football beat, Tim May of the Columbus Dispatch.

That means Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and new quarterbacks coach Tim Beck officially have six scholarship quarterbacks on the roster for 2015 — and five could be back next fall.  Continue reading This Week in Big Ten Football is full of quarterbacks

Big Ten football 2015 spring review/look ahead

It’s the middle of June and you’re looking for something about football to read, right? Well I’m here to help.

We finally rolled out the last of our Big Ten spring football reviews at BuckeyeSports.com, and I have collected them in a handy list just for you!  Continue reading Big Ten football 2015 spring review/look ahead