xThe Big 10 has not one, not two, but three teams in the Associated Press top 10. Looking farther afield, there is some disagreement as to whether Michigan or Ohio State should come first. The qualitative analysts tend to lean Michigan, based on recent performance, returning production and how each team’s scheme and personnel line up against one other. The fancystats tend to lean OSU, based on the program’s higher overall talent base (measured in recruiting rankings). All agree that Penn State clocks in 3rd, but also agree that the Nittany Lions are closing the gap with their rivals for the East Division crown.
In this article I will assess the likelihood of each team winning the East, hedging frequently and furiously enough that you won’t be able tell me I was dead wrong unless Maryland goes 12-0.
So, without further ado, your contenders…
University of Michigan
2022 Record: 13-1 (9-0), 1st in the East
In 2022, Michigan went undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1997, advancing to the Big 10 Championship Game and College Football Playoff. UM had a dominant +328 point differential (+27.3 ppg) during the regular season. Only two of their regular season wins were even decided by less than 10 points: a 19-17 home win over Illinois and a 34-27 home win over Maryland, which wasn’t really as close as it looks on paper (though the Illinois game absolutely was). UM soundly defeated the other contenders for the East Division crown, beating OSU by 21 (in Columbus) and PSU by 24 (in Ann Arbor).
In 2023, Michigan returns most of its 2022 production and has done well plugging potential holes via the transfer portal. Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards are the best RB tandem in the country, while QB JJ McCarthy is poised for significant improvement in his 2nd year as starter. Colston Loveland is a rising superstar at TE and the OL looks fully reloaded to anchor Harbaugh’s brutal offense from the trenches.
Look for Harbaugh and Sherrone Moore to create mismatches in the passing game by flanking Edwards out as an extra WR and getting Loveland isolated in space, where he is too athletic for most LBs and too big for most DBs. If McCarthy can run the ball just enough times, and refine his deep ball, Michigan’s offense will be very difficult to handle.
Michigan’s defense, for that matter, looks promising but has a few question marks. The DL should be a strength, with DTs Kris Jenkins and Mason Graham both poised for breakout years. They will be flanked by Sr. DE Jaylen Harrell and incoming transfer Josiah Stewart, who had a very successful career at Coastal Carolina. The LB corps may be the deepest since Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor, returning Junior Colson and Michael Barrett while adding top-notch Nebraska transfer Ernest Hausmann.
The defensive backfield, on the other hand, may be a weakness; Field Corner Will Johnson and Nickel Mike Sainristil are as good as anyone in the conference, but the Boundary Corner position opposite Johnson is still a question mark. UM will need to decide between the solid, predictable option (UMASS transfer Josh Wallace), the high-upside athlete (converted WR Amorion Walker) or the talented-but-oft-injured (Ja’Den McBurrows). Bottom line, If Michigan can identify a solid 3rd starting corner (and remain healthy), this should be a top 10 defense again. If not, Michigan will need to compensate with scheme - a tactic that can work, but always comes at a cost.
(an) Ohio State University
2022: 11-1 (8-1), 2nd in the East
In 2022, OSU went 8-1 in the Big 10 and 11-1 overall, securing a place in the College Football Playoff. OSU had an impressive +303 point differential (+25.3 ppg) during the regular season. OSU’s only loss came to Michigan. None of their 11 wins were close (i.e. within 10 points).
OSU returns a decent percentage of its production from 2022, but loses several key contributors. Of course, Ryan Day’s program is built to reload (not rebuild) on a yearly basis. No team in the Big 10 has a talent base as deep or rich as OSU’s, which means there will be top-tier athletes at every position. Whether that’s enough to win the East back from Michigan is another story.
OSU will boast the best WR tandem in the country, with Marvin Harrison Jr. a likely top 5 draft pick after this season. However, the team loses its Heisman caliber QB CJ Stroud, who was one of the best pure passers I’ve ever seen in college football. Presumed starter Kyle McCord will almost certainly be good; the question is how good. I thought he looked fine in the Spring Game, but fine is a major step down from Stroud. That said, when you’re throwing to Harrison and Emeka Egbuka, you’ve got a very comfortable margin of error.
