Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Michigan on the road to Big 10 title: set for takeoff

The Big Ten football title chase began last weekend even if Michigan was given a much-needed bye week. The rest will be greatly appreciated and the prep time will allow the coaches to plug the holes in U-M’s offense and find the gaps in the next round of opponents – at Purdue this Saturday and then home games with Illinois and Michigan State.
National observers and analysts have criticized the Big Ten for its lackluster non-conference performance, making its main argument against the Wolverines for losing to Alabama and Notre Dame. The overall critique (conference-wise) is, to be honest, pretty accurate; no Big Ten school has played a quality schedule and no team has posted a “quality” victory over a ranked opponent.
There is one exception, and that IS Michigan, who was the only Big Ten team to play two current Top 10-ranked opponents, Say what you wish, but the Wolverines put their collective necks on the chopping blocks and ventured into games no one else within the conference would dare.
By comparison, look at who the three undefeated conference teams face (headed into last Saturday’s start of Big Ten play):
Ohio State – Miami (Ohio), Central Florida, California, Alabama-Birmingham
Northwestern – Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota
Minnesota – UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Syracuse
Not one Top 25 teams from that grouping, or even a single matchup in which those teams weren’t favored. Michigan was the underdog in both of its road losses (Alabama, Notre Dame).
And the setbacks by conference teams helped propel their opponents into the Top 25 polls. It was the gateway for schools like Arizona State, Oregon State and Notre Dame to national recognition.
While the results of the ‘Bama game was far from what U-M fans and players had desired, I doubt any other Big Ten school would’ve put its reputation (and season record) on the line if offered the opportunity.
Scheduling is often an iffy thing, since non-conference schedules need to be “finalized” years in advance. Some matchups are automatic marquee affairs; U-M’s schedule with Notre Dame is an obvious example. But with the Irish chickening out on future confrontations with Michigan, the Wolverine administration (namely AD Dave Brandon) now have a choice to make – take the easy road like the other conference schools and play one of the in-state directional schools (WMU,CMU, EMU) or another MAC entrant.
Or Brandon could convince a perennial Top 20 school (from the SEC or Big 12) to enter into a home-and-home contract. Imagine Michigan welcoming the University of Texas, or Tennessee, or Florida, or LSU or even Oklahoma to the Big House, and then seeing how the college game is celebrated (and played) in places like Austin, Knoxville, Gainesville, Baton Rouge or Norman.
If the Irish want to play Purdue or Navy rather than continue a nationally-recognized highlight matchup … well, fine!  Don’t let the door slap the leprechaun on the backside on his way out. Good riddance!
One thing has been clarified from non-conference play (despite ANY team’s record) – there is NO team standing head-and-shoulders above the others. Ohio State is a fairly talented team, but as vastly over-ranked as is Notre Dame. The Bucks edged another over-rated squad (Sparty) last Saturday, by doing what all MSU’s opponents have discovered – smother the one-trick pony running game and the house of cards in East Lansing crumbles – and still barely won.
As a sidenote: Has anyone heard tow more sniveling, whining programs anywhere else? “He poked me in the eye!” “He cheated on the films he sent us!” Wah! Wah! Wah!
As is said in Yiddish, “be a mench!” Grow up and grow a pair! Both of you! OSU is now Urban Meyer’s program and the Big Ten will soon discover why he didn’t have many friends in the SEC.
And poor Sparty … needs to keep its collective months shut, their fingers off Twitter and their eyes on a few DVRs (which could’ve recorded the entire televised schedule for ALL its opposition) instead of waiting for that outdated method of exchange films. That’s SOOO 1970s!
After Week 1, a major problem has appeared on the championship horizon – a self-inflicted problem at that. The Leaders division is home to ineligible schools for any post-season action – Ohio State (5-0, 1-0) and Penn State (3-2, 1-0). Technically, the Leaders “leader” is … PURDUE … at 0-0 (PU proved it was NOT Marshall last Saturday) while, sitting at 0-1, is the remaining divisional lineup (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana).
Meanwhile, the Legends division houses a far more combative lineup with Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan State and Michigan expected to battle for a place in the Dec. 1 championship game in Indianapolis. For certain, the talent level is much higher within the Legends than the Leaders.
Here’s the problem: NO ONE really wants to see Purdue, Illinois or Indiana (aside from those three campuses) to be one of the teams in Indy. Wisconsin simply is not up to snuff to what it produced for the last three seasons. But it is a distinctive possibility that a school with two conference losses makes it to the title game (those weak non-conference schedules guarantee no team will be .500 or below, rendering them useless as a measuring stick).
As constructed by the conference, certain teams have easier routes to Indianapolis than other schools. Wisconsin and Purdue will not face more of the high-end teams than other divisional foes. Bucky Badger avoids Michigan, Northwestern and Iowa; Boiler Pete misses Nebraska, Northwestern and Michigan State.
On the flip side, Nebraska must slog through a real Murderer’s Row for its second conference season, without seemingly easy wins over Illinois, Purdue and Indiana (the most cynical observer would grant three wins there). Other Legend division teams avoid major bullets – Northwestern won’t play Ohio State, Sparty won’t play Penn State and Michigan does not have Wisconsin or Penn State on its schedule.
All of this ends with a solid roadmap to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Wolverines to obtain its annual goal – the Big Ten championship and, with it, a BCS automatic berth.
Unlike past seasons, at least based on the ND game, Michigan will bring a solid defense, which is improving with each play, to the next two games. Purdue is about to discover the difference between playing the Eastern schools (Kentucky or Michigan) and facing Alabama. And Illinois will be reacquainted to how it feels to come into the Big House before 111,000 fans; it’s not the same as journeying to Tempe and losing to Arizona State).
Michigan’s 2012 season will boil down to a five-week, four-game period (Oct. 20-Nov. 10), opening with a home game against Michigan State, ending with Northwestern visiting the House. In between will be the KEY matchup of the year – on October 27 going to Lincoln to play a revenged-minded Nebraska.
While red will be the dominant color inside Memorial Stadium, and in the players’ eyes, the ‘Huskers will themselves be involved in their potentially crippling schedule (Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, Michigan, at Michigan State, Penn State).
By the time U-M travels to Columbus on Nov. 24, its post-season fate should already be known. Michigan’s chance on being in Indianapolis for the Dec. 1 title affair still looks bright DESPITE its non-conference outcome … because through adversity comes victory. I’m just not sure an Indiana-Michigan title game will excite a single soul. And that’s NOT what the Big Ten wants … and it is (ultimately) its own fault.
P.S. – Next year, TCU and LSU will be the teams to play in the Cowboys Classic at JerryWorld in Texas. If you think it doesn’t sound that titillating, you’re not alone. Except on the two campuses, the announcement was pretty much a yawner (the news that there will be a Victoria’s Secret shop inside Cowboys Stadium might have actually caused an earthquake in South Dallas a few days later).
Most Texans are still adjusting to the concept that TCU has returned to big-time football in the Big 12 (essentially the old Southwest Conference where TCU used to live). At least Michigan and Alabama offered a unique matchup between two storied programs with strong fan bases (both of whom showed up strong and loud).

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