Michigan Wolverines

Scripts flipped for Ohio State and Michigan heading into 2017, but don't be surprised if Big Ten, college football seasons again come down to Buckeyes and Wolverines

Scripts flipped for Ohio State and Michigan heading into 2017, but don't be surprised if Big Ten, college football seasons again come down to Buckeyes and Wolverines

Jim Harbaugh has himself a catchphrase.

You’re probably familiar with it: “Who’s got it better than us?”

The answer, as this is a call-and-response kind of thing, is “nobody.”

And while a great many metrics could back that claim up, it hasn’t exactly been 100-percent true through the first two years of the Jim Harbaugh Experience up in Ann Arbor.

Because in each of those seasons, Ohio State has had it better than Michigan.

Urban Meyer’s program got the jump on Harbaugh’s, obviously, Meyer entering his sixth season in Columbus. His tenure has been defined exclusively by winning, no matter what that famed photo of Meyer eating Papa John’s on a golf cart in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium might lead you to believe.

Since Meyer’s arrival at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have posted a jaw-dropping 61-6 record, won at least a share of five division titles, played in a pair of Big Ten title games, appeared in four bowl games of the highest caliber and won two of them, made two trips to the College Football Playoff and won the national championship to wrap a remarkable 2014 season.

Oh, and they’ve twice beaten the Wolverines.

While neither victory punched Ohio State’s ticket to Indianapolis — Michigan State and Penn State each winning the East Division crown in the last two seasons, respectively — last year’s win in the double-overtime classic cemented the Buckeyes' spot in the Playoff. The loss kept the Wolverines out of it.

This time around, the roles are a bit reversed. Last year, Ohio State lost an unbelievable amount of talent to the NFL and started the season as one of college football’s youngest teams, questions of inexperience the preseason topic du jour. This year, Meyer’s annually stacked roster has his team the Big Ten favorite once more, blessed with experience. Meanwhile, a veteran-laden Michigan team was expected to do big things. This year, the Wolverines have lost more starters than most teams throughout the country — a large number of which went to the NFL — and have question marks to deal with that has stuck them behind Ohio State and Penn State in a number of preseason prognostications.

But even with the scripts flipped, the story might end up the same. Once more, it seems that The Game — not to mention the 11 for each team that precede college football’s most anticipated rivalry bout — will determine who wins the Big Ten.

And once more, it could be Ohio State best positioned to answer “who’s got it better than us?” with “nobody.”

———

College football coaches dislike few things more than preseason predictions.

Meyer certainly won’t lose any sleep over which pick-makers have made Ohio State their preseason picks to win the Big Ten and win the whole darned thing.

But here’s what he does think:

“Ohio State is always going to be there,” Meyer said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. “I mean, it should be one of the top schools in our conference.”

An ambitious goal for most, Meyer has earned the right to set it. His recruiting classes are annually among the best in the country. His previously described resume speaks for itself. And even without him, Ohio State is one of college football’s most legendary powers. It’s 100-percent true that a preseason where the Buckeyes weren’t considered one of the nation’s top contenders would be a strange one.

And so 2017 is no different.

Last preseason maybe felt a little different. Meyer watched a dozen members of his 2015 roster selected in the NFL Draft, arguably one of the most talented college teams ever having to settle for that — and a Fiesta Bowl beatdown of Notre Dame — as consolation after that walk-off field goal by Michigan State sunk Ohio State’s national-championship repeat hopes. Last year, the Buckeyes were one of the youngest teams in America. Who would replace Joey Bosa? Who would replace Ezekiel Elliott? Who would replace Darron Lee and Joshua Perry and Vonn Bell and Eli Apple?

And still Ohio State was the favorite to win the conference.

This preseason, similar questions surely do exist, with eight more Buckeyes getting their names called in this year’s draft. But those holes are being plugged with older guys, more experienced guys. Ohio State will have a brand-new starting secondary, a mostly brand-new receiving corps and other new starters everywhere a previous All-America type player left.

But there’s also an experienced offensive line, a couple of freaks at defensive end and a fourth-year starter at quarterback who’s still — despite an upsetting season in the passing game in 2016 — one of the best offensive players in the conference.

If the reload worked out last season — and a trip to the College Football Playoff indicated that it emphatically did — this season’s could be even more impressive thanks to the experience that goes along with it.

“Billy Price is going to be snapping the ball to J.T. Barrett. It’s not two freshmen or two rookies,” Meyer said. “The offensive line’s intact except for the right guard, so you’re going to have some established people.

“It’s been done without it, but we don't win the national championship in 2014 without (senior players). It’s one thing when you have seniors, but when seniors play their best football and it’s their last year … if we can say that same thing about this group, we’ll have an excellent season.”

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Harbaugh doesn’t think Michigan is flying under anyone’s radar.

And it’s likely that the Wolverines will still be well-ranked in many of the preseason polls.

But it was Ohio State representing the Big Ten in last year’s College Football Playoff. It was Penn State that hoisted the trophy and showered in confetti after the Big Ten title game. Both of those teams have national-championship aspirations in 2017.