Look for OSU to use RBs Trayveon Henderson and Miyan Williams to take the pressure off of McCord. Both are highly capable backs, though injury prone. OSU’s OL gets an incomplete as the team loses some major production there - but, as noted above, OSU tends to reload not rebuild, so it’s less a question of whether they’ll be good -and more one of how good.
I’m less confident in the defense, to be honest. I love OSU’s linebacking corps, but I’m not sure Knowles’ aggressive 4–2-5 makes the best use of them. The secondary played poorly against Michigan and Georgia, but there’s some turnover there (which, in this case, might not be a bad thing). The DL projects to be good, but lacks the dominant playmaker OSU has often had under Larry Johnson.
Ultimately I think the defense will be good enough to handle most of the teams on OSU’s schedule, but may continue to struggle again against teams with a combination of power on the line and speed at the skill positions, i.e. the Michigans and Georgias of the world.
Penn State University
2022: 11-2 (7-2), 3rd in the East
In 2022, PSU went 10-2 (8-2) for third place in the East Division. PSU had a respectable +214 point differential (+17.8 ppg). PSU lost to both Michigan (Ann Arbor) and OSU (State College). Two of their 10 wins were decided by 10 points or less, a 35-31 road win over eventual West champions Purdue and an inexplicable 17-7 rock fight at home against West division bottom dwellers Northwestern.
There is a lot of excitement in PSU quarters over the 2023 roster, and for good reason. PSU return a dynamic set of RBs in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen, who should be running behind PSU’s best OL in years. WR is a major question mark, though - as PSU loses the electric WR Parker Washington. Fans are hoping that transfer WR Dante Cephas can fill his shoes.
The biggest change, though, comes at the pivotal QB position. After several years of “good but not quite good enough” during the Sean Clifford era, PSU fans are generally excited to see what rising sophomore Drew Allar brings to the table. Allar is a big guy (6’ 5”, 243 lbs) with a big arm, so it’s easy to see why fans are excited. In the Spring Game, he demonstrated patience and good field vision, but accuracy was an issue. Allar’s completion percentage in high school was under 60 percent, and the Spring Game wasn't exactly inspiring on that front. I’m not sure how good he will be as a runner, but he does look hard to take down.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure Allar will be better than Clifford - at least not immediately. Clifford was never that accurate of a passer, but he made up for that with pocket presence and ability to stretch defenses with his legs. PSU fans may come to miss Clifford’s veteran leadership and decision making while Allar grows into the role - and based on the tape I’ve watched, I’m pretty sure there will be growing pains. But PSU has a fairly soft start to the season, so there’s time. The second half of the season, on the other hand, features a brutal stretch when PSU play OSU, Maryland and Michigan over a span of four weeks. If Allar takes much longer than that to develop, PSU’s season could look an awful lot like it did in 2022. Or worse.
On defense, PSU returns nearly everyone from a very strong front 7, who should only get better with maturity and extra time in the weight room. They aren’t especially big, but they are fast, disciplined and aggressive. This isn’t ideal against bigger OL, but will be an advantage against the lighter, faster OL that spread teams generally prefer. The secondary loses CB Joey Porter Jr. and S Ji’ayir Brown to the NFL, so PSU’s secondary might struggle with elite WRs. But 2nd year DC Manny Diaz is a proven commodity who has enjoyed success every time he’s coordinated a defense, so I expect a strong performance overall from this group.
After rewatching all 3 games from 2022, a few things stuck out at me. First, all the games were close until they weren’t - each was within 3 points in the 3rd quarter but were ultimately decided by an average of 19.67 points. There are a couple ways to read that. One is more charitable to the losers - that if just a small number of plays went the other way, they could have pulled it off. The other is less charitable - that the winners simply had a 5th gear that the losers did not. I’m more in the latter camp. UM were clearly the best of the 3 teams, wearing down and ultimately torching both opponents in the 2nd half in ways that felt more structural than contingent.
