A tale of the Big Ten: Michigan State, Ohio State and the line between good and great

ByDavid M. Hale ESPN logo
Sunday, October 31, 2021

There's a slogan that coaches repeat often: Good is the enemy of great.

The idea is simple enough. To settle for good is to abdicate a quest for greatness. Coaches like great. Good is only important in contract negotiations.

Aside from Georgia, which beat Florida easily on Saturday and appears destined for an SEC title game date with Alabama, the biggest question looming over the 2021 season is about the difference between good and great. Georgia is great. Everyone else? Hard to say. Saturday's games were supposed to offer answers.

That brings us to the Big Ten.

A few weeks back, the Big Ten had five teams ranked in the top 10, and you might have assumed that at least one of them was great.

And then Penn State lost in 27 overtimes to Illinois.

And then Iowa remembered that scoring points matters.

And then Michigan -- poor, sweet Michigan -- played a rivalry game.

Nowhere is the good-to-great dynamic more apparent than with Michigan, which fell to Michigan State 37-33 on Saturday.

Jim Harbaugh is a good coach. He's won a lot of games at Michigan. It's just hard to remember a single one of them that really mattered.

Harbaugh famously won for the first time at Michigan as an underdog earlier this season, which raised the question: Why was Wisconsinfavored in that game to begin with? While big wins are few under Harbaugh, the crushing defeats are everywhere. The 2016 Orange Bowl. The 2018 Notre Dame game. The ultimate surrender cobra. A 3-9 career mark against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. The man has a flair for the big stage -- if that flare is a raging inferno that engulfs his entire program in pain.

Saturday's defeat was particularly galling because there were myriad opportunities for Michigan to put the game away, and it was ultimately Harbaugh himself who blew the biggest one.

In fairness to Harbaugh, we were all confused when Michigan appeared to have a real QB leading the offense Saturday. To suggest Michigan could win with its QB under Harbaugh makes no sense historically. It would be like saying the gross domestic product of Mars is purple. The words don't add up. And yet, Cade McNamara was terrific, throwing for 383 yards and two TDs and zipping one beautiful ball after another downfield. So of course Harbaugh assumed he needed to sub in his backup, J.J. McCarthy, for a few snaps in hopes of gaining an edge he didn't need.

The decision proved disastrous. McCarthy nearly fumbled away the game once, escaping only when the ball bounced out of bounds. One drive later, he did it again, and the Spartans recovered. It was the beginning of an inevitable end.

It wasn't the most painful way to lose to Michigan State, of course. But the fact that there's a hierarchy of horrible losses to Sparty is itself an indictment of Harbaugh.

There's no real shame in losing to Michigan State, either. The Spartans are good. Mel Tucker has become the hottest coach in America, and he'll have his pick of jobs if he wants to leave East Lansing. Kenneth Walker III is a Heisman contender. The defense is terrific. And yet, Michigan had this game in its back pocket, and instead, it tripped over its own shoelaces. This, in spite of all the wins, is the story of the Harbaugh era.

Is Michigan State great? This will be one of the biggest questions the playoff committee must wrestle with before revealing its first rankings on Tuesday. The Spartans are 8-0, and the win over Michigan is an eye-opener. But they were outgained by 157 yards, trailed by as much as 16 and didn't lead until the final 5:08 of the game. We'll still put Sparty in the "great" column for now, if only because we don't want Walker to be mad at us.

Ohio State was relegated to the "good" bin in September after losing to Oregonat home, but we know the Buckeyes are capable of greatness. It was just a year ago they played for a national championship, after all. And since that loss to the Ducks, Ohio State had shown it could be great with dominant wins. Oh, sure, those wins were against Tulsa and Akron and Rutgers and -- wow, it keeps getting worse -- Maryland and Indiana. Still, it was four straight games with 50 points or more, and a narrative began to take hold: If anyone could score enough to beat Georgia in a potential playoff matchup, surely it was Ohio State.

Against free-falling Penn State though? Offense was tougher to come by. The Buckeyes were 5-of-15 on third down. They struggled in the red zone. They needed a defensive touchdown to keep the Nittany Lions at bay.

Is that a blueprint for greatness? Perhaps it is, but Michigan State and Michigan still await (not to mention Purdue, which has exposed the Buckeyes before).

