ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football steamrolled through its non-conference schedule, but now it’s time for Big Ten East games. This year, there are no pushovers in the division.
First up is Rutgers -- and this isn’t the same team Michigan has pounded mercilessly throughout the Jim Harbaugh era. Greg Schiano has the Scarlet Knights heading into the Big House undefeated and looking to avenge last years’ triple-overtime loss.
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Rutgers and Michigan are just two of the many improved teams in the Big Ten East. Maryland is also undefeated on the season, and Michigan State has risen into the top 20 with a pair of true road victories.
So where does Michigan fit into the mix? The Wolverines are getting a lot of love for blowing out Western Michigan, Washington and Northern Illinois, while the rest of the division is improving under the radar.
The Big Ten East still goes through Ohio State. The Buckeyes have looked a bit underwhelming through three weeks, but we’ve all seen this story before. They’ll be fully operational when it comes time to defend their division title.
Ohio State isn’t the only top 10 team in the division, though. Penn State has risen to No. 6 in the nation after its win over Auburn, and the Nittany Lions look to be the top contender to Ohio State.
Most impressively, Penn State has already gone into Camp Randall and picked up a road victory over Wisconsin. That doesn’t happen very often, but James Franklin’s team managed to hold the Badgers to just 10 points.
Both Ohio State and Penn State will have to keep their guard up against the rest of the division, but they’re still the favorites to go to Indianapolis.
Michigan and Michigan State haven’t been tested as much as Penn State, but it’s already clear both are better than anticipated coming into the season.
Michigan State, in particular, is already battle tested, having gone on the road twice in the first three weeks. Northwestern and Miami have underwhelmed, but road wins are road wins in college football.
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Michigan’s schedule took a hit when Washington’s lost to Montana, so most of the hype surrounding the Wolverines is built on their dominance. They’ve run the ball better than any team in the country and fielded a much-improved defense.
It seems unlikely that Michigan or Michigan State will actually win the Big Ten East. But they make up a pleasantly surprising second tier.
On the rise
Since they joined the Big Ten nearly a decade ago, Maryland and Rutgers have served as punching bags for the rest of the conference in football. It doesn’t look like that will be the case much longer.
Rutgers has been dominant defensively, and the Noah Vedral-to-Bo Melton connection is dangerous. When Isaih Pacheco gets going on the ground, Rutgers’ offense will be sneaky good.
Maryland took down West Virginia in the opener and already has a true road win over Illinois. The Terps started 2-0 in 2019 before completely falling apart, but this team, led by Taulia Tagovailoa, looks more legitimate.
It’s too early to write off Indiana, especially after a 6-2 season that saw the Hoosiers climb as high as No. 9 in the country.
But losing two of three is a disappointing start, especially since Indiana held the lead for much of its game against No. 8 Cincinnati.
There’s no shame in dropping the opener at Iowa, either, but by four touchdowns? We’ll have to wait and see if Indiana can bounce back in an unforgiving division.
It’s a good thing Michigan made wholesale changes this offseason, because the 2020 version of the Wolverines would have been the worst team in this year’s Big Ten East.
Every week will be a battle. Ohio State and Penn State are the heavyweights. Road games against Michigan State and Maryland will be dogfights. Rutgers and Indiana won’t be pushovers, even at the Big House.
Michigan certainly looks like an improved team. The Big Ten East will help us find out for sure.