Against Michigan, OSU started strong but fell apart in the second half. They probably should have run Stroud 3-5 more times to take advantage of the bend-but-don’t-break scheme Michigan’s defense ran - but for whatever reason didn’t. Defensively, they looked panicked and lost. Much like UM’s defense in the 2018 and 2019 blowouts, OSU did not look prepared for their opponent’s speed at the skill positions; making things worse, they were clearly rattled by the experience and lost discipline.
Ohio State did better against PSU. The Buckeyes struggled early with PSU’s aggression on defense but they eventually found their rhythm. Defensively, they did what they needed to do - most notably getting 3 INTs at the line of scrimmage.
Penn State looked outclassed late in both games, but also made some unforced errors that can be corrected in practice (turnovers, penalties, etc.). On the flip side, Sean Clifford and Parker Washington were responsible for keeping the team in both games as long as they were, and now both are gone.
Both PSU and OSU’s chances to supplant Michigan and win the East will in large part come down to how their new QBs perform. As discussed above, I’m less concerned about McCord, given OSU’s superlative WR corps. Allar may take a while to develop, which creates risks for the 2023 campaign. This is why so many PSU fans wanted him to start over Clifford after it was clear PSU would not make the CFP - to get the inevitable mistakes and on-the-job learning out of the way, thereby optimizing a 2023 run.
Each team has other potential weaknesses. Aside from the secondary (discussed above), UM also lose their superb kicker and punter; though good recruiting and transfers might provide continuity there, we won’t know that for sure until the season starts. If UM’s kicking game is a major step down from 2023, it’s a problem. OSU loses some top-flight talent on the OL, will feature a new-look secondary and will have to wait and see whether their talented RBs can stay healthy. PSU lacks a proven playmaker at WR and faces life after S Ji’ayir Brown and CB Joey Porter Jr., both of whom were elite defensive backs at the college level. Like Michigan, however, PSU did very well in the portal.
Keeping all this in mind, UM does feel like the obvious favorite. The Wolverines come in with the best recent track record, are the most balanced (in terms of offensive and defensive performance), are the only one with a returning QB and, through a combination of brutal running and WR speed, have a unique ability to control the tempo of games. But the others have their advantages too. OSU may experience a step down at QB but also has the best depth and a unique ability to break games wide open with the passing game. PSU has the most question marks, particularly on offense, though may have the best defense of the three.
Matchups and Contingencies
Football isn’t decided only by objective strengths and weaknesses, but how teams match up against one another. This is why the transitive property rarely works. It’s also worth nothing that our preseason lens is imperfect at best. After all, what experts had Michigan going a miserable 2-4 during the COVID year? Or, after that disastrous outing, had Cade McNamara leading the Wolverines to victory over the Buckeyes? I certainly did not. Neither did noted prognosticator Phil Steele, who had the Wolverines ranked #15 going into 2020 and unranked behind OSU, PSU, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa in 2021. The lesson here is that we only sorta know what’s what at this point.
That said, based purely on what we know (and what we think we know) right now, I’d say the matchup advantages remain mostly - but not fully - in tact from 2022. Neither OSU or PSU’s defenses feel well suited to stopping Michigan’s offense, while OSU’s WRs could pose a bigger threat to PSU’s secondary than they did in 2022.
But then there’s all the stuff we don’t know right now. At the risk of beating a dead horse, OSU’s roster is better constructed to whether injuries than either UM or PSU. And while I’ve expressed skepticism over whether McCord and Allar are upgrades at QB, it’s possible that either could end up being better suited to these specific games than Clifford or Stroud were (for example, if a much taller Allar avoids throwing multiple INTs to OSU’s DL or a more utilitarian McCord runs for 3-5 extra first downs against UM.)
