Pick, or pick against, Michigan at your own risk

Bill Rabinowitz,Joey Kaufman,Ray Stein,Rob Oller
Jim Harbaugh coaches one of the Big Ten favorites in Michigan, but he also holds an 0-4 record against Ohio State. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

What to make of the Big Ten football race in 2019?

Ohio State, the two-time defending champions, has to replace a legendary coach (Urban Meyer) and a Heisman Trophy finalist (Dwayne Haskins Jr.) with a first-time head coach (Ryan Day) and a transfer quarterback (Justin Fields) who has never started.

Michigan is a trendy pick, mostly because the Buckeyes must play in Ann Arbor this season. But home field hasn’t helped the Wolverines in that series since 2011 — and, besides, they have yet to qualify for the Big Ten championship game.

>> Read more: Previewing Ohio State's season

And who will emerge from the West Division ruck, which includes three teams in the preseason top 25 — but not including the defending division champion, Northwestern, which went 6-0 against division opponents last season?

For answers, Dispatch sports editor Ray Stein picked the brains of columnist Rob Oller and Ohio State beat reporters Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman.

Stein: Let’s start in the East. When I consider whether Michigan has the goods to dethrone Ohio State, I think back to the old phrase, “I’m from Missouri,” which people older than me used to say when they required proof. Missouri being the “Show-Me State,” of course. What say you?

Oller: Mizzou Man here. I’ll believe Michigan wins the East outright only when I see it, and I don’t see it this season. Which raises the question: If not now, when? And if not Jim Harbaugh, who? The road to the division title will run through Ann Arbor, but the Wolverines again dead-end against Ohio State.

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Rabinowitz: I’m of a similar mind. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the Buckeyes. But I don’t see why Michigan should be anointed as the favorite after what happened last November, the psychological wounds from that, and the loss of several star players from the Wolverines defense.

Kaufman: Count me among the skeptics. The Wolverines have not won the Big Ten since 2004, nor the division in the conference’s expansion era. The changes they’ve made with their offense, including poaching coordinator Josh Gattis from Alabama, were inspiring, but Ohio State has been too dominant in recent seasons not to get the benefit of the doubt.

Stein: So we agree that Ohio State remains the favorite, but a potentially flawed one. But do you see anyone else in the East pushing the Buckeyes from their perch?

Rabinowitz: On paper, Michigan State and Penn State look formidable. The Spartans return the vast majority of their starters, but for me to believe they're legit, their putrid offense must take a giant leap.

Kaufman: If we must pick a challenger to the Buckeyes, then it’s still Michigan, not Michigan State or Penn State. Among those three teams, the Wolverines are the ones who avoid travel to Columbus and boast more favorable crossover games against the West. It’s a more manageable schedule.

Oller: After Michigan, the best of the rest offer slim pickings. Michigan State should be improved, but Mark Dantonio is on the downside of a stellar career. As for Penn State, the years that I write off the Nits and coach James “Have I got a deal for you,” Franklin they end up surprising me. Could it happen again? Doubtful, due to quarterback issues.

Stein: Does anyone see a possible surprise team in the East? It seems Maryland might be more interesting, at least, with new coach Michael Locksley, but I don’t see the Terps busting down any penthouse doors.

Kaufman: Neither Maryland nor Rutgers has finished above .500 in the Big Ten since joining the conference in 2014, and Indiana hasn’t done it since 1993. It would be stunning if any of them were significant factors in the division.

Rabinowitz: Maryland deserves some respect if only because it came within a poor pass on a two-point conversion of upsetting the Buckeyes. Locksley’s recruiting prowess could make the Terrapins a threat down the road. But make no mistake, the East remains the Big Four and the Little Three.

Oller: I roll my eyes when pundits boast that the Big Ten East is the strongest division in college football. If they’re talking cream off the top, maybe, although after Ohio State it’s more perception than reality. But look at what sinks to the bottom. Rutgers is horrible, Maryland is marginal and Indiana is the little engine that usually could not.