Michigan, which went through a lightning-fast transformation from a five-win team in Brady Hoke’s final season to a 10-win team in Harbaugh’s first, could potentially be playing third fiddle in a packed division which now has an annual claim to the title of college football’s toughest.

But the truth is that the Wolverines were better than almost anyone in the sport through the vast majority of last season. Powered by perhaps the nation's finest defense, they gave new meaning to the word dominant, doing impressive work against the Big Ten’s best — silencing the two teams that played for a league title, Penn State and Wisconsin — and obliterating those who weren’t in contention for much of anything, evidenced by the combined 178-11 poundings handed out to Rutgers, Illinois and Maryland.

But a lot changed after Harbaugh & Co. started the season 9-0.

Michigan lost three of its final four games, turning a potential trip to the Playoff into a 10-3 season that left the always-demanding Wolverine fan base wanting. A shocking upset at Iowa cost Michigan everything. And then hopes of a second-chance entrance into the Playoff field went out the window with the loss to Ohio State. Playing without their two best players, Jabrill Peppers and Jake Butt, the Wolverines lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Add the deficits up from those three losses and what do you get? Five. Five points. That’s all that kept Michigan from going undefeated.

“We lost three out of our last four games last year, two by one point and one by three points in overtime. Didn’t like that feeling,” Harbaugh said Tuesday, “and that’s motivated us to pour more time into the football team and our jobs and give more effort and pour more of our heart and soul into it.”

So while the odds might not exactly be in Michigan's favor entering this season — only six starters return from last year’s team, the quarterback situation is once again up in the air, and the Big Ten East has a couple hulking behemoths to contend with — Harbaugh is banking on hunger.

“I hope they (the players) have the same feeling,” Harbaugh said. “I hope they didn’t like losing those ballgames. They won a lot of ballgames, too, they won nine straight games. Nothing better than the high five after a ballgame. That feeling compared to the one where you’re losing a game in overtime or by point, much better to get the high five.

“I think a lot of guys on our team have learned that. I think that’s going to make things a little hotter, more competitive.”

He’s banking on hunger — and a really, really talented roster, of course. Headlined by sophomore defensive tackle Rashan Gary, Michigan’s ready to reload, not unlike their rivals to the south. The Wolverines have hauled in top-five recruiting classes in each of the past two seasons.

So don’t act surprised if Michigan is a championship contender again. Even if the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are taking the majority of the preseason buzz, the Wolverines aren’t flying under anyone’s radar.

———

It’s impossible to know what will happen between now and Nov. 25.

But what is a pretty safe bet is that some sort of postseason hopes will be on the line Thanksgiving weekend in Ann Arbor.

Ohio State has the more favorable road to a Big Ten title, as Michigan has to travel to play both Penn State and Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are at home against the Lions and don’t play the Badgers. Both teams have tough non-conference matchups, Ohio State playing host to Oklahoma and Michigan traveling to Jerry World to play Florida.

For what it’s worth, fellow contender Penn State has the back-to-back bouts at the end of October against these two teams, a 1-2 punch that comes after what could be a tough challenge at Northwestern. The Lions haven’t beaten their feline brethren since James Franklin took over.

If the season does play out as expected, the Buckeyes will be favored in that final regular-season game — and they could bring an undefeated record with them. But the prevailing wisdom is that it will look more like last year’s three-point win in double overtime than the previous year’s 42-13 blowout.

Here's what we know for sure, though. Both teams are extremely talented. Both programs are extremely healthy. Both coaches are among the best in the country and have their eyes on winning championships.

There’s a reason the Big Ten, and college football with it, always hinges on The Game: It’s the culmination of the best division race in the sport. With all due respect to the SEC, it's a mighty rare situation when anything can be settled before Ohio State and Michigan play.

“I don’t think there's a gap at all,” Meyer said when asked about the difference between the Big Ten and the SEC. “And that’s no disrespect to other conferences. … I’ve coached in the SEC East when that was one of the strongest (divisions) in the country. And I think the Big Ten East right now is every bit as strong as I can remember the SEC East.

“I feel a great amount of respect nationally about the Big Ten. You sit and look at the national recruiting rankings and you see the Big Ten everywhere, all over the place, and that’s the way it should be.

“There’s a lot of credit to be given, obviously to the administrations that invest in their programs and to the coaching staffs that are out there doing the work. And this is as tough a conference as there is.”

In other words, if you want to know how the college football season will wind up going, you best free up four hours on the final Saturday in November. That might just tell you all you need to know.

Recruiting News and Notes: Ben Bryant commits to Cincinnati

Recruiting News and Notes: Ben Bryant commits to Cincinnati

Ben Bryant (QB), Lyons Township

Lyons Township senior three-star quarterback Ben Bryant (6-foot-3, 195 pounds), who originally gave Wisconsin his verbal commitment only to have the Badgers rescind his verbal scholarship offer, has given Cincinnati his verbal commitment.