Home/away also flips in 2023, and that could prove consequential. I think it’s likely most to impact the head-to-head between Michigan and Penn State. In the last 6 games played before a full stadium, Michigan are 4-2 against PSU. UM are 3-0 with a +88 in point differential (+29.33 points-per-game) in the games played in Ann Arbor. By contrast, UM are 1-2 in State College with a -32 point differential (-10.67 ppg). Caveats for small sample size apply, but that’s a whopping 40 ppg swing. Those numbers are inflated by a couple years when one team was just better than the other and happened to play at home (e.g. PSU’s win over UM in 2017 or UM’s win over PSU in 2018). But the swing is real.
All things being equal, home field advantage in this series does feel very significant - maybe not worth 40 points, but a 10-point handicap seems reasonable. State College is a tough place to win as a visitor, especially when Penn State has a roster as good as they project to have this year - and we know for a fact that Michigan just performs better when they play PSU in Ann Arbor (and vice versa). At the least, the 2023 game should be closer than it was in 2022; Michigan fans should be emotionally prepared for a battle.
OSU is 5-1 against PSU over the last 6 games played before a full stadium, but many of those games have been decided by less than 10 points - and half were decided by a field goal or less. Here’s how that breaks down in terms of home/away: OSU is 3-0 at home with a +21 point differential (+7 ppg) and 2-1 on the road, where the point differential is only +11 (+3.67 ppg). Home field advantage seems to be worth about a field goal (3 pts.) in this series. The game is in Columbus this year.
Finally, there’s The Game. Ohio State has a 4-2 advantage over Michigan across the past 6 games played in front of a full stadium. Michigan has won the last 2 games, though - one each in Ann Arbor and Columbus. In terms of point differential, OSU has a +4 advantage in Columbus (1.33 ppg) and +23 in Ann Arbor (7.67 ppg).
At first glance, this suggests that OSU perform better in Ann Arbor than Columbus - but a closer look at the games themselves may suggest otherwise. In 2016, Michigan came to Columbus with a team most experts expected to win - and would have if a late 4th down spot had been made correctly (#refs!). Had the game been played in Ann Arbor, I suspect Michigan would have won comfortably. By contrast, UM’s 2017 team was just not on par with OSU - I doubt the Wolverines could have kept the game that close had they played in Columbus.
The next 2 games were both OSU blowouts where home field advantage doesn’t seem to have made much difference, and the final 2 were UM blowouts where - again - home field advantage doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. So, home field advantage in this series definitely feels less consequential than it does in the other series discussed above. It might tilt a close one but likely won’t affect games where one team has a clear advantage over the other.
What all of this suggests is this: Michigan remain the presumptive favorite, but home field advantage could help PSU upset the returning champs - while in the other matchups, the home/away flip either benefits the presumptive favorites or doesn’t make much difference one way or the other.
Hexes and Curses
The final piece of the puzzle is black magic, or as it’s alternately known in the world of scientific inquiry, “team psychology.” This manifests as winning streaks that, to fans, seem equal parts improbable and inevitable. But how else do you explain OSU’s recent 15-1 streak against Michigan, including years where Michigan were clearly the better team? Or the preceding years when UM went 10-3-1 against OSU, including years when OSU were clearly the better team? Or PSU repeatedly losing in increasingly heartbreaking ways to OSU? Or anything that happens in !El Assico!
Well, there are 2 explanations: either someone put a hex on your favorite team, or the dynamic of losing every year creates a causally significant difference in how teams perform in specific games, and how they react to contingencies within those games. I remember watching good UM teams make mistakes and against also-good OSU teams and seemingly lose faith that they could pull it off. This, in turn, would lead one or another of our players to take unnecessary risks in desperation to reverse the dynamic, only to see the enemy capitalize further on those desperation moves. The past two years I watched it happen in reverse. Late in the 2021 game, I watched the Buckeye defense stand around with their hands on their hips as Hassan Haskins took a leisurely stroll into the end zone. In 2022 the schadenfreude was even more delicious: when the Wolverines started to pull away from the Buckeyes, I watched OSU defenders panic and lose discipline, leading to fun things like the Colston Loveland touchdown pictured above. Hexes and curses may not be real, but team psychology absolutely is a factor.
