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Roundtable: The Big Ten East is tough, but Michigan’s near the top

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NCAA Football: Air Force at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: Hey, gentlemen! How is life?

Ed: No complaints here. Ready for a little Big Ten football to kickoff this weekend!

(after a long delay)

Andrew: I made it! Sorry for the delay! Let’s freaking do this!

Nick: Alright!! So I want to get your thoughts on the Big Ten East three weeks into the year. Michigan fans are pretty focused on how the Wolverines look, and rightfully so, but there are some interesting storylines going on that impact Michigan less directly. Down in Columbus, Ohio State fans are fretting, too.

Andrew: Ohio State fans have good reason to fret. The Buckeyes’ pass defense last year was outstanding compiling 21 interceptions, holding opponents to 172.2 yards per game, and a completion percentage below 50 (48.9). This season however, the team from Columbus is allowing 275.0 yards per game and a completion percentage of 64.0.

Ed: The Ohio State secondary is a lot like Michigan’s this year -- breaking in some young talent after losing a ton to the NFL (three starters in the first round of the NFL Draft). I certainly expected there to be some growing pains early in the season, but they had it tough playing two very potent passing attacks in their first two contests, first on the road against Indiana and then when Oklahoma came to town. Last week must have been a relief to play a military academy. Nonetheless, there are certainly many questions lingering out there with the Buckeyes.

Nick: So that kind of leads me to a larger question, which is how much of this is simply fans being impatient and how much is it legit, serious flaws? I mean, keeping with Ohio State, Buckeye fans are also expressing frustration with J.T. Barrett and the OSU pass game, but I’m sure a lot of Michigan fans would take J.T. Barrett in a heartbeat (if, of course, you could cure him of his Buckeye-ness, which I hear is terminal.)

Andrew: Nick, I believe that disease is recognized by the CDC now, but I could be wrong. This is a deeply flawed Buckeye team and flaws are nowhere more evident than at quarterback. Barrett struggles moving the ball any further than 10 yards and this is clear in his yards-per-attempt average dropping from 9.0 in 2014 to 7.3 this season.

Nick: To be fair to him, though, it made his life really easy at the start of his career when he could throw to Michael Thomas, Devin Smith, and a half-dozen other athletes ranging from small and quick to big and fast. I think Barrett is a bit of a scapegoat right now for Ohio State’s depth issues at wide receiver. Youth isn’t helping, either.

Ed: I think you’re spot on with your “scapegoat” theory. If you look back at the last few seasons, the Buckeyes were absolutely loaded with talent, and so much has been made of Urban Meyer’s ability to recruit and his “next man up” program that fans lose patience when the first guy off the bench isn’t an immediate superstar.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Barrett’s issue, it seems, is that his career has just been too long. The guy hasn’t progressed the last year-plus and that has fans upset. It’s not so unlike what Michigan fans are experiencing early this season watching Wilton Speight. There’s an expectation at schools like Michigan and Ohio State that players will continually get better until they leave, and Barrett hasn’t shown much improvement lately. That said, does he still have the ability to lead an offense to some victories in big games? No question.

Andrew: Barrett has had a decorated career and a trajectory that he was unable to fulfil for a few reasons. In 2014, he finished fifth in the Heisman voting, (this is the turning point for me) but his injury against Michigan seemed to set him back. Not to mention, the next season he was splitting reps with Cardale Jones and any fan knows confidence is a vital trait in elite quarterbacks. The combination of the injury and confidence killing time share has created the quarterback we see today. Not to mention, the dude has been in college for a decade.

Nick: How good are the Buckeyes? Do we know right now? It’s not just the passing game that’s gotten fans in Columbus worried - the aforementioned pass defense has been a nightmare and some people are trying to find explanations for a program that seems to have lost some momentum. I’ve heard people talking about Urban Meyer’s final years in Florida when entitlement set in, and I started looking back at some of UFM’s past coaching staffs (with Charlie Strong, Greg Mattison, Dan Mullen, D.J. Durkin, Steve Addazio, Teryl Austin, etc.) and wondering whether there’s enough depth behind Kevin Wilson and Greg Schiano on this one. Is this all overreacting?

Ed: To a certain degree, yes, this is pretty much overreacting (in my humble opinion). There’s certainly evidence that the Buckeyes are off to a slow start from a development standpoint, and looking back at Urban Meyer’s past coaching staffs it’s obvious why his teams were so darn good at Florida, but it’s still only Week 4.

