Energy, of course, has revisited the Big Ten. Witness its four New Year’s Six bowl berths last year, and nine across the past three years. It has a gathering stable of kinetic coaches, with the 36-year-old P.J. Fleck at Minnesota (3-0), the 39-year-old DJ Durkin at Maryland (2-0), and the continuing bounce of Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh, born 200 days apart at the same Toledo hospital in 1963 and 1964, and with innards that do not age.
In between, there’s 45-year-old James Franklin at Penn State, merely the coach of the reigning and sudden league champion and fourth-ranked team in the nation, and whose accomplishments at Vanderbilt (2011-13) defied the very order of the known universe.
Still, Harbaugh said Monday, “Their coaching staff would be the early favorite for coach of the year,” and he meant the staff at Purdue, whose first-year coach, Jeff Brohm, means this Michigan-Purdue game on Saturday will match former NFL quarterbacks on the sideline, instructing current non-NFL quarterbacks.
Michigan, of course, regained energy Dec. 30, 2014, when it hired Harbaugh and caused the rest of the country to look at it again after seven seasons of sailing sideways. Purdue, however, had slipped out of the consciousness of others, some of whom might have presumed it had been demoted.
Then last Saturday, Purdue went to Missouri of the Southeastern Conference and loosed these numbers: a 26-10 lead in first downs, a 43:43-16:17 lead in time of possession, a 35-3 lead on the final scoreboard and a home-fans viewing experience so miserable that some might have resorted to drinking.
It gave Purdue a 2-1 record, built upon its good opening showing against Louisville and stated that, yes, with the Big Ten these days, the rest of us must look at even Purdue. That’s even if Brohm, himself once a quarterback at Louisville, doesn’t yet have quite the personnel to do what he did as head coach at Western Kentucky, which is to hurl the ball around with organized delirium.
“We try not to worry about the score,” Brohm said this week. “We kind of let our actions and playing take care of itself, and then look at the score at the end and see if we won or lost. Like I said, for three weeks, the effort that we want to see and the desire and the competitive spirit, we’ve won that battle and that’s the most important thing.
“But because of it, our guys have realized, ‘Hey, if you do those small things. you can be in these games and have a chance to win,’ and I think, even way back when I got here [in January] and I look at teams we were going to play and I look at the Big Ten, being an outsider and brand new to the conference, there were about four teams in the Big Ten where I watched and, ‘Whew, these guys are really good.’ All the others, some were similar. It was just a matter of, ‘Who was going to play hard?’ … So I thought we can be in most games and you never know.”
Of course, he said, “Now we face one of those four teams that I mentioned.”
The Boilermakers will do so at home against the No. 8 Wolverines, and without gaudy stats. They’re a good 35th in passing offense, 45th in total offense. They rank 69th in defense, which can happen to those who oppose Louisville and aren’t named Clemson, but they’re up against a Michigan offense struggling in the red zone (one touchdown in 10 visits). Purdue’s starting quarterback, David Blough, is a veteran of 877 collegiate passing attempts but fewer happy scores.
The win at Missouri, however, represented another Big Ten marker: the mastery of one of its sub-top-tier members on the stadium floor of one of the SEC’s sub-top-tier members. Just three years ago, Missouri headed to its second consecutive SEC championship game. At that point, the Big Ten really didn’t matter.
In the second-ever College Football Playoff rankings, on Nov. 4, 2014, the Big Ten held down spots Nos. 8, 13 and 14. The top seven spots and 11 of the top 12 went to the other four Power Five conferences, with three of the top five to the SEC. As Ohio State set to travel to Michigan State, with the No. 8 Spartans the favorite, running back Rod Smith would say, “It felt like the whole nation forgot about us after one loss.”
It felt that way because the whole nation forgot about them after their home loss to Virginia Tech.
We might view that Ohio State-Michigan State game as a point of turnaround, even though it was intraleague. At that point, the Big Ten had a 5-11 nonconference record against the rest of the 65 big-money programs, and it was 0-7 against the Top 25 outside its league. It was how Ohio State looked that night, however, as it treated the home defense in a manner to which it was unaccustomed in a 49-37 romp, with quarterback J.T. Barrett passing for 300 yards, rushing for 86 and posting zero turnovers. “The future is bright at Ohio State,” Meyer said then, oddly. (Isn’t it generally so?) Two months later, it hadn’t been odd at all: The Buckeyes would win the national championship as one of the most riveting teams of the young century.
By then, Franklin and then Harbaugh had joined up, and by this season, the Big Ten stands 7-5 this year against the power 65 teams, and 2-3 against Top-25 teams, given Michigan’s win against Florida and Maryland’s win at Texas. It might or might not be the best, but it’s up there in the top of the mix, and even Michigan at Purdue is interesting.
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