"It was a much harder decision this time around compared to the first time I committed," Bryant said. "When I committed the first time (to Wisconsin) I had two offers. This time around I had a lot of options and some great offers, but Cincinnati is the best place for me."

Bryant is thrilled to have ended his recruiting process again and can now focus on his upcoming senior season while also putting to rest the entire ordeal with Wisconsin.

"I've put the whole Wisconsin deal behind me and I stand my statement that I sent out on my Twitter account and that's all I have to say. I had some great offers and options and it was a great problem to have. I can just focus now on my team this summer and having a great senior season."

Bryant joins Simeon wide receiver Jayshon Jackson and Mount Carmel senior offensive linemen Jeremy Cooper as part of the Bearcats Class of 2018. 

Jeff Griffin (DL), Homewood-Flossmoor

Northern Illinois continues to do well with filling out its Class of 2018. The Huskies added another Chicagoland piece when Homewood-Flossmoor senior defensive linemen Jeff Griffin (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) became the team's ninth in-state commitment and 14th overall pledge.

"I visited NIU (last Saturday) and that visit really sold me on NIU," Griffin said. "I always wanted to stay closer to home for school and once NIU stepped up and offered me it was a hard offer to turn down. After the visit on Saturday I was sold on NIU so I called up the coaches and committed."

Griffin is also hoping to help NIU add a few more pieces from Homewood-Flossmoor's talented senior class.

"I'm definitely already talking to Justin (Hall) and Mario (Wright II) about joining me at NIU."

Seniors' athlete Justin Hall and linebacker Mario Wright II have both listed Northern Illinois as one of their favorite schools this summer. 

[RELATED: Recruiting News and Notes - Jyran Mitchell commits to NIU]

Indiana State recruiting

Indiana State head coach Curt Mallory has been on fire when it comes to the Sycamores recruiting this summer. Mallory, who was a long-time assistant coach at various stops in Illinois, now has an amazing 24 verbal commitments — including two recent additions in Bishop McNamara safety Giavion Mason (6-foot-0, 190 pounds) and Lindblom wide receiver CJ Rutherford (6-foot-0. 170 pounds).

So why the Sycamores?

Rutherford pointed towards the strength of the coaching staff as a big factor in his decision.

"I really love the coaching staff at Indiana State," Rutherford said. "Coach Mallory brought in a staff that has a lot of experience and several of his coaches worked with him when he was at Michigan. The coaches made us feel comfortable and at home at Indiana State and I'm just excited to be a part of helping the football program win."

Recruiting News

Who are the Top 5 uncommitted players remaining in the Class of 2018?

Carterville tight end Luke Ford (6-foot-7, 245 pounds) has offers from literally every Power 5 school in the nation. Ford originally committed to Arkansas.

Oswego DT Noah Shannon (6-foot-2, 290 pounds) was committed to Minnesota but reopened his recruiting process. Shannon has shown heavy interest in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Indiana and Arkansas.

Bolingbrook DT Dashaun Mallory (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) added a camp offer from Michigan State, and has a Top 3 list of the Spartans, along with Iowa State and Toledo. 

Waubonsie Valley tight end Charles Robinson (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) listed Iowa State, Minnesota and Mississippi State as his Top 3 favorite schools.

Bolingbrook wide receiver I'Shawn Stewart (5-foot-11, 165 pounds) camped earlier this summer with Wisconsin and also made a recent visit to Syracuse. 

White Sox draft Jim Harbaugh's nephew, son of former Indiana head coach

White Sox draft Jim Harbaugh's nephew, son of former Indiana head coach


The White Sox have taken the first step to paving a way for Jim Harbaugh to leave Michigan for a coaching job with the Bears.

Well, sort of.

As the White Sox were wrapping up Day 3 on the 2017 MLB Draft on Wednesday afternoon, they selected a player with a family connection to the Wolverines head coach.

Riley Crean, the nephew of Harbaugh and the son of former Indiana basketball head coach Tom Crean, was drafted by the White Sox in the 35th round (No. 1,047).

The South Siders connection with Riley Crean comes from White Sox Scouting Director Nick Hostetler being close friends with Tom Crean, according to the Chicago Tribune. Also, Riley Crean played for the White Sox Are Code Team.

Topping out at 87 MPH on the mound for Bloomington North High School as a senior in 2017, Riley Crean is currently committed to play baseball for the Hoosiers. However, the Herald-Times reports that Riley Crean will not attend Indiana and is headed to Florida to play for IMG Academy in 2018. Attending IMG will allow Riley Crean to be eligible for next year's draft, rather than having to wait until after his junior year to be selected again due to NCAA rules.

While Riley Crean won't be putting on a White Sox uniform anytime soon, it does give him a chance to eventually follow in his uncle's footsteps and play for the team that drafted him in Chicago.

Harbaugh played for the Bears from 1987-1993 after he was selected by the organization in the first round of the 1987 NFL Draft.

Maybe by the time Riley Crean is ready for the big leagues, Harbaugh will be pacing up and down the sidelines in his khakis at Soldier Field.