The Buckeyes fell to No. 10 nationally this week, which is their lowest ranking since 2014. An early-season loss to a dominant Oklahoma team, regardless of where it was played, doesn’t concern me as much in mid-September. Ohio State was off to a very slow start in 2014 and that campaign ended fairly well for them. All of that said, are there very real issues still to fix? Absolutely.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: I think there certainly is an aspect of fans wanting instantaneous and unceasing success from their programs - just today, I overheard a co-worker complaining about Matt Stafford against the Giants in a game that was largely a success for the team as a whole. Fans can be pretty hard to please.

Ed: Especially fans who have gotten used to winning, like Ohio State has done for decades. Michigan fans went through it (though to a much tougher degree) after Lloyd Carr retired. Penn State fans went through it after their whole fiasco in 2011 -- and look, five years later they won the conference and are now a Top 5 team early in 2017.

Nick: And yet those Penn State fans were ready to give James Franklin the boot after Michigan pummeled them 49-10 last year.

Andrew: How quickly winning can cure everything. It doesn’t hurt to have the best player in the country (Saquon Barkley) on your team either.

Nick: Alright, so let’s shift over a little bit to Penn State. Is it, going back to something we touched on briefly earlier, is it too early right now to distinguish between Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State at the top of the conference?

Ed: At this point, I think Penn State is clearly the best team in the conference. But still, like you said, Michigan destroyed them in Week 4 last year and Nittany Lion fans wanted Franklin gone. A few weeks later, they beat the Buckeyes and suddenly they were a new team. So I think while, yes, they are playing very well out of the gate in 2017, there’s still a whole lot of football to be played before we start crowning Big Ten Champions.

Andrew: I could not agree more, Ed. No one would have predicted Penn State winning the conference after that starching in Ann Arbor. But for now, yes they are the best team and the betting favorite to win the conference.

Ed: But that also makes sense, given the way they ended 2016 and how many starters they had returning this year. The team was basically just a carryover from a Rose Bowl squad, except with guys like Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley with another year of experience under their belts.

Nick: That’s a really good point - Michigan and Ohio State have both had some heavy attrition to the NFL the last year or two, while Penn State returned a heavy amount of their key contributors from a year ago.

So how should fans handle a young team? A decent portion of the Michigan fanbase clearly isn’t happy, even though the team is 3-0 and ranked top ten in the polls. And I’m a little hesitant to wag a finger at them (for various reasons), even though I do think people are being pretty harsh on this team three games in.

Andrew: At Michigan, greatness is expected, but circumstances must have some dictation. My advice to fans: be patient. I implore patience with this young team. This team is a comprised of padawan learners and they are going to make mistakes on the quest to becoming Jedi (I love Star Wars).

Nick: I think the Florida game ended up being a double-edged sword (okay, Darth Maul’s lightsaber, if we’re going to be consistent), because of how well this team looked on Day 1. The ‘glass half full’ perspective, I suppose, is that this team is better under the bright lights, because a bigger stage helps them focus - anybody who remembers watching some young Michigan basketball teams gain and lose and regain focus will know that young teams can be frustratingly inconsistent in the ‘focus’ department - and this football team is simply not consistent enough to keep that same intensity for games like Cincinnati. That’s an optimistic take on it.

Ed: Well, if that’s the case then they should be in good shape over the next several weeks. Thanks to the last couple performances from both Michigan and Purdue, Saturday’s matchup with the Boilermakers is actually being considered a game to keep your eye on. After that they’ll get a Michigan State squad that looks to have rebounded to a certain degree this year, then a pesky Indiana team, then a road game at Penn State. If this team is going to develop, it better start doing it quickly.

NCAA Football: Towson at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: I think that’s a good segue to really quickly hit on the rest of the Big Ten East - is it Michigan, OSU, and Penn State at the top, Maryland, Michigan State and Indiana in the middle, and Rutgers still leading from behind? I mean, overall, this division has looked really good.

Andrew: Nail on the head man. But I think it ends with the middle………………………. And then Rutgers. The middle of this division intrigues me, especially with how Durkin has the Terrapins playing early.

Ed: This is going to be a very tough division this year. Last year, while some called it the best division in the country, others knocked it for having weak teams like Maryland, MSU and Indiana. This year (excluding, obviously, Rutgers), this division looks strong top to bottom. There won’t be any cakewalks in the conference schedule in 2017 (excluding, obviously, Rutgers).

Nick: I’ll say this about Maryland - I was on their bandwagon during the off-season for them being middle-tier, but I also think we shouldn’t overreact to their win against Texas. They’re a run offense and run defense team with a coach who’s very smart and gets his guys to play hard. And they’re getting some 6’0”+ guys filtering into their secondary, and some good young guys in the pass game. But they are what they are, a good two-dimensional team.

Ed: Maryland is certainly going to make some noise in the conference this year.