Big Ten football misery index: Michigan football, Michigan State step onto CFP tightrope

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We can see the tightrope now.

Just a few minutes after Michigan football finished accepting a gift from holding off Nebraska in Lincoln, No. 1 Alabama fell to unranked Texas A&M, and soon after, the shockwave hit everyone: The College Football Playoff is coming.

Of course, we kinda knew it was coming — the first of four CFP ranking reveals is set for Nov. 2.

November, though — that’s when it’s normal to think about the CFP, and the oh-so-narrow path to the heights of the postseason.

(To be fair, Alabama’s last loss came 22 months ago, at the end of November 2019, and the Crimson Tide followed that up with a thrashing of Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Matter of fact, the last time the Crimson Tide lost in a season before November, it was 2015(!), and they then followed that up, a few months later, with a thrashing of Michigan State in the CFP semifinal. Big Ten teams, beware of Alabama losses, is what we’re saying.)

SHAWN WINDSOR: Cade McNamara is Michigan;s QB. He proved what he can do vs. Nebraska

RAINER SABIN: Inside MSU's offensive transformation from pathetic to potent

But November is a little over three weeks away, and unbeaten Iowa is set to become the No. 2 team in the nation, with Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State (and perhaps even Penn State, depending on voters’ newfound understanding that Sean Clifford is truly the straw that stirs the drink in Happy Valley) also crowding into the top eight in the polls. That is a lot of Big Ten, even for us here at the Misery Index, and it’s definitely a good sign that it’s not November.

(Another way of knowing it’s not November: The ranks of unbeatens still include Kentucky, Wake Forest and Brady Hoke.)

Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne reacts after a touchdown during the third quarter against Rutgers at SHI Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021 in Piscataway, N.J.
Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne reacts after a touchdown during the third quarter against Rutgers at SHI Stadium on Oct. 9, 2021 in Piscataway, N.J.

Because soon enough, those unbeaten Big Ten teams (and Ohio State) will slip off the CFP tightrope, landing in the Jan. 1 safety nets of the Rose, Outback or Citrus bowls —and that’s where the misery comes in. (Well, as much misery as can be had with two weeks of practice time in Florida or California during a normally frigid northern December.)

Let’s take a quick look at where the four teams unbeaten in Big Ten play are most likely to slip up before the final CFP ranking on Dec. 5:

Iowa: Purdue and Minnesota, both 3-2, are the only teams with winning records left on the schedule, though the regular-season finale at Nebraska — the Friday after Thanksgiving, no less — has an appealingly old-school, hope-crushing vibe. (Ah jeez, the Hawkeyes are gonna take this all the way to the Big Ten title game, aren’t they?)

Michigan: Well, there’s MSU in three weeks and Penn Sta…. hahahahaha, but seriously, just fast-forward to Ohio State’s visit to Ann Arbor to finish the season.

Michigan State: Look, we certainly didn’t see MSU getting to 6-0, so guessing the next six seems kinda pointless. But the Spartans’ games against U-M, OSU and PSU in a five-week span is the sort of gauntlet that sends teams to the CFP or the Las Vegas Bowl.

Ohio State: They’ve got the PSU/MSU/U-M stretch to clear, too, and we’re not entirely convinced they’ve solved their defensive woes, no matter how many game balls they give their defensive coordinator.

At the very least, we know OSU and U-M will make it through this Saturday unbeaten —they’ve got bye weeks. (As do Penn State, Maryland and Illinois, for that matter.) While we’re waiting for them to hit the field again, let’s run through the misery index, from least miserable to most:

14. Iowa: W, 23-20, over Penn State

Record: 6-0, 3-0 Big Ten. Last week's ranking: 11.

Iowa Hawkeyes fans celebrate after a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Penn State, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa beat Penn State, 23-20.
Iowa Hawkeyes fans celebrate after a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Penn State, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa beat Penn State, 23-20.

The Hawkeyes’ win featured four takeaways, three punts downed within Penn State’s 10 and a tearful Kirk Ferentz. The only way it could have been more Iowa, quite frankly, would have been a “Field of Dreams” reference afterward. ("Is this heaven?" "No, it's a crowd storming the field at Kinnick Stadium."

13. Ohio State: W, 66-17, over Maryland

Record: 5-1, 3-0. Last week: 13.

Since losing to Oregon in Week 2, the Buckeyes have treated their four opponents — the Murderer’s Row of Tulsa, Akron, Rutgers and Maryland — like they’re the unholy spawn of Bo Schembechler, Phil Knight and Jim Harbaugh combined, with 218 points scored against 57 allowed. And they still might not be the best team in the state of Ohio.

12. Michigan State: W, 31-13, over Rutgers

Record: 6-0, 3-0. Last week: 10.

Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor is congratulated by Blake Bueter after scoring a touchdown against Rutgers during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan State won 31-13.
Michigan State wide receiver Jalen Nailor is congratulated by Blake Bueter after scoring a touchdown against Rutgers during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Piscataway, N.J. Michigan State won 31-13.

Not only are the Spartans the fifth team in FBS history with a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 200-yard receiver in a single game, they were the opponent for the other game by a Big Ten team, when Wisconsin beat MSU 56-21 in Madison; Badgers QB Jim Sorgi (Fraser High) passed for 380 yards, Lee Evans had 258 yards receiving and Dwayne Smith rushed for 207. (The other three teams, while we’re here: San Diego State in 1995, Pitt in 2000 and Oklahoma State in 2008.)

