Big Ten blues: A rough start for trio of storied programs

Jim Harbaugh Michigan Indiana Football
Posted at 9:09 PM, Nov 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-12 21:09:45-05

When Nebraska hosts Penn State this weekend, it will be a matchup between two of the most storied programs in the Big Ten — neither of which has played like it so far in 2020.

It’s too bad they can’t include Michigan and make it a round robin.

The Cornhuskers, Nittany Lions and Wolverines — three of the eight winningest programs in major college football — are a combined 1-7. Each of these programs seems to be at a different stage of distress, but it’s jarring to see all three having trouble at the same time.

“I understand that there’s going to be tough questions,” Penn State coach James Franklin said at a news conference this week. “They’re all fair questions. One of the things that I think is really important, is how I answer these questions. I’m a lead with love guy. I always have been. And obviously, when you’re having success, like we’ve been able to have, that’s easy to do, but right now, we’re being tested.”

Franklin may have some leeway with Penn State fans thanks to three 11-win seasons in the previous four years, but it’s getting harder for the Nittany Lions to salvage anything significant from 2020. They dropped their opener in overtime to Indiana, then had to play Ohio State. A 13-point loss to the Buckeyes wasn’t a huge shock, but it left Penn State in real need of a win last weekend against Maryland.

The Nittany Lions didn’t get one. They fell 35-19 for their first 0-3 start since 2001.

Now Penn State faces Nebraska, another team that’s still trying for its first win. It’s been a while since the Cornhuskers (0-2) were a huge factor nationally, and coach Scott Frost is only in his third season at the helm. He had losing seasons in 2018 and 2019, and this could be another if things don’t turn around soon.

“This is my life right now and I’m doing everything I can to get this where everybody wants it as fast as possible,” Frost said. “It certainly hasn’t gotten there as quick as I want it to, but I haven’t for one second lost hope and belief in where we’re going and what we’re doing.”

In some ways, Nebraska has been a good cautionary tale for Michigan fans — an example of how things could be worse. Even though the Wolverines haven’t won the Big Ten or beaten Ohio State since Jim Harbaugh took over, they’ve at least fielded nationally ranked teams. Now, however, Michigan is out of the Top 25 after losing to Michigan State and Indiana. Harbaugh is in his sixth season coaching the Wolverines, and the team is starting to slide in the wrong direction.

Harbaugh has remained remarkably upbeat this year. He was asked how players handle the weight of the expectations that come from outside forces.

“It depends on someone’s willingness or interest to listen to what they say,” Harbaugh said. “I have a very low interest and willingness to do that, and communicate that to our team as well.”

So Michigan (1-2) heads into this weekend on a two-game losing streak, with a matchup against No. 13 Wisconsin up next. Meanwhile, when Nebraska and Penn State face each other, one team will get a much-needed reprieve.

For the other, more misery.

“It’s about turning the page and finding a way to win a game and then getting on a roll and getting some momentum,” Frost said. “I think once that starts to happen we have all the pieces in the program that we need to win and win at a good clip. But nobody is more impatient than I am and nobody’s putting more pressure on themselves than I am.”