For a while, Iowa seemed like a team that could win with a genuinely great defense. The Hawkeyes were once ranked No. 2 in the country. They might have stayed there if the offense was remotely good. Instead, the Hawkeyes curled into a ball and waited for the punishment to end.

Penn State might have been great this year. Instead, the Nittany Lions endured their third straight loss in a close game in which the offense simply couldn't do enough. James Franklin, too, has been a very good coach -- good enough that he'll be denying interest in the USC job right up until he takes it. But he's also had the luxury of having his mounting résumé of losses in big games upstaged by Harbaugh.

Perhaps this is the lesson Saturday taught us: Greatness resides at Georgia, and the season's drama will come only from shuffling through a rotating cast of good teams never quite capable of rising to the Bulldogs' heights.

There's another month to go. There's still time for a challenger to emerge. Perhaps it's Ohio State. Perhaps it's Michigan State. Or perhaps it's another year in which the Big Ten's best comes up just short of being great.

Who's in?

The College Football Playoff committee is set to release its first rankings of the season on Tuesday, but you don't need to wait that long to get insight into its thinking. Let's break down all the key contenders and predict the committee's approach to each.

Cincinnati Bearcats (8-0)

Pros: They're undefeated, and they beat Notre Dame on the road.

Cons: They beat Notre Dame on the road, making it very difficult for the committee to then put Notre Dame in the playoff. Also, unlike Oklahoma's hard-fought and heroic five-point win over Tulane in Week 1, Cincinnati was only able to narrowly escape Tulane by 19 on Saturday.

Committee's take: It's a Group of Five team in a town that makes Group of Five chili.

Verdict: Cincinnati is out.

Georgia Bulldogs (8-0)

Pros: Undefeated with a dominant defense. Has wins over Florida, Kentucky, Auburn and Clemson. Plays in the SEC.

Cons: Not Alabama.

Committee's take: The Dawgs are the clear No. 1 team in the country, and we're OK saying that now because we trust Alabama will beat them in the SEC championship game (probably using its backup QB in the second half) to restore order to these chaotic times.

Verdict: Georgia is in.

Oregon Ducks (7-1)

Pros: Beat Ohio State in Columbus.Kayvon Thibodeauxis among the most feared defenders in the country. Saturday's 52-29 win against a solid Colorado defense was a reminder that the Ducks can be explosive.

Cons: Blew a lead and lost a heartbreaker against Stanford. Lack "game control," which is definitely a thing that matters.

Committee's take: Unfortunately, the committee forgot to assign anyone to watch Pac-12 games this season, assuming it was unnecessary.

Verdict: Oregon is out.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish (7-1)

Pros: Brian Kelly threatened to execute his team after Week 1, and yet they're still in the thick of the playoff race. The Irish have wins over Purdue, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, USC and North Carolina and many of those teams were quite good in the 1990s.

Cons: Notre Dame is not actually very good.

Committee's take: They lost to Cincinnati, forcing the committee to wrestle with allowing a Group of Five team into the playoff. They must be punished. Brian Kelly is just lucky the committee doesn't put the same voodoo curse on him they did Scott Frost.

Verdict: Notre Dame is out.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8-0)

Pros: Wake has one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The Deacons are 8-0 for the first time in program history. Saturday's 45-7 thumping of Duke was the Deacs' second straight game with more than 650 yards of offense. Likely to bring fresh Krispy Kreme doughnuts (founded in Winston-Salem!) to their playoff site.

Cons: Defense has been shaky at times. No signature wins.

Committee's take: Who?

Verdict: Wake Forest is out.

Alabama Crimson Tide (7-1)

Pros: Impressive wins over Ole Miss and ... hang on, we're sure there's more ... does Tennessee count? What about Florida? Oh, two points? Hmmm. Well, it's Alabama. Don't overthink it.

Cons: Tough to decide whether to get Dreamland or Archibald & Woodrow's barbecue.

Committee's take: Alabama is the defending champion, and the Tide are very good. Most of the analysis we have we just cut and pasted from last year, so best to go with that.

Verdict: Alabama is in.

Michigan State Spartans (8-0)

Pros:Undefeated, beat Michigan, have a great running back and a terrific defense. Mel Tucker knows Georgia's defense, too. That could be interesting.

Cons:Beating Jim Harbaugh in a rivalry game doesn't really count as a big win.