Right now the social psychology favors UM in its rivalry with OSU, favors OSU in its matchup against PSU and is fairly nonexistent outside the aforementioned home/away dynamic when UM and PSU play each other. Eventually, all streaks end - so nothing is set in stone. But it’s hard not to see this as an advantage for the hot hand.
With all that in mind, here are my predictions coupled with my degree of confidence in those predictions:
- UM over PSU (neutral field confidence 65%; home/away adjusted confidence 55%)
- OSU over PSU (neutral field confidence 65%, home/away adjusted confidence 70%)
- UM over OSU (neutral field confidence 60%, home/away adjusted confidence 65%)
As you can see, I’m most confident about OSU beating PSU at home and least confident about UM beating PSU on the road. Smart money has UM repeating for one last time before approximately 75% of the starting 22 depart in the offseason. But in all cases, there is enough uncertainty that player development outcomes, injuries, game planning, errors and other contingencies could flip the actual outcomes. Any of the outcomes.
The Triangle Scenario
Taking home/away into account suggest there is a very real possibility we will end up with a triangle - where every team goes 1-1 against each other. In-game contingencies could make this a reality: inspired game planning by the one or another coaching staff, a great or terrible play call on a pivotal play, unforced errors by the presumptive favorites, untimely injuries to vital personnel, lucky/unlucky bounces or the individual psychology of a key player as the pressure mounts. So how would the conference champion be chosen then? The simplest way would be if one of these teams lost another conference game. But how likely is that?
All 3 teams play Maryland, who project to be 4th in the East. Maryland are dangerous in the sense that they have a dynamic quarterback and a lot of team speed. On paper, this poses the biggest issue for PSU, since QB Taulia Tagovailoa has the ability to escape pressure, while his WRs may be able to take advantage of PSU’s new-look secondary. The same applies for OSU and UM, of course, but there’s no way OSU are losing a track meet against Maryland. UM have the ability to grind opposing defenses into dust, then murder with speed. On paper that should be enough to handle the Terps - but Maryland did acquit themselves fairly well against Michigan last year.
It’s worth noting that both PSU and UM play Maryland at inopportune times. PSU goes to Maryland a week before hosting Michigan, which makes it a trap game. UM plays Maryland a week after visiting PSU and a week before hosting OSU, which makes it a double-trap game. OSU, by contrast, gets Maryland at home in the middle of the softest part of their schedule. OSU is thus most likely to escape this one with a win, with PSU and UM a bit more at risk.
In most years, MSU would be expected to be competitive in the East, and especially so against cross-state rivals Michigan. But while MSU’s defense should be good (especially the DL), the Spartans will be playing without their top WR (NFL), talented second WR (transferred to FSU) and QB (transferred to Auburn). I just don’t see how they’ll have the horses to keep up with the division’s best teams.
If UM, OSU and PSU do form the triangle, and beat everyone else in the East, the Division crown would go to whichever team has the best resume against the Big 10 West. Could someone actually lose to one of their West opponents?