MSU GRADES: Fantastic offense covers for bad special teams vs. Rutgers

11. Michigan: W, 32-29, over Nebraska

Record: 6-0, 3-0. Last week: 14.

Who says Cade McNamara can't be a dual-threat quarterback? He made a terrible read AND a terrible throw on his first collegiate interception. (The rest of the game, though, he gets passing marks, so to speak.)

Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara hands off the ball to running back Hassan Haskins during the first quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium.
Michigan Wolverines quarterback Cade McNamara hands off the ball to running back Hassan Haskins during the first quarter against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium.

U-M GRADES: Defense's uneven night earns it the lowest mark

10. Wisconsin: W, 24-0, over Illinois

Record: 2-3, 1-2. Last week: 3.

Of the Badgers’ 10 drives, four lasted 10 plays or more. Hey, we get it: Chewing slowly makes a delicious meal last longer.

9. Minnesota: DNP

Record: 3-2, 1-1. Last week: 7.

The Gophers’ hockey team is already looking toward the Frozen Four, which, surprisingly, is not the nickname for P.J. Fleck’s second-half offense.

8. Purdue: DNP

Record: 3-2, 1-1. Last week: 6.

The Boilermakers were off in football, but Big Ten basketball media days were just down the road in Indianapolis, reminding us that it’ll be another five years until the College Football Playoff expands and Purdue can lose to 11-seeds there, too.

BIG TEN MISERY INDEX RECAP

WEEK 0: Look out, Michigan and MSU — there's a new team atop the Big Ten

WEEK 1: Why Michigan football's worst loss ever is a little better

WEEK 2: Why Michigan State is still conference's king of Columbus

WEEK 3: Another team has beef with Notre Dame

WEEK 4: Michigan and Michigan State prove 'stats are for losers'

WEEK 5: Michigan made a jump, but can it dim Nebraska's lights?

7. Northwestern: DNP

Record: 2-3, 0-2. Last week: 5.

Northwestern is charging at least $60 for student tickets to the Wildcats’ home game at Wrigley Field against Purdue, which we figure works out to about $20 per score – or about what the Cubs were charging in August and September.

6. Indiana: DNP

Record: 2-3, 0-2. Last week: 1.

Sophomore running back Tim Baldwin Jr., who was second on the Hoosiers with 28 carries, entered the transfer portal this week, which was weird: Usually it’s the Hoosiers giving up on their running game, not the other way around.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano looks on before the game against the Michigan State Spartans at SHI Stadium, Oct. 9, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano looks on before the game against the Michigan State Spartans at SHI Stadium, Oct. 9, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey.

5. Rutgers: L, 31-13, to Michigan State

Record: 3-3, 0-3. Last week: 4.

Saturday wasn’t all bad for the Scarlet Knights. With a timeout in hand at the end of the first half, coach Greg Schiano opted NOT to use it to ice MSU kicker Matt Coghlin, who then missed a 35-yard field goal as time expired. "There's no science to it, you just go with your gut," Schiano said. "You can't take (the timeouts) with you. They go away at the half. We decided to use two of the three. It's not a science."

“Rutgers football 2021: It’s not a science!”

4. Nebraska, L, 32-29, to Michigan

Record: 3-4, 1-3. Last week: 12.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez of the Nebraska Cornhuskers passes against the Michigan Wolverines in the first half at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez of the Nebraska Cornhuskers passes against the Michigan Wolverines in the first half at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021 in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Huskers of Corn are arguably three plays — an interception against Oklahoma, a punt against Michigan State and a QB keeper against Michigan — away from being 6-1. They also stunk against a very-not-good Illinois squad, so choose your Cornhusker-quality metric carefully.

3. Penn State: L, 23-20, to Iowa

Record: 5-1, 2-1. Last week: 9.

The Nittany Lions had eight false start penalties after backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson came in for an injured Sean Clifford in the second quarter, including three straight on a drive inside their own 10. We haven’t seen the Nittany Lions move backward like that since they hired Bill O’Brien to replace Joe Paterno.

2. Illinois: L, 24-0, to Wisconsin

Record: 2-5, 1-3. Last week: 8.

The only thing worse than the Illini offense on Saturday – 67 yards passing, 26 yards rushing – was the decision-making that made this the homecoming game, rather than last week against Charlotte.

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Zach Harrison (9) pressures Maryland Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) during the first quarter of a NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Zach Harrison (9) pressures Maryland Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa (3) during the first quarter of a NCAA Division I football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

1. Maryland: L, 66-17, to Ohio State

Record: 4-2, 1-2. Last week: 2.

After opening the season by completing 75.5% of his passes through the Terps’ first four games, quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa has completed 64.7% in two blowout losses to Iowa and Ohio State, with seven interceptions. (Though his two picks Saturday came after Maryland was already down by 42 in the second half.) “I made some bad decisions,” the QB said after Saturday’s loss. So did anyone who stuck with this game after the Buckeyes went up 21-3 three minutes into the second quarter.

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Big Ten football misery index: Michigan, MSU on CFP tightrope