Committee's take: Look, if the Big Ten wanted a team in the playoff that wasn't Ohio State, it should have voted to expand to 12.There are consequences to your actions, The Alliance. Don't make us angry. You wouldn't like us when we're angry.

Verdict: Michigan State is out.

Oklahoma Sooners (8-0)

Pros: They're undefeated. They have tons of great jokes about Texas. The offense looks fantastic with Caleb Williams at QB. They can probably lend Spencer Rattlerto Georgia to help the SEC if need be.

Cons: They almost lost to Kansas. They're not in the SEC yet.

Committee's take: This is a tough one. If Oklahoma was already in the SEC and had wins over Vanderbilt or LSU, the Sooners would be a shoo-in. But West Virginia? Kansas State? Nebraska?

Verdict: Oklahoma is out.

Ohio State Buckeyes 7-1

Pros:They score 50 points any time they play a terrible team.

Cons:Playoff teams are usually not terrible.

Committee's take:They lost to Oregon at home, so how can we possibly put them in ahead of the Ducks? Oh, we can do whatever we want.

Verdict:Ohio State is in.

Texas A&M Aggies (6-2)

Pros: Beat Alabama. Plays in the SEC, where the brutal schedule includes teams like Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Cons: Lost to Arkansas and Mississippi State.

Committee's take: Look, we don't like letting two-loss teams into the playoff, but the Aggies beat Alabama, and our hands are tied.

Verdict: Texas A&M is in.

The Longhorns' month of misery

A quick refresher on how the month of October has treated Texas.

Back on Oct. 9, Texas jumped out to a 28-7 halftime lead over rival Oklahomaand led 41-30 entering the fourth quarter. Texas lost.

Then, on Oct. 16, the Longhorns opened up a 24-13 lead over Oklahoma State on a Bijan Robinson TD early in the third quarter and led 24-22 entering the fourth. Texas lost.

On Saturday, Texas again led at the half, scored early in the third quarter to go up 21-10, and held a 21-17 lead to start the fourth against Baylor. Again, Texas lost.

Now, an optimist might note that those three opponents are a combined 22-2 this year, and the fact that the Longhorns held a big lead against each says something about the talent level Steve Sarkisian is working with right now. Unfortunately, any remaining optimists in Austin have gone to live a life of solitude on Matthew McConaughey's free-range drum-circle ranch.

For the pessimists, however, there's not enough Shiner Bock in the state to drown these sorrows. Texas has now lost five games in the past two years when leading in the fourth quarter, most in the country. Texas has lost three straight when it had a fourth-quarter lead, also tied for the most in the past five seasons. And Texas is the first team to blow double-digit second-half leads in three straight games since 2006 Kansas.

You read that right: Kansas.

On the upside, now when people make Kansas jokes about Texas, it won't just be about the 2016 game.

Many happy returns for Houston

On the list of most painful ways to see an undefeated season come to an end, SMU has to be near the top of the pain pyramid.

The Mustangs traded blows with Houston throughout Saturday's game, with SMU falling behind 17-0, rallying to take a 27-23 lead, then trading scores three more times. The Mustangs kicked a field goal with 30 seconds to play to tie the game again at 37, then kicked off to Houston'sMarcus Jones.

This was a mistake.

Jones returned the kick 100 yards for a touchdown -- the first go-ahead kick return TD since Miami's infamous eight-lateral return to beat Duke in 2015, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. This one was far more clear-cut, but SMU still had a chance to win -- heaving a Hail Mary on the final play that fell incomplete in the end zone.

The win moves Houston to 7-1 and 5-0 in AAC play. SMU, too, is 7-1. How does this impact Cincinnati's playoff hopes? The Bearcats will likely end up playing both (SMU on Nov. 20, Houston in a likely AAC title game), but since neither team plays in a Power 5 league, it probably doesn't actually matter as much as a 54-10 win over Rutgers.

How Floridagot screwed, Part 109

Georgia used a flurry of turnovers late in the first half to build a 24-0 halftime lead over Florida on Saturday, then cruised through the second half behind another dominant defensive effort, winning 34-7 and locking up a spot in the SEC championship game.

That leaves Florida mired in a three-game losing streak, and the Gators have now dropped seven of their past 11. These are dark times at Florida.

But is this really Dan Mullen's fault the Gators are in free fall? We know last year's loss to Texas A&M was just because the Aggies had too many fans during a pandemic. And the bowl loss, well, the season was already over in Mullen's eyes. And as long as Florida plays Alabama close, that's pretty much as good as a win.