Michigan almost lost to Illinois at home last year, so it’s possible. PSU draws Iowa at home - though Iowa should be much improved on offense, and typically stout on defense, it’s a white out and that’s a big advantage for the Nittany Lions. OSU goes to Madison to play Luke Fickell’s new-look Badgers, but given drastic changes in offensive scheme, I suspect this will be an up and down year for Wisconsin. Purdue made some good moves in the transfer portal, but probably isn’t harboring anyone this year. UM and OSU both play Minnesota (probably okay but not better than okay), while UM also plays Nebraska in Matt Rhule’s first year (also probably okay but not better than okay),
Now we get into the truly exotic scenarios! If UM, PSU and PSU all go 3-0 against West opponents, it comes down to the combined record of those West opponents. If we estimate this using, say, Athlon’s preseason rankings, the 3 team’s West opponents shake out like this:
- UM: #7 Nebraska, #8 Minnesota, #11 Purdue - average #8.67
- OSU: #4 Wisconsin, #8 Minnesota, #11 Purdue - average #7.67
- PSU: #5 Iowa, #7 Illinois, #14 Northwestern - average #8.67
That would translate to a slight OSU advantage in this exotic-albeit-plausible scenario). Of course it won’t end up that way, but we don’t know the directionality of our errors, so this is all we have to work with.
Ultimately, I think the best chance for one of the contenders to lose to someone other than each other is PSU at Maryland, but even there I’d favor PSU. Sure, OSU might lose in South Bend but until Notre Dame realizes the Big 10 is its true home, the game doesn’t really matter much. And, to be honest, I don’t think they are going to lose to ND anyway.
Nope, I fully expect that we’ll either see a total repeat of last year - which will make anyone who isn’t tied to Ann Arbor groan - or a triangle scenario where we have to go to the 5th tiebreaker criteria or whatever so we can figure out who gets to beat the West champion in Indianapolis. That would be a fittingly dumb end to the stupidly unbalanced East/West era of Big 10 football. Sorry guys.
If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would place a bet on Michigan winning its third Big 10 Championship in a row. Though I’ve been at pains to stress that other outcomes are possible, it’s hard for me to shake the feeling that OSU and PSU, in their current iterations, just aren’t optimized for this fight. That will change. After the 2023 season, UM projects to lose most of its starters on both offense and defense. That year the Wolverines will travel to Columbus in what feels like a perfect opportunity for Ryan Day to reverse the narrative (if he hasn’t done so already or, stupidly, been fired). And unless they hit pay dirt in the portal, Michigan will likely drop a couple more along the way. So 2023 really is UM’s best shot at winning it all. For a while at least.
Final Thoughts: I Love Hating Your Teams
I am, of course, a partisan. I graduated from the great University of Michigan during the Lloyd Carr era and have been a fan since childhood. I am absolutely rooting for us to crush both OSU and PSU, en route to a National Championship. But like many Michigan fans (hi RMB), I’m naturally pessimistic. I did not pick Michigan to beat OSU in either 2021 or 2022. In fact, the last time I had Michigan as preseason favorites to beat OSU was 2012.
This is an aftereffect of losing to our rivals so many times, in so many ways, over the past 2 decades. There were Michigan teams that could have beaten OSU, and almost did, but didn’t (2002, 2004, 2006, 2012, 2016), teams that had no business competing with OSU but almost pulled off the upset (2013, 2014, 2017), teams that could have been competitive but just were not (2007, 2015, 2018) and teams that were significantly worse than OSU and things ended about how you would expect them to (2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2019). If we beat OSU this year, I have to wonder whether those days of collective pessimism will finally be over. Probably not, because we are in general a miserable lot.
All that said, I can’t shake my apprehension about the PSU game. I do think we match up well against them, on paper, but I have a healthy fear of that stadium - second only to Kinnick in my estimation. And their defense should be very good.
A part of me agonizes over the triangle scenario, but let’s face it: dumb outcomes we can argue over endlessly are a big part of what makes college football fun and unique. As we slide into an era where these outcomes are less meaningful, where the triangle of UM, OSU and PSU could all end up in the playoff, there will be less for us to talk about other than an all-consuming, sure-to-expand tournament. Coupled with the Big 10’s expansion westward, we may end up feeling like our quirky, riotous little community has been diluted past the point of recognition.
I hope that never happens, I hope I still hate all your teams as much as I do now and I hope we still get together to argue about spots, stats, players and outcomes like we always have.