Stein: The West, on the other hand, looks so potentially jumbled that it’s not outrageous to suggest that Northwestern could go from first to last in the division. Does anyone look at this seven-pack and see anything but a murky stew?

Rabinowitz: I agree. You can rule out Illinois, but otherwise I wouldn’t be shocked if any of the other six won the West. I like what Scott Frost is doing at Nebraska and figure Wisconsin will bounce back to some degree. And Northwestern will be dangerous if coach Pat Fitzgerald finds the right quarterback.

Oller: I’m curious if Frost is the Harbaugh of the West. Big things are expected, as they were of Harbaugh, and while I expect Nebraska to be better, by how much? Still, the Huskers need not be great to win the Wide Open West. No one is talking about Iowa, perhaps with good reason, but my gut tells me Kirk Ferentz has one last hurrah left in him.

Kaufman: There certainly is a logjam of contenders. It’s remarkable to look back on last season, when Northwestern won the division by a three-game margin, clinching two weeks before Thanksgiving. It should be a much tighter race this fall, but if anyone does separate from the pack, I also like …Iowa? The Hawkeyes have a senior quarterback, NFL talent on defense and the dean of Big Ten coaches.

Stein: The two most intriguing teams to me are Minnesota, which had to grow up in a hurry last year because of injuries, and Purdue, which has the best player in the league (Rondale Moore) and may get a boost from coach Jeff Brohm’s decision to stay put. That’s my sleeper team, which means they’ll probably snooze through the alarm.

Oller: Purdue awakened against Ohio State last season — and put the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes to bed — but I don’t see Shocker II happening with the Boilermakers, because they don’t play anyone good enough that it would warrant a major upset. Minnesota intrigues me, but “Row the Boat” has a limited shelf life. Besides having a good feeling about Iowa, keep an eye on Northwestern. The Friday night game against Ohio State in Evanston is ripe with spoiler possibilities.

Kaufman: I’m high on Minnesota, actually. The Gophers clicked at the end of last season, winning four of their final six games, three by double-digit margins. They fared well in most advanced metrics — 42nd in the Sagarin ratings, 45th in S&P+ and 46th in FEI. And that was while starting freshmen at quarterback. Lest anyone in Columbus forget, they played the Buckeyes pretty tough last season, too.

Rabinowitz: I’ll circle back to Wisconsin. The Badgers seldom have a special quarterback and I don’t think they’ll miss Alex Hornibrook. Jonathan Taylor does return and he is one of the country’s best running backs. Wisconsin was certainly a disappointment last year and coach Paul Chryst doesn’t exude pizzazz. But the Badgers have been the best team in the West in recent years. I’m not guaranteeing they get to Indy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they do.

Stein: So who do you have in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7?

Rabinowitz: I think we’ll see a rematch of the Sept. 28 game between Ohio State and Nebraska. I’m a believer in Frost and quarterback Adrian Martinez and think the Huskers will continue the improvement they showed in the second half of last year. But the Buckeyes have superior talent and will prevail in Indy.

Kaufman: My best guess into the future: Ohio State beats Iowa to win a third straight conference championship, but misses out on the College Football Playoff. We’re then left with months of discussion about expanding the field to eight teams.

Oller: I’m sticking with my gut and taking Iowa in the West and Ohio State in the East. The Hawkeyes have as much of a chance as anyone, and the Buckeyes have too much talent not to make it back to Indy. Making up for inexperience at quarterback and under the headset will be a much-improved defense that takes pressure off Justin Fields having to be The Man. (Can I still use THE?)

Stein: I guess this makes me an honorary Missourian, because I don’t see Ohio State surviving all of the potential rookie potholes, especially against a difficult schedule. So I’ll take Michigan over upstart Purdue for the Big Ten title. I hear Jefferson City is a lovely place.

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