Then there's this Georgia game. There are literally a dozen valid explanations for Florida's struggles that Mullen could have offered if people were just willing to listen.

1. Nobody cares about the final three minutes of a half. Florida's first half ended at the 2:30 mark.

2. This game was played in the state of Florida, yet half the crowd was made up of Georgia fans. Why is that allowed to happen?

3. It's not fair that Georgia gets all the five-star defensive linemen. They should have to share. Bad neighbors, really.

4. Mark Richt lost control of our football rivalry.

5. Mullen spent the entire week picking out a really great mask to wear to his postgame news conference, but you guys were really mean to him so he decided not to wear it. (Note: It was Ted Lasso. He was going to be the only person this year to wear it.)

6. Don't you want to be mad at Todd Grantham? That's the whole reason Mullen keeps him around.

7. Mullen started the QB all the fans were begging him to start, so this is their fault, not his.

8. If we go by yardage, Florida actually won 355-354.

9. Mullen hasn't even seen Stetson Bennett I, II or III, how was he supposed to know what was going on with Stetson Bennett IV?

10. Georgia should have been flagged for too many men on the field on half of their defensive snaps because Mullen counts Jordan Davis as two people.

11. You guys would have loved the Ted Lasso costume. Mullen had a fake mustache and everything. Steve Spurrier was going to make a cameo as Coach Beard, but he left at halftime to drink a bunch of Coors Banquets in the parking lot.

12. It's the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Of course everyone had a few cocktails before the game.

Week 9 quick hits

* Purdue beat Nebraska 28-23 on Saturday, the sixth loss this season for the Huskers by a touchdown or less. That's the most by any team in the playoff era without a win in a one-possession game, and it's just one shy of the most one-possession losses in that span, period. (Army was 1-7 in 2015 and Notre Dame was 1-7 in 2016.) Nebraska is now 5-18 in one-possession games under Scott Frost, who is now probably two more close losses away from giving up, going on some sort of "Eat, Pray, Love" journey of self-healing, growing out his beard, getting really into Phish, then accepting the vacant head-coaching position at UConn.

* Here's a bit of trivia that might win you a free beer sometime down the road: Who's the first coach ever to be ejected for getting flagged twice for unsportsmanlike conduct? The answer: Bowling Green's Scot Loeffler, who was booted from Saturday's 56-44 win over Buffalo. But even while making history, Loeffler -- who serves as both head coach and playcaller for the Falcons -- probably didn't do much to convince fans he's an integral part of the team's chemistry.

* Remember when Iowa was the No. 2 team in the country? It was a wild time called ... um, two weeks ago. Back then, teams could win with defense, and that was a great plan for Iowa, which objects to scoring touchdowns on religious grounds. But the world changed somewhere around Oct. 15. Suddenly, scoring was all the rage. But Kirk Ferentz has never been one to follow the trends. He's got a closet full of Members Only jackets and Bugle Boy jeans. Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, points have become some sort of prerequisite for winning football games. Iowa lost for the second straight week -- and failed to top seven points for the second straight week -- falling to Wisconsin 27-7. The Hawkeyes finished with just 156 yards of offense, turned the ball over three times, ran for just 24 yards and were a combined 2-of-16 on third and fourth down. While those numbers might be good enough to beat Iowa State in September, it just doesn't fly in this brave new world.

* Until two weeks ago, Bo Nix had two career games in which he completed 70% of his throws, had 300 total yards, and averaged at least 9 yards per pass against an SEC opponent. Now he's done it two games in a row. Nix was spectacular against Ole Miss on Saturday, completing 22-of-30 for 276 yards and scoring three total touchdowns, as the Tigers cruised to a 31-20 win. We're now living in a "Bo Nix is a Good QB" world. Stock up on bottled water and beef jerky. The end is near.

* Washington State had no problem with Arizona State, jumping out to a 28-0 lead and cruising to a 34-21 win that dropped the Sun Devils to 5-3. Arizona State coach Herm Edwards took full responsibility for the loss afterward and -- oh, no, that's actually not what happened at all.

* In Arizona's past 16 games, it has scored more than 28 just twice. The first time was last year's opener against USC. The second time was Saturday -- against USC. Sure, the Trojans won 41-34, but the 466 yards of offense was the Wildcats' most in two years. USC might want to fire Clay Helton again, just to be safe.

Heisman Five

Kenny Pickett's Heisman candidacy took a hit as Pitt was upset by Miami. Never mind that Pickett has 901 yards and nine TD passes in Pitt's two losses. Syracuse's Sean Tucker, Oklahoma's Caleb Williams and Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder all made emphatic statements Saturday, too. Yet none of them make our top five for Week 9.

1. Georgia DT Jordan Davis

Entering Saturday's game against Florida, Georgia's defense was allowing just 2.66 yards per play against other Power 5 teams when Davis was on the field -- nearly a yard-and-a-half better than any other defense. So what happened against the Gators, who arrived as easily the biggest test of the year for Davis and the Dawgs' D? A garbage-time TD was Florida's only score. UGA's defense scored a TD and set up two more. Davis finished with just a half-sack and a QB hurry, but that's beside the point. He's the engine that makes the whole thing go, and he's been the best player in college football this season.

2. Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III

After a quiet week against Indiana in his last outing, Walker's Heisman hype dimmed a tad. That won't be a problem anymore. In Michigan State's biggest win of the season, Walker nearly single-handedly kept Sparty undefeated, rushing for 197 yards and five touchdowns. Walker is the first player with five or more rushing TDs against a top-10 opponent since 2001. He's topped 200 scrimmage yards three times this season.

3. Alabama QB Bryce Young

Alabama was off this week, but the Miami Dolphins have formally requested they get to use Young instead of Tua Tagovailoa on Sunday.

4.Ohio State QBC.J. Stroud

It wasn't an exceptional offensive effort for the Buckeyes in their 33-24 win over Penn State, but Stroud got the job done. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown, and he kept Ohio State's playoff hopes alive against a stout Penn State D.

5. Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman

Wake absolutely destroyed Duke, and Hartman was at the center of it all, racking up 463 total yards and five touchdowns. For the season, Hartman now has 2,683 total yards, 28 touchdowns and just three turnovers this season. In the playoff era, the only other players to post a 2,600/28/3 line or better through their first eight games are Marcus Mariota in his Heisman season of 2014, J.T. Barrett in 2017 and Zach Wilson last year.

Under-the-radar play of the week

If you missed even a moment of the Liberty-UMass game -- well, good for you. That was a moment well spent. But if you suffered through the Flames' 62-17 win, at least you got to see one truly epic catch along the way.

From Liberty, you ask? Ah, sort of. From a Liberty cheerleader. Watch for the TD signals from the Liberty defenders. It's perfect. Unfortunately, UMass coach Walt Bell's request to let all his receivers play with cheer horns the remainder of the game was denied. Seems unfair.

Under-the-radar game of the week

There have been so many memorable moments in the Clemson-Florida Staterivalry over the years -- from Nick O'Leary trucking Travis Blanks in 2013 to FSU's miracle OT win in 2014, from the FSU professor reading a book while shirtless in the stands during a blowout Clemson win in 2018 to Dabo Swinney and Mike Norvell's raging feud after the Seminoles canceled last year's game with just a few hours' notice.

Indeed, the two teams have accounted for every ACC championship since 2011. This year, though, the game had a little less luster. FSU came in 3-4. Clemson was 4-3. Both teams have endured their share of misery. So, perhaps it wasn't the marquee event of the ACC season as it had been for so many years. It was still -- well, good is the wrong word. But it had drama.

FSU's Lawrance Toafili set a record for degree of difficulty on a 75-yard TD reception. Clemson's Will Shipley ran for 128 yards and two touchdowns, the first thing that could reasonably be called exciting offense for the Tigers all season. Clemson missed three field goals and coughed up a scoop-and-score TD to the Seminoles, but Shipley's last TD run put the Tigers in position to win.

But the real excitement came for anyone who bet on this one. The Tigers were favored by 9.5. The Tigers haven't covered a point spread all year. They led by four on the game's final play. The over/under was 47.5. The score when FSU took its final snap was 24-20. So, what happened? The Seminoles tried to engineer a last-gasp score by completing a pass, then lateraling back ... and back ... and back until fumbling the final lateral, which was recovered by Clemson in the end zone for a touchdown.

Clemson wins by 10, and the game score totals 50. Fortunes won and lost on the dumbest of possible endings. It's why college football is so great.

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